A powerful voice, moving words and a fearless message catapulted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into the American spotlight, but in 1958 it was his mild-mannered demeanor that Anna Simkins said she remembers having the most profound affect on her as she drove the civil rights activist to an event at her college in Greensboro, N.C.
As the 85-year-old Mrs. Simkins spent a few moments Monday, Aug. 22, in the shade at the newly opened memorial dedicated to King, she spoke about the civil rights leader as "a very quiet man."
"I remember getting a copy of his book and he was kind enough to autograph it for me," she said.
Mrs. Simkins was one of hundreds of D.C. residents, employees and tourists who by midmorning had already taken advantage of the "soft opening" of the memorial, the last of its kind to be built on the National Mall and the only dedicated to someone who was not a former president.
The memorial, built along the western end of the Tidal Basin, will be officially dedicated by President Obama on Sunday. But the National Park Service, which oversees the National Mall and its memorials, pulled back the curtains on Aug. 22 to allow the public an early glimpse.
"It's history, and to me, it's a long time coming," said D.C. resident Davie Feaster, who came to the memorial bearing a white crocheted bag filled with fried chicken to give out like his uncle did for civil rights supporters during the 1963 March on Washington.
Anticipating a large crowd, Southeast resident Michael Berry arrived at the Independence Avenue entrance nearly two hours before the opening but found only one other person in front of him.
Mr. Berry said he had seen pictures of the enormous boulders and curving granite walls etched with King's quotes and was anxious about what the memorial would really look like.
"It just blew me away," he said with a relieved smile.
Staring up at the towering figure emerging from stone, longtime D.C. resident Annette Martin said she expected King's visage to turn his gaze from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and say, "You: Do something."
Growing up in Iowa City, Ms. Martin said she remembered "the sadness" when she was 10 years old and was told that King had been assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.
Ms. Martin said she visited the memorial on Aug. 21. With the sun shining brightly off the water and the new granite of the memorial, King appeared alive, Ms. Martin said, and ready to unfurl a potential checklist and say, "There's lots to complete. ... I'll tell you some stuff that needs to be done."
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