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Martin Luther King memorial unveiled on National Mall

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Martin Luther King Jr stood 30 feet tall on the National Mall as a memorial to him was unveiled on Monday morning -- the first memorial on the Mall not dedicated to a war, president or white man.

The new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is shown in Washington August 22, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Fifteen years after a Congressional Joint Resolution in 1996 to establish a memorial in Washington, D.C. to honor King, the four-acre site on the Tidal Basin between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials opened to the public for the first time.

“From a geometrical standpoint it’s on a direct line between the Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial,” said Bill Line, spokesman for the National Park Service. “The brains and essence of our country (Thomas Jefferson), and Abe Lincoln, the greater uniter.”

Visitors will walk through two massive white granite halves of the “Mountain of Despair” to reach the “Stone of Hope,” from which the sculpture of King emerges.

The winning design from an international contest was inspired by the line from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

Behind King’s sculpture, on either side of the mountain, is a 450-foot-long wall inscribed with 14 quotations from the famous orator’s speeches, sermons, and writings.

King faces Jefferson wearing clothes that fade into the granite above his feet. His arms are folded, with one hand holding his rolled-up Dream speech, according to sculptor Master Lei Yixin, who is a Chinese citizen.

“Dr. King’s vision is still living, in our minds; we still miss him, we still need him,” said Yixin through a translator, calling the sculpture the most important of his life, technically and emotionally. “I am trying to present Dr. King as ready to step out ... this is King’s spirit, to judge people from their character, not race, color or background.”

Yixin and a team carved and assembled the stone and mountain from 159 blocks of Atlantic Green granite and Kenoran Sage granite from North America, as well as granite from Asia.

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The memorial will be presented to President Barack Obama and dedicated in a celebration on Sunday August 28, marking the anniversary of the Dream speech delivered from the steps of the nearby Lincoln Memorial 48 years ago.

King, the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize and the leader of the American Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, led a peaceful march on Washington in 1963. A crowd of 250,000 heard his DREAM speech at the march, five years before his assassination in Memphis in 1968.

A joint venture team broke ground on the site nearly five years ago, and the “Build the Dream” Campaign of the National Memorial Project Foundation, headed by President and CEO Harry Johnson, has raised $112 of the $120 million needed.

The team consists of ROMA Design Group, the winner of the competition to design the memorial; architectural and engineering firm McKissack & McKissack; Turner Construction Company; Tompkins Builders, Inc. and the Gilford Corporation.

“Dr. King championed a movement that draws from the deep well of America’s potential for opportunity,” said Johnson, a lawyer and former president of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. Kingbelonged to the fraternity.

The chief executive of architecture firm McKissack & McKissack, Deryl McKissack, said that her great-great grandfather was a slave who learned the building trade from his overseer.

“Dr. King changed people’s minds, and now an African American woman can own a company and be a part of these projects -- I just feel great everyday when I wake up.”

The expression of King’s sculpture was created from a collage of images that covered all four walls of Yixin’s studio. King’s mouth is a grim line, his brow is furrowed and his gaze intense as he looks off into the distance.

One visitor to the new memorial said she believes King would be pleased if he could see how far the United States has come since the 1960s.

“He would be ecstatic because President Obama is in the White House and that is a huge step,” said Nydria Humphries, who hung on the fence outside before the memorial opened to the the public. She wore a T-shirt with an eagle and the stripes of the American flag.

“That’s all MLK stood for,” said Humphries, who is currently looking for work. “If we can just learn to live together, then we all can have a better life.”

Editing by Greg McCune