Martin Luther King Jr joins the pantheon of immortals

Bran Bender

Bran Bender

Forty-three years after Martin Luther King Jr stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and challenged his countrymen to live up to their nation's founding principles, the civil rights icon has been granted a place among the pantheon of America's most revered historical figures.

In a poignant ceremony under leaden skies this week, President George Bush, his predecessor Bill Clinton and a host of celebrities and veterans of the civil rights movement broke ground for a monument to King on the National Mall - the first such honour for an African-American leader.

"King showed us that a life of conscience and purpose can lift up many souls," Bush said at the dedication, which was as much a celebration of King's life and work. "And on this ground a monument will rise that preserves his legacy for the ages."

The memorial's location, between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, "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.

The memorial also salutes the thousands of men and women who braved intimidation, violence, and even death to demand racial and economic equality in the US during the 1950s and 1960s.

The King site will sanctify the civil rights movement in the nation's annals, historians and veterans said.

"It is an honour for the movement as well as for King," said John Dittmer, a history professor at DePauw University in Indiana and author of Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi.

Without ordinary people behind King, he said, "there wouldn't be any monument to Martin Luther King and we would never have heard of him. He himself would have said that. The movement made King - King did not make the movement."

The privately funded, R720million memorial is expected to be finished by 2008. In addition to a likeness of King, the site will include an artistic representation of King's renowned "I have a dream" speech, delivered from the Lincoln Memorial during a civil rights march on Washington in August 1963. The speech has become King's signal moment.

Five years later an assassin shot and killed him in Memphis. He was 39-years-old.

The memorial, described as a "landscape experience", will reflect the arc of King's short life, according to the memorial foundation's website. Visitors will be able to walk from the "mountain of despair" to the "stone of hope", representing the metaphorical concepts King spoke of so eloquently in his most famous speech. Passages from his sermons and speeches will be etched on a wall beneath a cascading waterfall.

The memorial site "places him in the line of succession of those men who provided the foundation of the country", said Ron Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland.

"The civil rights movement was one of the founding fathers, making the constitution applicable to all citizens. This legitimises that status for King and the civil rights movement."

Barack Obama, the only African-American in the US Senate, related to the crowd what he would tell his young daughters if asked to explain why a memorial to King belonged amid towering shrines to the US's historic figures.

"King was not a president of the US. At no time did he hold public office. He was not a hero of foreign wars. He never had much money and while he lived he was reviled at least as much as he was celebrated. And yet, lead a nation he did," Obama said.

"Through words he gave voice to the voiceless. Through deeds he gave courage to the faint of heart. By dint of vision and determination, and most of all faith in the redeeming power of love, he endured the humiliation of arrest, the loneliness of a prison cell and constant threats to his life until he finally inspired a nation to transform itself and begin to live up to the meaning of its creed."

The ceremonies were especially stirring for some of the ageing foot soldiers of the civil rights movement, men and women who fought segregation with bus boycotts, lunch-counter sit-ins and countless protest marches across the South.

Despite being jailed and brutalised, they used nonviolent tactics to help secure the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Several of them - including Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young, both of whom were with King the day he died - wept during the ceremony.

As dignitaries with shovels - including King's children and celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and poet Maya Angelou - began turning over the soil where the memorial will stand, an emotional Young said the movement's work was not finished.

"Let's go back to our communities and turn the dirt," he said. - New York Times