Guide to Visiting the MLK Memorial

With black history month in full swing, it’s hard to overlook Washington D.C.’s some 200 historical sites related to African-American history.  The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is Washington D.C.’s newest monument and the nation’s first to honor an African- American man.  Paying tribute to the legacy of  Dr. King and his leadership during the civil rights movement, the Martin Luther King memorial features a 30-foot statue carved into the monument’s feature attraction—the Stone of Hope.  Surrounding the Stone of Hope, and completing the MLK memorial, is two additional stone wedges known as the Mountain of Despair.

TIP: Free Tours by Foot visits the MLK Memorial on our Tidal Basin and All-in-One DC Tours.

Symbolism of the MLK Memorial

There are many overt as well as hidden symbolism contained within the memorial as a whole.   The centerpiece of the memorial is a 30′ (9m) tall stone block with an unfinished likeness of Martin Luther King, Jr emerging from it’s southern side.  Although there are no quotes from Dr. King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, this centerpiece alludes to a powerful analogy that he used in the speech to describe the importance of faith in the struggle for civil rights, that “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”  The memorial’s designers intended that the visitor would walk through the mountain of despair to the stone of hope.  The memorial’s stone of hope appears to be quarried (hewed) from a larger stone, a slow a laborious process, much like the process to end racial segregation and discrimination in the U.S. MLK Memorial The stone has been pushed forward, symbolizing the forward progress in the achievement of civil rights in America.  The likeness of MLK is unfinished, just as his life was tragically cut short at just 39 years of age, and just as the movement for civil rights he helped lead is unfinished today.   King is looking south toward the horizon, paper, possibly a speech or sermon in hand, in a defiant pose, symbolizing his defiance of injustice.

The other major element of the memorial is the long arched wall filled with quotations from King’s speeches and sermons.  The arched wall alludes to a sermon he delivered at the Sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood on February 25, 1965, in which he described his confidence in the ultimate triumph of the civil rights movement in the struggle for human dignity And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  The wall contains quotes from the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 to King’s final Sunday sermon, which took place at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC on March 31, 1968, just days before his assassination in Memphis Tennessee.  The quotes are not listed in chronological order, designed so that the visitor can explore the memorial at his or her own pace and direction.

Other Interesting Facts About the MLK Memorial’s Symbolism

  • The memorial’s address of 1964 Independence Ave is symbolic of the 1964 Civil Rights Act with King helped get passed.
  • The 30′ height of the Stone of Hope with  far exceeds the customary limit of 19.5′ for statues in Washington, DC.  However, the figure of MLK is a likeness (similar to the presidential images on Mt. Rushmore), and thus not considered a statue.
  • Both the stone and the sculptor, Lei Yixin, were ‘imported’ from China.  There were prominent voices that felt the sculptor should have been an African American.  The Memorial’s board, comprised mainly of African American architects, sculptors and drafters, stated that they based their decision on the content of the sculptor’s talent and not on his skin color or nationality, something they felt the Dr. King would have sanctioned.

 

MLK Memorial QuotesHours & Fees: The Martin Luther King Memorial is free of cost and is open 24/7

Location: 1964 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C

Driving:  The National Park Service suggests visitors use the following address when using GPS navigation:

Address: 1850 West Basin Drive SW, Washington, D.C. 20024.
Coordinates: 38.886298, -77.044415

Intersection: West Basin Drive SW & Independence Ave. SW

Please note that parking is prohibited in areas adjacent to the memorial.

Getting there via Metro: The closest Metro station is either Smithsonian (Blue/Orange/Silver) or Foggy Bottom/GWU (Blue/Orange/Silver). Both stations are a 15+ minute walk away from the memorial.

There is also a Capital Bikeshare station nearby at West Basin Drive SW and Ohio Drive SW.

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