MLK, remembered: “Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope” … and a Drum Major

One of the benefits to living in the Washington, D.C., “metro area” is the close proximity to so many national treasures — the Smithsonian Museums, the White House, and the Library of Congress, just to name a few. When people came to stay with us, their visit always included a trip into the city.
The Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial are probably the most famous and most recognizable but there are plenty of monuments to admire on or near the National Mall. My personal favorite for many years has been the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, in part because it is a very different design than the monuments to other Presidents. The layout of the monument to FDR is one of outdoor “rooms” with sculpture, water, and greenery. Whenever I go there, I appreciate the time to walk and reflect; the quotes and inscriptions make me pause and think and consider things like democracy, government, politics, policy, and my own opinions. 

Standing at the far end of the FDR monument, looking toward the unfinished MLK monument, March 2011.

I took this photo while standing at the far end of the FDR monument, looking toward the unfinished MLK monument, in  March 2011.

I moved away from the Washington, D.C., area prior to the opening of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial on October 16, 2011, so I have not seen this new monument in completion. I only had glimpses through holes in a fence and from a distance across the tidal basin. And while the FDR Memorial may remain first in my heart, this homage to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is an incredible monument and is on my life list.

[Go here for a high-quality photo of what you would see first-hand at the monument.]

Mountain of Despair, Stone of Hope

the Mountain of Despair
image from Wikipedia Commons

For starters, it is impressive in size. There is a large “mountain of despair” that viewers walk through to get to the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — both of which are carved from granite.

Stone of Hope, courtesy of Google images

At first it seemed strange to me that white granite was used for this memorial (because, as you must know, Dr. King was a black man), but then I considered how it would glow at night, like the beacon of hope that Dr. King was to so many people in the United States.

The Inscription Wall

Once the viewer has passed through the Mountain of Despair and turns around to view the front of the Stone of Hope, there is something else to see besides an impressive statue — the Inscription Wall, filled with fourteen different quotes from Dr. King’s many speeches:

  • “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
  • “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
  • “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
  • “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”
  • “I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example of the world.”
  • “If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”
  • “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
  • “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”
  • “It is not enough to say “We must not wage war.” It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive affirmation of peace.”
  • “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
  • “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”
  • “We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs “down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
  • “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.”
  • “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”

Some of King’s words reflected in these quotations are based on other sources (e.g., the Bible, an abolitionist pre-Civil War minister); however, they all came from Dr. King’s speeches.

View through the opening of the Mountain of Despair
revealing both the Stone of Hope and, across the Tidal Bay, the Jefferson Memorial
image from Wikimedia Commons.

Inscriptions on the Stone of Hope

In addition to the fourteen quotations on the Inscription Wall, each side of the Stone of Hope includes an additional statement attributed to King. The first, from the “I Have a Dream” speech, is “Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope”—the quotation that serves as the basis for the monument’s design. The other quote reads,

“I Was a Drum Major for Justice, Peace, and Righteousness”

which is a paraphrased version of a longer quote by King: “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

Image above from

I asked my 17yo son, who happens to be a drum major for his high school band, to give me his understanding of the duties of a drum major.  H-J was able to distill the job description down to 4 words:

Lead. Conduct. Organize. Teach. 

I agree that those words describe the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his place in this country’s Civil Rights Movement. I’m glad he was our Drum Major.