US President Barack Obama saluted Martin Luther King Jr as a man who “stirred our conscience” at the formal dedication of the new memorial to the slain civil rights leader on the National Mall in the US capital.
Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and poet Nikki Giovanni were among those who took part in the more than four-hour ceremony on Sunday honoring King’s legacy that drew thousands of people spanning all ages and races.
King’s children and other civil rights leaders spoke before the president, invoking the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington and calling upon a new generation to help fully realize that dream.
“I know we will overcome,” Obama proclaimed, standing by the 9m granite monument to King on the National Mall.
“I know this because of the man towering over us,” the president said.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, and US Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, joined a host of civil rights figures for the dedication. The memorial is the first to a black man on the National Mall and its parks.
“He had faith in us,” said Obama, who was six when King was assassinated in 1968.
“And that is why he belongs on this mall: Because he saw what we might become,” Obama told the crowd.
The dedication has special meaning for the Obamas. The president credits King with paving his way to the White House. Before his remarks, he left signed copies of his inaugural speech and 2008 convention address in a time capsule at the monument site. The first couple and daughters Malia and Sasha made a more private visit to the site on Friday night, before the crowds and the cameras arrived.
In his talk, Obama focused on King’s broad themes — equality, justice and peaceful resistance — as the nation confronts, 48 years after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, some of the same issues of war, an economic crisis and a lingering distrust of government in some quarters.
Referring to citizen protests against the wealthy and powerful that have spread from Wall Street to Washington and even abroad, Obama said: “Dr King would want us to challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing those who work there.”
The monument, situated between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials in what the designers call a “line of leadership,” was 15 years in the making. Several speakers said its designers could not have predicted then that the monument would be dedicated by the nation’s first black president.
Obama urged Americans to harness the energy of the civil rights movement for today’s challenges and to remain committed to King’s philosophy of peaceful resistance.
“Let us draw strength from those earlier struggles,” Obama said. “Change has never been simple or without controversy.”
King did not say in the famous 1963 speech that he thought there could be a black president, but he did indicate his belief in interviews that it would happen one day.
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