For 14 years, one man has guided the shape of MLK’s me­mo­rial. Now, the day nears when his dream will be com­plete.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL E. RUANE

The snow has melted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s fore­head and has left only a damp spot on his suit-coat col­lar. His ex­quis­ite, gran­ite face looks as flaw­less as a child’s, but his eyes bear the far-off gaze of a man in thought. With the sun com­ing out, it’s a good day to work on the statue. And the mas­ter sculp­tor is us­ing the fine, cone-shaped bit of his power tool to smooth the del­i­cate con­tours of King’s lips and etch the creases at the cor­ners of his mouth.

Pow­dered stone blows away on the wind. The sculp­tor pauses and leans back to check his progress.

On the scaf­fold­ing high above the Tidal Basin, Ed Jack­son Jr. watches the work. Through the trees to the north, he can just see the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial, where the flesh-and-blood King de­liv­ered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.

It seems so long ago, that by­gone sum­mer when the young Ne­gro min­is­ter chal­lenged the nation to be true to it­self, and so far from there to the me­mo­rial be­ing com­pleted on a win­try day al­most five decades later.

Jack­son, 61, the ex­ec­u­tive ar­chi­tect on the me­mo­rial project, was a teenager in seg­re­gated McComb, Miss., when King urged his 250,000 lis­ten­ers on the Mall to hold fast un­til “jus­tice rolls down like wa­ters and right­eous­ness like a mighty stream.”

Amid the fire­bomb­ings and church burn­ings that rocked McComb in the 1960s, Jack­son lived in the oa­sis of a self-suf­fi­cient black neigh­bor­hood.

He was shel­tered by his mother, Vera, who spoke spar­ingly of the trou­ble, but moved him to a back bed­room away from the win­dows out front. It was a neigh­bor­hood he would leave be­hind, though, and af­ter his mother was killed there years later, it is one that sur­vives only in his past. And Jack­son does not linger in the past. Right now, the man who for 14 years has pro­pelled the cre­ation ofWash­ing­ton’s new $120 mil­lion me­mo­rial to the slain civil rights leader, is watch­ing his Chi­nese sculp­tor, Lei Yixin, com­plete King’s face.

“He’s worked on this thing so much, he doesn’t even

need a pic­ture to fin­ish the im­age,” Jack­son says over the buzz of Lei’s sculpt­ing tool.

Jack­son says Lei will let no one else on his 10-per­son team work on the face, which is carved from a 46-ton gran­ite block that sits atop the mam­moth sculp­ture.

The 30-foot-8-inch statue of King is the cen­ter­piece of the me­mo­rial and is named the “Stone of Hope,” for a line from King’s speech: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the moun­tain of despair a stone of hope.”

It is made of in­di­vid­u­ally carved chunks of gran­ite, seam­lessly as­sem­bled like a gi­ant set of chil­dren’s blocks, de­pict­ing King in his cus­tom­ary busi­ness suit with his arms folded, hold­ing a scroll in his left hand.

The sculp­ture is based on a fa­mous 1966 pho­to­graph of King taken in his of­fice in At­lanta, stand­ing at his desk, with a pic­ture of In­dian leader Mo­han­das Gandhi on a wall in the back­ground.

But the copy of the photo used for the project turned out to be made from a re­versed neg­a­tive, Jack­son said, and the right-handed King is shown hold­ing a pen in his left hand. By the time the er­ror was dis­cov­ered, Jack­son said the sculp­ture was too far along to switch the pen to the right hand, so the scroll was sub­sti­tuted.

Al­though not as large as some of the city’s eques­trian mon­u­ments, it is more than 10 feet taller than the 19-foot statue of Thomas Jef­fer­son in the Jef­fer­son Me­mo­rial and the 19-foot-6-inch statue of Abra­ham Lin­coln in the Lin­col­nMe­mo­rial.

Placed amid the Ja­panese cherry trees and fac­ing south­east across the Tidal Basin, the King me­mo­rial is likely to be­come a new sym­bol of Washington, an in­ter­na­tional tourist at­trac­tion and the fulfillment of dreams when it is ded­i­cated Aug. 28.

And al­though the de­sign and con­struc­tion ef­fort has been a long, col­lab­o­ra­tive jour­ney, Jack­son has been its chief nav­i­ga­tor.

He headed the process to se­lect, and then ad­just, the de­sign con­cept. There were so many sub­mis­sions — about 900 — the project had to use Ver­i­zon Cen­ter to dis­play them all.

He headed the team that picked the Chi­nese sculp­tor — con­tro­ver­sial be­cause the artist was nei­ther black nor Amer­i­can. Un­fazed, Jack­son be­lieved Lei was the best for the job.

Tall and schol­arly in his suit and bow tie, Jack­son weath­ered crit­i­cism from the fed­eral Com­mis­sion of Fine Arts that the orig­i­nal sculp­ture model was too se­vere and to­tal­i­tar­ian. He had the fur­rows be­tween King’s eye­brows re­moved to soften the im­age.

