WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama saluted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday as a man who "stirred our conscience" and made the Union "more perfect," rejoicing in the dedication of a monument memorializing the slain civil rights leader's life and work.
"He had faith in us," said Obama, who was 6 when King was assassinated in 1968. "And that is why he belongs on this Mall: Because he saw what we might become."
Thousands of people, including dozens from Long Island, gathered to formally dedicate the memorial after its planned opening in August was delayed by Tropical Storm Irene.
"It means a lot to me," Doris Hicks, of Lakeview, said at the event. "It's a way of saying 'thank you' to a man who did so much for all of us."
Hicks, a second grade teacher in the Malverne school district, was one of 57 people who rode a bus from Lakeview to Washington. She was joined by other residents of Lakeview and some from Uniondale, Hempstead and elsewhere.
"It's a great opportunity to pay homage to a great man who had an impact not only on black America, but on all Americans," Sherwyn Besson, 43, also of Lakeview, said of his decision to attend the ceremony. "It's also a chance to connect to the values of the civil rights movement -- resilliance, brotherhood, determination, self-reliance. If we're to change the trajectory of the black community, we have to re-connect with those values."
Visitors started lining up at 5 a.m. and even earlier Sunday morning. Organizers anticipated as many as 50,000 people would attend the dedication. By 9 a.m., thousands of seats were filled.
The August ceremony had been expected to draw 250,000. Even with Sunday's smaller crowd, King Memorial foundation president Harry Johnson called Sunday "a day of fulfillment."
About 1.5 million people are estimated to have already visited the 30-foot-tall statue of King and the granite walls where 14 of his quotations are carved in stone. The memorial is the first on the National Mall honoring a black leader.
The sculpture of King with his arms crossed appears to emerge from a stone extracted from a mountain. It was carved by Chinese artist Lei Yixin. The design was inspired by a line from the famous "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963: "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope."
The speech during the March on Washington galvanized the civil rights movement.
King's older sister, Christine King Farris, called her brother "a great hero to humanity." She said the memorial will ensure his legacy will provide a source of inspiration worldwide for generations.
King's daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, said her family is proud to witness the memorial's dedication. She said it was a long time coming and had been a priority for her mother, Coretta Scott King, who died in 2006.
Bernice King and her brother Martin Luther King III said their father's dream is not yet realized. Martin Luther King III said the nation has "lost its soul" when it tolerates vast economic disparities, teen bullying, and having more people of color in prison than in college.
He said the memorial should serve as a catalyst to renew his father's fight for social and economic justice.
"The problem is the American dream of 50 years ago ... has turned into a nightmare for millions of people" who have lost their jobs and homes, King said.
-- With Martin C. Evans