WASHINGTON, D.C. — President George W. Bush, appearing at a groundbreaking ceremony Monday for a memorial honoring slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said the National Mall monument will "preserve his legacy for ages."
Under overcast skies, Bush joined former President Bill Clinton and a host of civil rights figures and members of Congress to celebrate the monument to be built not far from where King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 to about 250,000 people taking part in a pro-civil rights March on Washington.
"When Martin Luther King came to Washington in the summer of 1963," Bush said, "he came to hold this nation to its own standards. ... He stood not far from here ... with thousands gathered around him. His dream spread a message of hope."
"An assassin's bullet could not shatter his dream," Bush said. "As we break ground, we give Martin Luther King his rightful place among the many Americans honored on the National Mall. It will unite the men who declared the promise of America and defended the promise of America with the man who redeemed the promise of America."
The memorial, to be built roughly a half-mile (800 meters) from the Lincoln Memorial, where King gave his historic speech, will be the first to honor an African American civilian on the Mall.
Clinton, who received a standing ovation from the largely Black crowd, noted that the memorial will stand between the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. He said it is appropriate for King's memorial to be between the man who helped found the nation and the man who protected the nation's ideals during the Civil War.
"It belongs here," Clinton said.
About 5,000 people braved light rain, cold winds and mud for the ceremonial groundbreaking, including poet and novelist Maya Angelou; television personality Oprah Winfrey; the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a former King aide and prominent civil rights leader, and several members of Congress.
Winfrey credited King and other civil rights leaders with making it possible for her to achieve what she's done.
"It's because of them that I can be heard," she said. "I do not take that for granted, not for one breath."
Donations for the memorial, which have mostly come from major corporations, hit $65.5 million earlier this month.
Harry Johnson, president of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, said he hopes to have the site completed by the spring of 2008.
The location is flanked by the Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt memorials near the eastern edge of the Potomac River Tidal Basin.
The entrance to the memorial will include a central sculpture called "The Mountain of Despair." Its towering split rocks signify the divided America that inspired the nonviolent efforts of King and others to overcome racial and social barriers.
"This project has been over a decade in the making," Bush said, thanking Clinton, who signed the legislation authorizing the monument.
King, a church minister, rose to prominence as the leader of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that began in December 1955 and a year later led to the U.S. Supreme Court declaring unconstitutional racial segregation on buses.
In 1957, he was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which helped steer the growing movement to end segregation and gain voting and other basic rights for Black Americans.
In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tenn., where he was supporting a strike by city garbage workers.
—The Associated Press