He watched weeks go by while the blocks of gran­ite sat in a Chi­nese sea­port await­ing a ship, and 47more­days pass as the stone fi­nally made its way by sea to Bal­ti­more. He stayed awake nights wor­ry­ing as cold weather ap­proached, threat­en­ing the pace of the stone work.

He of­ten me­di­ated be­tween the Chi­nese sculpt­ing team and the Amer­i­can con­struc­tion crews — be­tween art and work, the ideal and the doable.

All the while, his word was on the line.

Ten years ago, when the de­sign was un­veiled, he promised Coretta Scott King, the states­man’s widow: “I will not let you down.”

Now the “Stone of Hope” is in place, ad­justed here and there, yet mon­u­men­tal, as Jack­son had promised.

But the job is un­fin­ished. “I’m still a sol­dier in the trenches,” he says.

Jack­son sees him­self as the fa­cil­i­ta­tor, the back­ground guy, the re­al­ist.

Achiev­ing any­thing more than 50 per­cent of what you want is al­ways a suc­cess, he says, and you only need 180 de­grees of free­dom on a project. “No com­man­der, no or­ga­ni­za­tion will give you 360,” he says.

Jon Onye Lockard, Jack­son’s old pro­fes­sor of African Amer­i­can art and cul­ture at the Uni­ver­sity ofMichi­gan and a project ad­viser, says: “He rel­ishes be­ing the man be­hind the man. . . . He is not one fed by ego.”

A re­tired Army of­fi­cer, Jack­son has many max­ims. An­other is: “Don’t con­fuse the bat­tle with the war.”

In­deed, the “war” is not over. Al­though the main sculp­ture is fin­ished, more con­struc­tion and land­scap­ing must be com­pleted.

But this month, the “Stone of Hope” was cov­ered to shroud it from pub­lic view un­til Au­gust. And with the ded­i­ca­tion in seven months — on the 48th an­niver­sary of the day King de­liv­ered his speech — the end of the strug­gle seems near.

One day in De­cem­ber, as snow fell from a gray sky, Jack­son stood on the scaf­fold­ing and re­flected on the face that has been hewed

from the stone — an African Amer­i­can face to stand for the ages with the other mon­u­ments to the nation’s cre­ators.

“It’s like your wildest dream came true,” he said.

“When you dream for some­thing . . . you dream that ul­ti­mate . . . but you don’t al­ways get the ul­ti­mate,” he said.

At 12:50 p.m. Nov. 25, a gi­ant red con­struc­tion crane slowly lifted gran­ite block C-61 into the clear blue sky above the con­struc­tion site on In­de­pen­dence Av­enue, south­west of the World War II Me­mo­rial.

Of­fi­cials from the Martin Luther King Jr. Na­tional Me­mo­rial Project Foun­da­tion, which is rais­ing money for the project, the MTTG con­struc­tion team and the Na­tional Park Ser­vice looked on. A few by­standers had chil­dren with them. A man set up a video cam­era. A pass­ing mo­torist stopped his car and got out to watch.

As the crane raised the block, the stone was slowly turned to face the Tidal Basin, re­veal­ing in the bright sun­shine the head and shoul­ders of Martin Luther King Jr.

It was a pow­er­ful moment. As the stone was low­ered onto the body of the sculp­ture, Jack­son, in a white hard hat, jeans and a yel­low haz­ard vest that said “Jaxon” on the back, paced the scaf­fold­ing with his cam­era.

With this block — the most iconic of the 1,600 met­ric tons of gran­ite that had been cut, carved and shipped 11,000 miles from China — the im­age of King was com­plete. But this was only one of the 159 blocks, pre-carved for the most part, that make up the three ma­jor sculp­tural el­e­ments.

The me­mo­rial, the brain­child of King’s old fra­ter­nity, Al­pha Phi Al­pha, was au­tho­rized by Congress in 1996. Sit­u­ated on a fouracre site, it also has an in­scrip­tion wall, land­scap­ing and, soon, a book­store and vis­i­tors cen­ter.

In the cen­tral sculp­ture, King ap­pears to be emerg­ing from the gran­ite — a spe­cial, slightly darker-hued stone called G-681 that was se­lected, Jack­son said, to bet­ter dis­play the fea­tures of an African Amer­i­can. The two back­ground sculp­tures — to­gether called the “Moun­tain of Despair” — re­sem­ble a small moun­tain with the cen­ter cut out.

All three are made of gran­ite fa­cades with con­crete cores. Solid sculp­tures that big would have been too heavy to trans­port. Just one of the blocks weighs 55 tons— about the same as a large whale.

Work crews as­sem­bled them over the course of about six weeks last fall by set­ting the stones in a kind of cir­cu­lar pat­tern one ring at a time. The first ring was then filled with a con­crete core. Once the con­crete was dry, a sec­ond ring was set, filled with con­crete and so on.

Much of the assem­bly was su­per­vised by Lei, a weath­ered look­ing, deep-voiced artist in his mid-50s who sports long, black hair and is renowned in China for his work.

When Lei agreed to take on the King project, Jack­son pro­posed a con­tract. Lei said a hand­shake was all he needed. Al­though pro­to­col re­quired a con­tract, the two men formed a close bond.

