The Martin Luther King Memorial: A Monument to Justice and Peace

August 20, 2020

The history of the United States is preserved in archives, books, and the collective memory of the American people. It is also preserved in monuments, memorials, and statues made from marble, granite, bronze, or plaster.

Our nation’s capital is home to some of the world’s most recognizable and frequently visited monuments. This blog series will explore the events and people they commemorate, devoting particular attention to the spiritual themes depicted. By shedding light on our nation’s deep religious heritage, this series aims to inspire the next generation to emulate virtues and merits from America’s past that are worth memorializing.

FRC’s blog series on monuments is written by FRC summer interns and edited by David Closson, FRC’s Director of Christian Ethics and Biblical Worldview. Be sure to read our previous posts on the Lincoln Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the Joan of Arc Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence Memorial, and the Japanese American Memorial.

Overlooking the Tidal Basin and facing the Jefferson Memorial is the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. The King Memorial commemorates the foremost leader of the civil rights movement and stands as a tribute to the ideals he dedicated his life to advancing.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist preacher, orator, and activist. He led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, organized nonviolent protests throughout the American south, and served as the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Additionally, King helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, during which he delivered his well-known “I Have A Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. King championed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 in recognition of his nonviolent protests and work toward racial equality. Tragically, King was assassinated in 1968.

Today, the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. are enshrined forever in a stunning granite memorial on the National Mall. Every aspect of the memorial is symbolic, including its physical address, 1964 Independence Avenue, which symbolizes the year the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed into law. Visitors pass through a narrow valley hewn into the “Mountain of Despair” and out into open freedom, where the missing part of the mountain, the “Stone of Hope,” stands. In this Stone of Hope, King’s likeness is engraved. This walk (through the Mountain of Despair and out to the Stone of Hope) represents the victory of the Civil Rights Movement, born out of disappointment and grief. “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” from King’s August 28, 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech is engraved in the monument.

A 450-foot long inscription wall that spans the width of the monument’s plaza contains 14 excerpts from King’s sermons and speeches, which serve as a reminder of the values King stood for: peace, democracy, justice, and love. Quotes include:

  • “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” 1963
  • “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” District of Columbia, 1959
  • “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” 1963
  • “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” 1958

The process of establishing a national memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr began in the mid-1980s, when Boston University’s oldest African American intercollegiate fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha (the fraternity King was a member in the1950s), presented the idea. In 1996, Congress passed a resolution authorizing Alpha Phi Alpha to establish a memorial to King in Washington, D.C., and in 1998, President Clinton signed the resolution. In 1999, the National Memorial Project Foundation held a design competition, which attracted 900 submissions from 52 countries. In 2006, Lei Yixin was selected to sculpt the statue of King. Yixin completed 80 percent of King’s statue at his studio in Changsha, China, before traveling to D.C. to finish the rest. The completed memorial opened to the public on October 16, 2011, following a dedication ceremony attended by President Obama.

King’s legacy was to choose love over hate, a conviction he rooted in Scripture. Specifically, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) inspired King to respond to inequality with nonviolence and love. His Christian faith motivated him to make use of the suffering he endured during the struggle for civil rights. King looked forward to the day when those in office would “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with [their] God” (Micah 6:8).

King firmly believed his work was God’s will, as he stated in his final speech on April 3, 1968. In this emotional speech the night before he was assassinated, King preached, “I just want to do God’s will. And He has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I have looked over and I have seen the Promised Land.” King knew he might not see the “Promised Land” (i.e., an America free of racial tension), but he had hope that “we as a people will get to the Promised Land.” He concluded his final speech by quoting the Battle Hymn of the Republic, noting, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

King’s legacy of peace, democracy, justice, and love should serve as a model for us today. At a time of heightened racial tensions, King would likely renounce violence and encourage Americans to remember that we are all God’s children.

Samantha Stahl is a Communications intern at Family Research Council.">violence and encourage Americans to remember that we are all God’s children.

Samantha Stahl is a Communications intern at Family Research Council.