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The memorial to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. opens today and will be officially dedicated Saturday. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton talks with WAMU Morning Edition host Matt McCleskey about what the memorial means to her, and to Washington as a whole.
Located between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials on a 4-acre plot on the northwestern corner of the tidal basin, the memorial includes a 30-foot statue of King surrounded by a 450-foot-long wall etched with some of King's most famous quotations.
Norton was a staff member during King's march on Washington in 1963, and has been involved in number of efforts to build a memorial to King in D.C.
"It's important for the nation, and especially for the District of Columbia, 48 years later to see that in fact the nation has come some distance," Norton says. "Who would have thought when I was a kid growing up in Washington, which was a segregated city, where the 'N-word' was used in the Senate right on the floor, that there would be a black man whose monument would be dedicated on the National Mall."
Norton points out that the memorial has particular poignancy for Washington, which is "the last to be free," given the city's lack of voting rights. "District residents still don't have the right to vote for a voting member of Congress," she says. "Those of us in the District see some unfinished King business here."
Norton believes King would have stood with D.C. residents in their fight for autonomy.
"Our own mayor and City Council members were engaged in civil disobedience just a few months ago because the congress wasn't allowing it to spend its own money," Norton says. "If that isn't in the King tradition, I don't know what is.
"King went from city to city where he saw there was rank injustice. I think think he would surely have joined us here," Norton adds. "I think we probably would be closer to civic equality had he lived."
Norton and other city officials received a preview of the memorial two weeks ago, and she says she expects that people will be moved by the statue of King itself, as well as the words surrounding it.
"I hope though they will be moved even more by the words. I think that's the most important thing the memorial has done is to envelop the statue itself with king's words," she says. "It was king's words that moved this country in a direction it hadn't been able to go for 100 years.
During this weekend's dedication, Norton anticipates something like a "reunion" of people that marched on Washington all those years ago.
"People will return. It will be like a reunion for many who attended the march," Norton says. "People like me, for whom the march itself was a high point of your life, probably wouldn't be able to resist coming.
"And for those those who could not come, and those who were not born, but have heard about the march on Washington," she adds, "this will seem to be a reincarnation of it in our time."