Celebrities turn shovels for Martin Luther King, Jr.

WASHINGTON – On a hot August afternoon in 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to a mostly black audience from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

On Nov. 13, a half-mile from Lincoln’s iconic statue, a diverse group of celebrities, corporate leaders and ordinary Americans will help turn the first shovels of dirt for a memorial honoring the civil rights leader who was slain 38 years ago. It will be the first monument to an African American on the National Mall.

“He’s an American hero, and beyond that he’s a hero for all sorts of people,” said poet and novelist Maya Angelou, who is scheduled to join Oprah Winfrey and others who have been working for more than a decade to help build the monument.

Angelou, 80, said the groundbreaking is even more special because it comes almost a year after the death of King’s widow. “She never was a person to say ‘Why didn’t it happen sooner?’ That would not be Coretta Scott King,” Angelou said of her friend, who died in January at 78.

Following the deaths of Coretta Scott King and civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, who died in October 2005, efforts to raise the necessary $100 million to build and maintain the four-acre memorial accelerated.

Donations, mostly from major corporations, had totaled less than $40 million through August 2005. But as of Nov. 1, donations topped $65.5 million.

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.