WASHINGTON -- Visitors got their first up-close look yesterday at the memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., including a towering granite sculpture inspired by the civil rights leader's "I Have a Dream" speech.
The site opened without fanfare around 11 a.m. to kick off a week of celebrations leading up to Sunday's official dedication, on the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington and King's famous speech.
A few hundred people had lined up outside the site by late morning on a warm and sunny day. A stream of people filed into the four-acre site, reading some of the 14 quotations from King's speeches inscribed into a 450-foot-long granite wall.
The memorial sits on the National Mall near the Tidal Basin, between memorials honoring Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. The sheer size of the 30-foot sculpture of King sets it apart from the nearby statues of Jefferson and Lincoln, which are both about 20 feet tall. The cost to construct and maintain the memorial is $120 million, being raised through private donations.
Pamela Cross, 53, a cybersecurity professional from Washington, said she usually passes by the memorial on her morning walk around the National Mall and was excited to be able to see it up close. Cross said her father, a postal worker, attended the march on Washington in 1963. She said King's message continues to resonate.
"The way the country is right now, it's good to remember his principles," Cross said. "We are in need of jobs, we're in need of equality, we're in need of an economic vision that's inclusive."
The sculptor, Lei Yixin, said he wanted the memorial to be a visual representation of the ideals King spoke of in his speech.
"His dream is very universal. It's a dream of equality," Lei said through his son, who translated from Mandarin. "He went to jail. He had been beaten, and he sacrificed his life for his dream. And now his dream comes true."
Scott Lunt, 42, a freelance video producer, brought his 15-month-old son, Oliver, to the memorial. "I hope that my son can grow up in a world where race is less important than it is in my life," Lunt said.
The sculpture depicts King with a stern expression, wearing a jacket and tie, his arms folded and clutching papers in his left hand, emerging from a stone. The concept for the memorial was taken from a line in the "I Have a Dream" speech, which is carved into the stone: "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope."
The National Mall site will be surrounded with cherry trees that will blossom in pink and white in the spring.
President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak at Sunday's dedication.