Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Gets a Construction Permit at Long, Long Last

Wearing his trademark cowboy hat, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar looks on as Christine King Farris takes the podium at the permit signing ceremony. That’s NPS deputy director Dan Wenk at the far left. NPS photo by Jeffrey Olson.

It’s been 13 long years since Congress authorized the establishment of Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in our nation’s capital. Now, nearly three years since the ceremonial groundbreaking took place, a construction permit has finally been issued.

Authorizing a new national memorial is one thing, but getting it built, dedicated, and open for public use is quite another. As the Flight 93 National Memorial and Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial projects amply illustrate, it can be a long, complicated, very expensive process from concept to reality.

The Flight 93 National Memorial project in Pennsylvania was hampered by troublesome design issues and then stalled for years by stubborn land acquisition problems that were only recently resolved. Now it will be a tight race to see if the $56 million memorial will be ready for dedication a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and nearly that long since the memorial was authorized.

As the timeline below reveals, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial project in our nation’s capital illustrates the time lag phenomenon even more dramatically.

• January 1984 -- Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity proposes erecting a permanent memorial to slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C.

• 1986 – Dr. King’s birthday is declared a national holiday and momentum builds for the establishment of a national memorial in his honor.

• November 12, 1996 -- Congress authorizes Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. to build a memorial in Washington, D.C. honoring Dr. King. November 2003 is set as the deadline for raising the necessary funds (then though to be about $100 million) and breaking ground for the project.

• January 1998 -- Congress authorizes Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. to establish a foundation to manage fundraising and design. In addition, the National Capital Memorial Commission recommends an Area 1 location for the memorial (meaning that the memorial will occupy a prime site situated close to other major monuments.)

• May 28, 1998 -- Charter for the Washington, DC Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc. is approved.

• October 1998 -- National Capital Memorial Commission approves Area 1 – Constitution Gardens (not the site ultimately selected). Earlier, Congress had passed joint resolutions supporting an Area 1 site.

• February 15, 1999 – International design competition is announced.

• March 4, 1999 -- National Capital Planning Commission approves site at east end of Constitution Gardens. The Memorial Foundation disapproves of the site, appeals the ruling, and considers alternatives.

• December 2, 1999 -- The National Capital Planning Commission rescinds its Constitution Gardens site selection and the NPPC and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts approve a different site for the memorial -- a four-acre site bordering the Tidal Basin adjacent to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Design competition judges are announced.

• September 12, 2000 – Memorial design submitted by ROMA Design Group of San Francisco, California is chosen as winning entry in the design competition.

• December 4, 2000 – Alpha Phi Alpha dedicates the memorial site and installs a plaque.

• 2001 – Memorial Foundation launches quiet phase of fundraising campaign; General Motors is first major sponsor. Fundraising and promotion efforts temporarily stall after Dr. King’s family demands payment of licensing fees to use his name and likeness in marketing campaigns. (These fees totaled about $800,000 for the year 2007 alone.) Some major donors then stipulate that their donations must be used only for memorial construction.

• November 2002 – Assisted by the National Park Service, the Memorial Foundation initiates Environmental Assessment process.

• May 7, 2003 – Memorial Foundation launches national media campaign.

• October 28, 2003 – Just days before the groundbreaking deadline that Congress specified in 1996, Congress grants the Memorial Foundation an extension to raise additional funds needed for ground-breaking.

• February 2004 – Devrouax and Purnell/ROMA Design Group Joint Ventures are chosen as project architects.

• June 28, 2005 – Congress approves $10 million in matching funds for memorial construction. (The Memorial Foundation secures the matching private funds by February 2006.)

• December 1, 2005 -- National Capital Planning Commission approves preliminary design for the memorial.

• March 2006 – Memorial Foundation begins purchase of long-lead items, such as large trees for the site.

• April 2006 -- The NCPC grants the Memorial Foundation approval to proceed with the final design phase of the project.

• October 2006 – The memorial’s design team visits granite quarry and fabrication sites in the Peoples Republic of China. Critics complain that this granite source (subsequently approved) relies on laborers who are forced to work under dangerous conditions for very low wages.

• November 13, 2006 – Ceremonial groundbreaking takes place at the chosen site.

• January 15, 2007 – Chinese artist Lei Yixin is chosen to create the memorial’s centerpiece sculptures, the statue of Dr. King and the "Stone of Hope."

• February 15, 2007 -- Memorial Foundation announces selection of quotations from Dr. King's writing, sermons and speeches to be engraved onto the Memorial Wall

• June 5, 2007 – Memorial Foundation announces that the design-build team for the memorial will be the McKissack & McKissack / Turner Construction Company / Gilford Corporation / Tompkins Builders, Inc. Joint Venture.

• August 2008 -- Phase I site preparation begins as Verizon relocates communication lines running through the memorial site. Cash and in-kind contributions for the memorial reach nearly $99 million.

• October 1, 2008 -- Memorial Foundation submits construction permit request to the National Park Service.

• May 2008 -- U.S. Commission of Fine Arts criticizes the proposed sculpture, claiming that it is inordinately colossal in scale and embraces a style (Social Realist) that has fallen into disfavor around the globe.

• August 2008 – Estimated construction cost is revised upward to $120 million. Factors cited include increased costs of labor and materials, enhanced security needs, on-going structural changes and pre-construction enhancements, and the addition of a bookstore, comfort station, and ranger kiosk.

• September 2008 -- National Capital Planning Commission approves site and building design/plans, but the National Park Service rejects the proposed design on grounds that perimeter design does not adequately address security risks.

• November 2008 – Wal-Mart Foundation provides $12.5 million letter of credit to expedite memorial construction.

• October 2009 – National Capital Planning Commission approves perimeter security plan for the site. The National Park Service approves revised perimeter security measures and withdraws its objections to the site design.

• October 29, 2009 -- Interior Department issues construction permit for the memorial.

Now that the construction permit has been issued, the project can move into the phase that matters most of all – erecting the memorial and readying it for public visitation. Project leaders believe it will take 18 to 20 months to do that, so they expect to have the memorial ready to go in 2011.