Lei said he was im­pressed when Jack­son him­self met his team at the air­port in Septem­ber. In China, he said, a sub­or­di­nate would have been sent.

“Shoot,” Jack­son laughed, when told of Lei’s sen­ti­ment. “You want me to run out and get gro­ceries for you? I’ll do that, too.”

In fact, af­ter Lei ar­rived, Jack­son drove him to a Chi­nese gro­cery store in Fair­fax to buy food for the apart­ment where Lei was stay­ing. And Jack­son saw him off at the air­port when Lei re­turned to China onMon­day morn­ing.

One day in the mid-1960s, Jack­son, then a 16-or 17-year-old high school stu­dent, was driv­ing his mother’s Chevy Im­pala, not far from home, when a white po­lice­man pulled him over.

He can’t re­mem­ber ex­actly why, and the po­lice­man did not give him a ticket. But he re­mem­bers rolling down the win­dow and the of­fi­cer say­ing to him: “Where you go­ing, boy?”

Even as a shel­tered teenager, he felt the sting of “ boy.” Yet it was the only tense racial en­counter he can re­call of grow­ing up in­Mis­sis­sippi dur­ing the vi­o­lent civil rights strug­gles of the 1960s.

McComb in those days made na­tional head­lines with bomb­ings, beat­ings and shoot­ings aimed at civil rights work­ers, black and white. TheWash­ing­ton Post called it “Dark­est Amer­ica” af­ter a white mob at­tacked blacks de­seg­re­gat­ing a bus sta­tion.

But the town’s black en­clave of Bur­g­land where Jack­son grew up was an oa­sis.

“Our par­ents cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment for us in McComb that we didn’t feel as if we were missing any­thing,” he said. “It was typ­i­cal of how African Amer­i­can par­ents shielded their chil­dren from the forces of racism. . . . As far as you were concerned, the world was great.”

The neigh­bor­hood had ev­ery­thing — its own movie theater, burger joint, gro­cery store, clean­ers. And one day when Jack­son was in the sixth grade, it even pro­duced in the class­room seat in front of him Cyn­thia Robin­son — the girl who would be­come his wife. They have been mar­ried 40 years and have four chil­dren.

Born in Illi­nois, the son of a brick ma­son, Jack­son grew up in McComb by hap­pen­stance. His par­ents had taken him to visit relatives there when his fa­ther was killed in a car ac­ci­dent. Jack­son was just 9 months old.

His mother stayed in McComb with her fam­ily, went to col­lege and be­came an ele­men­tary school teacher. She briefly re­mar­ried and had a son, Jack­son’s step­brother, Charles Ray Clay, with whom he grew up. Jack­son left McComb in 1967 to go to col­lege and grad­u­ate school, and travel the world as an ar­chi­tect with the Army.

Two decades, and an era, passed.

On Aug. 24, 1990, while he was work­ing on his PhD dis­ser­ta­tion and liv­ing in Texas, his 62-yearold mother was stabbed to death in the ranch-style home on Ar­gyle Street where she had raised him, safe from the men­ace of the out­side world.

The as­sailant was prob­a­bly a bur­glar, Jack­son said, and likely from the neigh­bor­hood. McComb po­lice said the killer has not been caught.

Jack­son went home to han­dle the ar­range­ments. But the neigh­bor­hood seemed dif­fer­ent, he said. It no longer seemed like the place that had nur­tured him, no longer like the small com­mu­nity where ev­ery­one knew ev­ery­one else.

It no longer felt like home. “While you were away,” he said, “ home changed.” In a way, it was gone.

And in a way, he said, he’s been search­ing for home ever since.

Yet Jack­son knows that, like King, what he seeks is an ideal, a dream.

“I have a dream of a small town,” he said. “ This is what King’s all about. He’s talk­ing about an ideal. Some might call it Utopia. I don’t nec­es­sar­ily see it that way. Be­cause I don’t nec­es­sar­ily look for ... a hun­dred” per­cent.

But the ideal still must be sought, he said, be­cause the search can change things. And some­times, even for a re­al­ist, the ideal can be reached.

In De­cem­ber, as he stood in the con­struc­tion scaf­fold­ing with snow gath­er­ing in the folds of the mas­sive sculp­ture, Jack­son thought about what had been achieved.

“When I told Mrs. King, ‘I will not let you down,’ ” he said, “ this is what I had in mind. . . . Not 50 per­cent. This.”


‘STONE OF HOPE’: The new me­mo­rial’s soar­ing gran­ite statue ofMartin Luther King Jr. faces south­east across the Tidal Basin. The sculp­ture is based on a fa­mous 1966 pho­to­graph of King in his of­fice in At­lanta.


CARVED INTO HIS­TORY: Chi­nese sculp­tor Lei Yixin and ex­ec­u­tive ar­chi­tect Ed Jack­son Jr. stand next to the new me­mo­rial’s tow­er­ing cen­ter­piece, a 30-foot-8-inch statue ofMartin Luther King Jr.


SNEAK PEEK: A ren­der­ing of MLK’sMe­mo­rial, com­plete with the Moun­tain of Despair be­hind him and Stone ofHope sup­port­ing him.

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