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King's Memorial Takes Shape Near His 'Dream' Spot

Originally published on July 3, 2011 1:33 pm

Aug. 28 marks the 48th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have A Dream speech, delivered in 1963 from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. On that date this year, a memorial will be dedicated to the great civil rights leader.

The new monument is being created on Washington's Tidal Basin, in view of the Lincoln Memorial and almost directly across from the Jefferson Memorial.

Gigantic cliffs of granite form the entryway to the memorial. Carved with chunky lines, they're like the massive stone curtains of a theater, signalling that something important is about to happen. Behind the granite blocks, you can see the waters of the Tidal Basin, sparkling gently in the sun.

King's Words, Carved In Stone

Some of Dr. King's most memorable words are being carved into the walls of his memorial, which sits on a four-acre site. Nick Benson is the chief carver. His other projects include the National World War II Memorial and carvings at the U.S. Capitol. Benson designed the clean, modern font being carved into the granite. He used a rubber stencil to trace the 3 ¾-inch-tall letters onto the wall and is now incising them into the stone with a pneumatic hammer.

"Very, very, very rarely is it hand-cut," Benson says. "The pneumatic hammer is just a piston hitting the chisel, so it's a much more rapid process. The skill that it takes to do the work we do is no different with a pneumatic hammer than with a hammer and chisel."

Benson is a third-generation stone carver. His grandfather did the inscriptions for the Iwo Jima memorial near Washington, and his father did both the FDR memorial and the Kennedy Center.

Benson did a good deal of research before starting work on the King monument. He watched newsreel and TV clips of King, noting how the practitioner of nonviolence moved, and listened to his great oratory. In one clip, an interviewer was trying to get a rise out of King, prodding him about Malcolm X's messages on black power.

"Not only did he not buy into it, but he was able to ratchet the whole conversation down," Benson recalls. "He turned it into an intellectual discussion, and he just completely decimated this guy."

That clip showed Benson the power of nonviolent confrontation. Benson was born in 1964, a year after the famous I Have a Dream speech. Growing up in Rhode Island, he didn't know much about nonviolence, King or the civil rights movement.

"My parents were getting divorced," he says. "I was a kid in turmoil, so I didn't have a lot of time around the TV."

The Face Of Their Father

King's own children were involved in creating this memorial. Sculptor Lei Yixin first made four small models of the statue, each with a different facial expression. Photographs of all four were shown to King's children. "Which one looks most like the father you knew?" they were asked.

"They chose the very first creation that Lei had produced," says Ed Jackson, executive architect for the King memorial. He was responsible for every aspect of the project — choices about the sculptor, the kinds of trees that embrace the site, the stone for the walls and for the sculpture.

That last decision is a bit peculiar. The noble black man, flag-bearer for his race, rises against the horizon in what they call "shrimp pink" granite.

"I was after a granite that could withstand the test of time and the elements," Jackson says, "And to select a granite piece that depicted an African-American as opposed to a grey, or a white, or a solid black — which would be problematic at night to light it up."

To Every Thing There Is A Season

A memorial for all seasons, Jackson has watched weather settle along this newest addition to the banks of the Tidal Basin. Snow froze the water, and made the walls and statue look snow-capped. And the famous Washington, D.C., spring added special meaning.

"I think that for us, the essence of the cherry trees blooming each spring is an affirmation his dream hasn't died," Jackson says. "That it is reborn every spring."

Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln have inhabited their memorials for decades. The architects and sculptors and masons and landscapers who created this newest monument know what weather and time can do. Carver Nick Benson is philosophical.

"You know Percy Shelley's poem, Ozymandias? 'Look on my work, ye mighty, and despair.' Nothing will last. Nothing is eternal, so all of manmade objects will disintegrate away," Benson says. "But this'll stay here for a while."

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MARTIN LUTHER KING: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.

SUSAN STAMBERG, Host:

Some of Dr. King's most memorable words are being carved into the green granite walls of his memorial, which sits on a four-acre site. Nick Benson is the chief carver. His other projects include the World War II Memorial and the Capitol. Nick designed the clean, modern font, used a rubber stencil to trace the three-and-three-quarter-inch-tall letters onto the walls and incises them now into the stone with a pneumatic hammer.

NICK BENSON: Very, very, very rarely is it hand-cut. But we've got a...

STAMBERG: Aren't you cheating? Aren't you cheating?

BENSON: No, no, no. Actually, a pneumatic hammer is just a piston hitting the chisel. The skill that it takes to do the work that we do is no different with a pneumatic hammer or with a mallet.

STAMBERG: Nick Benson is a third-generation stone carver. His grandfather did the inscriptions for the Iwo Jima Memorial; his father did the FDR Memorial and the Kennedy Center. Forty-seven years old, Nick Benson did a good deal of research before starting work on the King monument. He watched newsreel and TV clips of Dr. King. In one clip, an interviewer was trying to get a rise out of Dr. King, prodding him about Malcolm X with his messages on black power.

BENSON: Not only did he not buy into it, he was able to ratchet the whole conversation down and he turned it into an intellectual discussion and he just completely decimated this guy.

STAMBERG: Nick Benson was born in 1964, a year after the famous I Have a Dream speech. Growing up in Rhode Island, he didn't know much about non-violence, Dr. King or the civil rights movement.

BENSON: My parents were getting divorced, so I was a kid in turmoil, you know, so I didn't have a lot of time around the TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BENSON: Fun (unintelligible)

STAMBERG: It's good you have the time for this.

BENSON: Oh, it's wonderful. It's a great project.

STAMBERG: Just beyond the granite walls where Nick was carving, a mammoth statue of Dr. King looms over the Tidal Basin. The sculptor, Lei Yixin, first made four small models of the statue, each with a different facial expression. Photographs of all four were shown to Dr. King's children. Which one looks most like the father you knew?

ED JACKSON: They chose the very first creation that Lei had produced.

STAMBERG: Ed Jackson is executive architect for the King Memorial. He was responsible for every aspect of the project - choices about the sculptor, the kinds of trees that embrace the site, the stone for the walls and for the sculpture. That last decision - Dr. King is carved from pink granite - is a bit peculiar. The noble, black man, flag bearer for his race, rising in what they call shrimp pink granite.

JACKSON: I was after a granite that could withstand the test of time and the elements and to select a granite piece that depicted an African-American as opposed to a gray or white or solid black, which would be problematic at night to light it up.

STAMBERG: A memorial for all seasons, Dr. Jackson has watched weather settle along this newest addition to the banks of the Tidal Basin. Snow froze the water and made the walls and statue look snowcapped. And the famous Washington, D.C. spring added special meaning.

JACKSON: For us, the essence of the cherry trees blooming each spring is an affirmation that his dream hasn't died, that it is reborn every spring.

STAMBERG: Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln have inhabited their memorials for decades. The architects and sculptors and masons and landscapers who created this newest monument know what weather and time can do. Carver Nick Benson is philosophical.

BENSON: You know, Percy Shelly's poem, "Ozymandias," look on my work, ye might in despair. Nothing will last. Nothing is eternal. So, all of manmade objects will disintegrate away. But this will stay here for a while.

STAMBERG: In a few weeks, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial will be officially dedicated, a permanent reminder of the man who articulated a dream for so many Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

LUTHER KING: I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream.

STAMBERG: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.