WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and civil rights leaders on Sunday helped dedicate a memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with thousands of spectators watching, almost two months after it was originally scheduled to be dedicated.
Obama, who benefited enormously from the victories won by the civil rights movement, called King a man who "somehow gave voice to our deepest dreams and our most lasting ideals, a man who stirred our conscience and thereby helped make our union more perfect."
The centerpiece of the national memorial, the first on the National Mall honoring a nonpresident and an African-American, is a 30-foot-high, 12-foot-wide granite sculpture of King with his arms crossed. Nearby, a white granite wall displays 14 quotations from King's speeches and writings.
Facing the Tidal Basin, the King memorial, which cost $120 million and opened Aug. 22, stands between the Lincoln Memorial and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial on the National Mall. Congress authorized the memorial in 1996, and Alpha Phi Alpha, an African-American fraternity, set up a foundation to establish it.
"It's a good feeling just to look at him, a black man that made it to this level, to have him statueized," said Johnita Cox, 70, a retired nursing assistant from Jackson, Ala.
She recalled that when she and other black friends walked on the sidewalk to school, they had to step aside when white people came close. She said bricks would sometimes be thrown through the windows of her house.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think this man, Martin Luther King, would be memorialized right there. I wouldn't have missed this for anything," Cox said.
The message of Obama's dedication speech, which began with some in the audience chanting "four more years" and touched on themes of fighting to overcome the hardships faced by King, seemed to echo some of the challenges faced by the president himself. Those challenges include repairing a weak economy beset by high unemployment, and fighting against a sense that some Americans have that the nation is in decline.
"As tough as times may be, I know we will overcome. I know there are better days ahead. I know this because of the man towering over us," Obama said.
"Let us keep striving; let us keep struggling; let us keep climbing toward that promised land of a nation and a world that is more fair, and more just and more equal for every single child of God," he said.
The ceremony, attended by a mostly African-American crowd, many wearing white hats bearing the slogan "Celebrate the Life, Dream, Legacy," was a mix of speeches from people who knew King — including Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and the Rev. Jesse Jackson — and music from artists such as Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and James Taylor.
The dedication had been scheduled for Aug. 28, the 48th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream Speech," but Hurricane Irene forced a postponement.
Ernie Thomas, 71, a retired 20-year Air Force officer and state government employee, flew to Washington from California.
"I think the memorial was long overdue," he said while waiting to get in.
"I didn't think I ever would see this day, bottom line, in my lifetime because things were moving in a slow pace and we had a lot of obstacles along the way," he said. He told of "extreme racism" when he served in South Carolina for the Air Force from 1959 to 1964.
Valentine Antony, 25, a student at Appalachian State University, drove from North Carolina for an economic justice rally Saturday. He said King's ideals have not been fully realized.
Antony noted how King's figure is not fully etched into the statue and compared that to the status of the civil rights and economic justice movements.
"The dream is still needing to be completed and fulfilled. He's walking forward, and he's asking us to carve the rest out. We still have a lot of work to do," he said.
Others came to witness history and remind their children about a man whose legacy continues to affect people today, more than 40 years after he was assassinated.
Marcus Johnson, 42, from Spartanburg, S.C., a federal Defense Department information technology employee, drove up with his wife, Angela, and their children.
"I was born after the civil rights movement, but I want my kids to understand what their grandparents and my grandparents had to endure in their lifetimes to give them the privileges that I have right now and what they have," Johnson said.