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King's Son And Friend Moved By Memorial Dedication

Visitors at the new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial on Tuesday.
Amy Ta
Visitors at the new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial on Tuesday.

The new monument honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. is the only one on the National Mall to commemorate an African-American, and the only one on that side of the Mall honoring a nonpresidential figure. It shows King emerging from a stone extracted from a mountain, which is inspired by a line from his famous "I Have a Dream" speech:

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

The monument will be officially dedicated Aug. 28, which is the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington, where King's speech was delivered. It opened to the public on Monday.

Andrew Young, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who was a dear friend and confidant to King, tells NPR host Michel Martin that he "gets choked up" when thinking about the approaching dedication. The conversation also included Martin Luther King III, eldest son of the slain civil rights leader.

A visitor to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial reaches for a brochure.
Amy Ta / NPR
A visitor to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial reaches for a brochure.

Young fought alongside King in the battle against racial segregation and poverty. He recalls King's commitment to the campaign, which stemmed from intense racial hostility particularly in the South. King wanted to return to Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968, to support striking sanitation workers who were paid less and expected to work in bad weather. His airline flight was delayed by a bomb threat.

But Young says King was so adamant about going to Memphis to help the sanitation workers that he took a 4 a.m. bus to get there. He delivered his well-known "Mountaintop" speech that night. And the next day he was assassinated.

Young says he remembers the events leading up to King's death and realizes that King knew exactly what he was doing and the kind of danger to which he was exposing himself.

The ambassador notes that King often said: "You're gonna die. You don't have anything to say about that. That's the one thing that unites all humanity. The only thing you have to say is what you die for. And in order to die for something, you have to start now living for something."

Now, when looking at the monument, Young says he sees nonviolence — the spiritual power of the civil rights movement that changed America.

Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of the slain civil rights leader, says he sees strength and hope when looking at the monument.

"Particularly with this global crisis, a lot of people have lost hope, and hope is so important. What perhaps is most significant is we have in the backdrop presidents and war memorials. And now you have a memorial dedicated to a man who advocated peace, love, forgiveness, respect and dignity," he says.

He adds that perhaps the monument will help America change its course.

"We see crisis scenarios, whether it's in Libya or in many places around the world, where conflict could ultimately destroy a nation. But I think my dad and his team — Ambassador Young and so many others — taught us how we could live together without destroying either person or property," he says.

And as America today is struggling with political polarization and an economic downturn, Young says, the middle class has dropped into poverty, and the number of people who are homeless or jobless is larger than in the 1950s and '60s when King initially challenged the nation to end poverty. Young hopes the monument revives that challenge.

Young adds that the challenge for democracy and free enterprise is to discuss the problems of the poor.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.