US President George W. Bush and civil rights leaders on Monday broke ground for a memorial to Martin Luther King, the first monument to a black American on Washington's National Mall.
"The King Memorial will stand on a piece of ground between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials and, by its presence in this place, it will unite the men who declared the promise of America and defended the promise of America with the man who redeemed the promise of America," Bush said.
Nearly 5,000 people, including TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey, former president Bill Clinton and poet Maya Angelou braved the cold to celebrate the life of the Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Speakers quoted King's sermons and speeches and paid tribute to his belief that non-violent protest could help end discrimination against black Americans.
"As we turn these shovels we are just beginning to turn the dirt, and as we turn this dirt at this ground, let us go back to our communities and turn the dirt there," said former King aide Andrew Young, urging attendees to continue the slain leader's work against racism, poverty and violence.
Democratic Senator Barack Obama, the only black American in the US Senate and a possible presidential candidate in 2008, wondered what to tell his daughters when they visit the monument.
"I will tell them this man gave his life serving others," Obama said. "I will tell them this man tried to love somebody. I will tell them that because he did those things they live today, with the freedom God intended, their citizenship unquestioned, their dreams unbounded."
Clinton said the monument will be a reminder to fight for justice.
"As Dr. King wrote from the Birmingham jail, progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It is made by people who do not grow weary in doing good, secure in the knowledge, as he said, that the time is always right to do right," the former president said.
"Let us build this monument and keep the monuments in our heart, and remember if he were here, he would remind us that the time remains right to do right," Clinton said.
The groundbreaking comes 10 years after the US Congress passed legislation that authorized the memorial, which is scheduled for completion in 2008.
Construction officially begins on the crescent-shaped 1.6-hectare site in the spring and is scheduled to be completed in 2008.
The memorial's centerpiece will be a "stone of hope," a boulder engraved with King's image and words from his "I Have a Dream" speech, which he delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
Organizers have already raised US$63 million of the estimated US$100 million cost of the project, which is located on the National Mall, a large park in Washington's center that contains memorials to presidents and the nation's wars.
When the memorial is finished, 40 years will have passed since King was shot to death on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.