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A Look Back at All That Went Into Building the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

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If you’re around Washington DC today and happen to wander through the National Mall, you’ll no doubt run into something of a crowd for today’s “soft open” for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. The official dedication ceremony isn’t until Sunday, but the government has opened up the “Stone of Hope” site a bit early to give it a trial run and get the press buzzing. On the occasion of it finally being a reality, we thought we’d take a look back at some of the many, many hurdles it had to overcome to get to this point, or at least just those we’ve covered over the past 4+ years. The first and lasting big stir reached national attention back in 2007 when it was announced that sculptor Lei Yixin had won the commission to build the memorial. Many took umbrage with his selection, given that a) he isn’t black and b) he isn’t American either (he’s Chinese). With that second point stuck in people’s minds, those against having a foreign sculptor build a tribute to an American icon were made all the more upset when it was decided, again after some lengthy controversy, that the granite needed to build the memorial was also going to be coming from China. By 2008, the next big debates were over requesting that Yixin make a number of alterations to his sculpture, making Dr. King look “more sympathetic” and less like Mao Zedong, who Yixin had also carved busts of. After months, those plans finally were accepted and the government had even given the go-ahead to start drawing up architectural plans — that is, until they stopped. By the summer of 2009, the project had stalled again as the National Park Service and the project’s organizers delayed construction by spending nearly a year arguing about how to “best secure the site against possible domestic terrorism threats.” At this point, Education Secretary Arne Duncan had gotten involved, trying to smooth things out. Finally, by the end of 2009, the security measures had been agreed upon and construction again resumed. Since then, all has been relatively quiet, resulting in an early look at the memorial back in January and now today’s opening. After all those years of reporting on those countless hurdles, we really didn’t think we’d ever live to see the day.

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