A landmark in history: Martin Luther King Jr Memorial

Natural disasters permitting, tomorrow will see the opening of Washington DC’s newest monument.

It is a walk of barely 200 yards, an easy stroll even in the heat – down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and past the ghostly soldiers of the Korean War Veterans Memorial to 1964 Independence Avenue, where the new pedestrian crossing is still being daubed across four lanes of traffic. Physically, the journey takes me five minutes, maybe six. In other ways – politically, spiritually, sociologically – it has taken many people far longer.

For it is here, tomorrow, that (hurricanes and earth tremors notwithstanding) Washington DC's newest landmark, the Martin Luther King Jr National Memorial, will be opened by President Obama, on the 48th anniversary of the civil rights leader's seismic "I Have A Dream" speech – and practically within audible range of the spot where he delivered it, under Abraham Lincoln's statuesque gaze.

Not before time, either. It is no outlandish claim to say that the arrival of an official site dedicated to the civil rights struggle in the US capital is long overdue. The National Mall – that hallowed strip that runs east-west through the centre of Washington – already pays tribute to several of the causes the country has battled for in its young history, from the fight for nationhood, to the Second World War. But its bleakest hours are notably absent. When Obama pulls back the curtain tomorrow, there will be a sense of an oversight being corrected.

The ceremony will be a momentous event. This will be the first personal memorial on the Mall built to honour someone other than a former president. As many as 400,000 spectators are expected to mark the occasion – the largest gathering on the Mall since the current commander-in-chief's 2009 inauguration. Washington may grind to a halt.

If it does, it will not be for the first time this week. The images of locals running into the streets during Tuesday's earthquake were as remarkable as they were unexpected. The 5.8-magnitude tremor was strong enough to damage one of the spires on the National Cathedral – although plans for tomorrow's memorial dedication were unaffected.

Even before the earthquake, there is a strange, indefinable turbulence on the air the week I visit. Perhaps it is the summer humidity, perhaps the fact that the sabre-rattling ahead of next year's presidential election has begun. But the traffic snarls past the Washington Monument. The Reflecting Pool below the Lincoln Memorial is a muddy scar, midway through a restoration process that has seen it entirely dismantled.

Even the souvenir stalls by the White House are trading in contradiction – T-shirts that either weep for a beatific-looking Michael Jackson or hail the death of the world's most infamous terrorist with the line "Osama Got Obama'd".

Yet all this fades as I approach the new memorial. A palpable peace hangs over the site – even as construction workers make adjustments to the adjacent information centre. Created by the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, the monument offers a literal take on a single quote from King's most famous speech: "With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." Visitors enter through a passage between two giant chunks of pink granite (the mountain of despair) to find the man himself emerging in relief, 28ft tall, from a third block (the stone of hope) – and staring south across the Tidal Basin, to where the presidential memorials to Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt lie.

The alignment is deliberate. "The site was carefully identified," explains Mieko Preston, one of the architects behind the project. "It sits in a direct line between Lincoln – the man who kept the United States united – and Jefferson – who drafted the Declaration of Independence. It is the logical place for the memorial. It is a straight line of leadership." The significance of the proximity to Jefferson becomes obvious later in the day when I amble around the Tidal Basin, and find the third US president's most iconic words etched into the wall of the neo-classical temple that celebrates his life: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." With the King memorial visible in the background, they ring with new clarity.

But first there are the quotes on the King memorial itself, 14 of them, taken from books and speeches, cut into a 450ft wall behind the main sculpture. Some are defiant: "We shall overcome, because the arc of the moral universe is long. But it bends toward justice." Some are hopeful: "We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience." Some are poetic: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that."

One is missing.

Mieko Preston smiles. "There is no need to quote 'I have a dream'," she says, glancing to her left, perhaps towards the White House. "Because that dream has been realised."

Getting there

* The writer travelled to Washington with Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310; virgin-atlantic.com), which flies daily from Heathrow to Washington's Dulles daily from Heathrow in competition with United (0845 844 4777; unitedairlines.co.uk) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com). BA also flies from Heathrow to Baltimore-Washington.

Visiting there

* Martin Luther King Memorial, 1684 Independence Avenue SW ( mlkmemorial.org). Open daily from 29 August, free.

Staying there

* Hotel Monaco, 700 F Street NW (001 202 628 7177; monaco-dc.com). Double rooms start at $388 (£237), room only.

More information

* washington.org

* capitalregionusa.co.uk

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering