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Thousands Celebrate Dedication of King Memorial

Barrington M. Salmon | 10/19/2011, 12:15 p.m.
Kitty Chaney (right), along with a friend waving a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) flag, observe activities at the dedication of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011, in Northwest. Photo by Shevry Lassiter

On a crisp, clear day on the National Mall in Northwest, tens of thousands of Americans gathered to watch the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Memorial.

This was the second attempt by memorial organizers to pull off the official dedication of the 30-foot memorial. The previous date, August 28, fell on the 48th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington, but an earthquake measuring 5.8 and Hurricane Irene scuttled those plans. For Dr. Louis Kurtz and his wife Gwendolyn, the sight of the King Memorial meant the culmination of a dream neither thought would become reality.

"It was strictly awesome, well-deserved and awesome," gushed Kurtz, 87, a retired general surgeon from Macon, Ga. "The speeches couldn't have been better. The speakers were focused and well appreciated. We were here when Dr. King delivered his [I Have a Dream] speech [in 1963] but we didn't know how important it was until later."

Mrs. Kurtz, 83, a retired nurse, said while she is appreciative and deeply affected by King's work on behalf of African Americans and the entire country, he touched her personally.

"I was a timid soul but he inspired me to speak up and speak out," she said. "He also made it alright to be black."

Based on his imposing frame, James Malloy doesn't look like a man easily brought to tears, but he dabbed his eyes frequently during the ceremony.

"I get filled up," said the 67-year-old grandfather and Durham, N.C. native. "I was here at the March on Washington when I was 18 years old. I rode five hours to get here. Anything that deals with black people and justice, I'm here. I stayed and prayed and hoped that things would change."

"I want to tell our grandkids who are 12 and 8 of Dr. King's legacy and that the dream isn't dead. I tell a lot of younger people that they should still be pushing. They don't realize that they are standing on the backs of those who came before them. They are satisfied too easily. They need to elevate. I will pick up mementos and take them home," Malloy said.

Some guests arrived on-site as early as 5 a.m. and by the time the event kicked off about 10 a.m., the overflow crowd had spread well beyond the gated enclosure spilling out onto adjacent streets and grassy areas close by. Most of the crowd was able to watch speakers, singers and performers on jumbo TV screens in a field close to the memorial. Most people stood up for the more than four-hour event, although significant numbers brought their own chairs.

In addition to musical selections and speakers who ranged from the Rev. Bernice King, Martin Luther King, III, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, fashion mogul Tommy Hilfiger, actresses Cicely Tyson and Diahann Carroll, the Rev. Al Sharpton, General Motor's CEO Dan Atkinson and acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni, the crowd heard President Barack Obama offer impassioned remarks of King's impact and legacy.Renee Paxton (left) and Dennis Sawyers (right) sing The Battle Hymn of Republic at the dedication of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, along with the Dedication Choir on the National Mall, Sun., Oct. 16, 2011. Photo by Shevry Lassiter