MLK Day, and a Memorial on the Horizon

Thumbnail image for washington_mlkmemorial_map.jpgMap of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial site, courtesy and Roma Design Group

It is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday for celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., and his Civil Rights Movement contemporaries.

Never having participated–I’m ashamed to say–in any MLK Day events here in the nation’s capital in my 3+ years in Washington, this year I resolved to get out and participate. But, unfortunately, a morning departure of my roommate–and now former National Geographic colleague–to her native New Zealand, a rapid-onset cold, and a doctor’s appointment, derailed my plans.

Luckily, I won’t have to wait another year to pay homage to the Civil Rights leader and his compatriots. This summer, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial will open on the Mall here in Washington, D.C. (if all goes according to plan).

In lieu of leaving the confines of my warm row house this afternoon to honor Civil Rights, I paid a visit to the official Memorial website to see what I could find out about the site, and particularly its unique design and geography.


Memorial Location

The memorial is being constructed on the northwest corner of the Tidal Basin, between the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. According to a description on the memorial website, the site was selected in order to create a “line of leadership” from the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, to the Jefferson Memorial. Both Jefferson and Lincoln were known for their impassioned writings and speeches espousing ideals of freedom, justice, and equality, which inspired Dr. King.

Check out a simple interactive map on the memorial website (bottom image) to view the memorial location at four different scales of increasing resolution. In the final graphic, you can see the locations of some of the dominant elements of the memorial site, including the Stone of Hope, Mountain of Despair, and activist Niches. Visit the page about the memorial’s composition and space for a short graphic video flyover of the site layout, and a more detailed description of the memorial elements, particularly the 24 niches devoted to individual Civil Rights activists, and the use of water throughout the memorial site (admittedly, the description is quite high-level in its vocabulary and discussions of philosophy–definitely not suitable reading for younger students.)

Landscape Elements

Three natural elements–water, stone, and trees– are employed throughout the memorial landscape to signify the three themes of justice, democracy, and hope. You can read more about each element here–again, the descriptions are on the theoretical side.

This incorporation of natural elements, along with the Niches celebrating the contributions of many of the major players of the Civil Rights Movement, as contrasted with the largely stone and (sometimes) water designs of many of the other monuments to single individuals (Jefferson, Lincoln) or large groups (Vietnam, World War II) on the Mall, make the monument quite unique, in my opinion. It might be more closely compared with the design for the September 11 Memorial, which is currently under construction, and which will also incorporate trees and water.

I can’t wait to spend time at the Memorial when it opens this summer, and I hope you will stop by, too, on your next visit to Washington, D.C.

Here are a couple discussion questions about the landscape geography of memorials, (along with some of my own thoughts).

  1. Do you have a favorite memorial that you have visited, either close by or far away?  Can you describe some aspects of the memorial (sites, sounds, feelings, smells, tastes; sculptures, architecture, landscape, etc.) that you like?
  2. Why do you think the location for the Martin Luther King National Memorial was chosen for Washington, D.C., as opposed to somewhere else? Why was a site selected between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials?
  3. What do you think might be some of the reasons for including trees in the design for the memorial? (shade and protection for visitors during hot summers and rain storms, contemplative spaces and privacy for visitors, symbols of passing time, etc.) 
  4. Water is very often incorporated into monuments; why do you think that is?  (many find the sound of moving water soothing; it also helps to cover some of the conversations of other visitors, allowing for a more personal, private experience).
  5. Pretend you had to design a memorial honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights activists. Where would you put it? What would it look like, sound like, feel like?
Sarah Jane for My Wonderful World
Image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in front of Lincoln statue courtesy Paul Schutzer

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