Today on the nation's front yard, America will formally dedicate an elegant tribute to a man whose singular ambition led to a more just America. The new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial has joined other monuments that honor great statesmen and uncommon heroes on the National Mall. It is a recognition of the assassinated civil rights champion's extraordinary accomplishments, but it is also a poignant reminder of the challenges still ahead on the path to racial equality.
President Barack Obama will speak at today's official dedication, which was originally scheduled to take place in August on the 48th anniversary of the Baptist pastor's signature "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial until Hurricane Irene forced a postponement. The privately funded $120 million King memorial sits just a short walk away from Lincoln's, on a four-acre site on the banks of the Mall's Tidal Basin in a "line of leadership" between the Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson memorials.
It's notable that King is the first black citizen and nonpresident to be individually recognized on the Mall for his service to the nation. Besides Lincoln and Jefferson, George Washington and Franklin Delano Roosevelt have memorials, as do the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam War, the Korean War and World War II.
Such an honor is appropriate. Over King's all-too-brief 39 years, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate — by advocating nonviolent means — moved a reticent nation forward on long, hard, bumpy road toward racial equality. He led and inspired brave men and women, even as their own governments and neighbors turned on them violently and tried to thwart their quest to have all Americans treated equally in the eyes of the law. King's assassination, in 1968 on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, speaks to just how radical his message was, even as it was so desperately needed in a country whose Declaration of Independence states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
King's memorial was 15 years in the making. The site is replete with cherry trees and walls inscribed with some of King's most memorable quotes. A 30-foot statue of King, created by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, emerges from a massive stone recalling the 1963 "Dream" speech in which King noted: "With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope."
But as inspirational and restful as tourists will find the King memorial, these tributes to American history only serve their intended purpose if they educate visitors about the nation's past, warts and all. And this memorial, in particular, reminds us of work yet undone.