Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, DC

I haven’t been to Washington, D.C., since the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was built. Regal and inspirational, the likeness of this great civil rights leader gazes out over the waters of Tidal Basin. Sculpted by Chinese master artist Lei Yixin, the memorial is particularly gorgeous when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.

Cherry blossoms decorate the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Cherry blossoms decorate the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist minister and social activist who became a notable figure during the U.S. civil rights movement from the mid-1950s until he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

A message of nonviolence

Dr. King is the first African-American honored with a memorial on the National Mall. He played a pivotal role in ending the legal segregation of African-American citizens, and he influenced the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He also received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 because he preached and practiced a nonviolent philosophy striving for freedom, justice, and equality

The granite face of Dr. King is resolute, and his arms are crossed as if to say, “I am here to defend the civil rights of African-Americans and all other disenfranchised folks. I will not yield until all men and women and children have equal rights, regardless of race, gender/gender identity, ethnicity, religious belief, or political affiliation.”

There are quotes by Dr. King carved upon a wall at the back of the monument. ©Laurel Kallenbach

There are quotes by Dr. King carved upon a wall at the back of the monument. ©Laurel Kallenbach

At least that’s what I heard him say as I stood looking up at the towering statue. My visit to the memorial was particularly meaningful because I remember the day Dr. King was assassinated—it was my brother’s birthday—and my family watched the funeral procession on TV a few days later. Also, I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and in the early 1970s there was a lot of racial tension leading up to school busing to desegregate the public schools. I was shocked when I heard that the Klan was staging rallies; naively I had assumed the days of the KKK were long gone.

Words that changed America

On a sunny morning during the Cherry Blossom Festival, the monument was buzzing with people from all over the world, speaking numerous languages. I watched as a young Muslim woman had her photo taken in front of Dr. King’s statue. Drummers from the Boulder Philharmonic—who were in D.C. as honorees of the SHIFT Festival of American Orchestras—played near the monument, and their African-style drumming resounded across the Tidal Basin.

"Out of the mountain of despair." ©Laurel Kallenbach

“Out of the mountain of despair.” ©Laurel Kallenbach

On the massive stone behind Dr. King is inscribed “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” a line from his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.

And behind that is a granite mountain split in half, which some people say represents Stone Mountain in Georgia, the site of a Civil War memorial carved into the side of the mountain. It depicts Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. Stone Mountain is also the place where the Ku Klux Klan was re-founded in 1915. In addition, I personally think the bisected mountain represents the monolithic block of racism that the Civil Rights Movement cleft in two.

Visitors pored over the quotes from Dr. King's speeches about freedom. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Visitors pored over the quotes from Dr. King’s speeches about freedom. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A wall behind the monument is inscribed with words from Dr. King’s speeches over the years, including a famous line that I find so inspiring: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

I also loved King’s hope-filled statement, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” (You can learn more about the quotes at the memorial on the National Park Service website.)

The struggle for civil rights for all people will continue, and thankfully the wisdom and vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. will encourage and empower people forever. Having a monument to commemorate one of our most courageous and tireless heroes is a powerful reminder of the conflicts of the past—along with the work that must continue into the future.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Injustice anywhere ©Laurel Kallenbach

In this 1963 quote, King addressed the need to eliminate injustice. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is part of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, and it is open free of charge. The memorial is located at the intersection of Independence Avenue and West Basin Drive SW in Washington, D.C. Parking is limited near the memorial. The nearest metro stop is Smithsonian.