Illinois storytellers: Ed Jackson, Jr.

Ed Jackson, Jr. (FAA '73) reflects on his experience as chief architect for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial.
written by Ed Jackson, Jr.

Illinois Storytellers: Ed Jackson, Jr.

The Illinois Storytellers series brings you first-person pieces from distinctive Illinois voices. Ed Jackson, Jr. (FAA ’73), who spent fifteen years as chief architect for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, shares insights into how he and his team brought the memorial from the original vision to its permanent place on the National Mall. Jackson is the president of ArchD Consulting and is currently working on his memoirs.

I recall my first visit to the Lincoln Memorial nearly fifty years ago. I was in awe of its scale, art larger than life. The words of Lincoln engraved on the walls—words that I had committed to memory since grade school—left me spellbound.

Many years later, I returned to the National Mall to visit the Vietnam Memorial and was emotionally overwhelmed by the simplicity of the memorial and shocked by the realization of the magnitude of the loss of life it represented. I wanted the King Memorial to strike a balance between these two emotional responses/experiences—the awe factor of scale and a soul stirring message about who we are and what we stand for as Americans.

The legislative initiative seeking Congressional approval of the project took thirteen years (1983 to 1996). My involvement began in November 1996 and lasted through the completion of the memorial in 2011. During the planning process, the size and composition of the team grew. At the height of the project planning and development, the staff numbered fourteen, along with an army of consultants. We were committed and determined to have the words of Dr. King become an everlasting ethos of America.

On one visit, after the memorial was completed, I recall a 90-year-old Catholic nun brought to tears as she rounded the Stone of Hope and looked up at the face of Dr. King. When I looked at her, I struggled to keep my emotions in check. She said, “I never thought this would happen in my lifetime.”

In order for America and the world to experience the American Dream Dr. King so eloquently spoke of, it will take both love and justice. It was the team’s hope that the memorial could somehow speak—literally and metaphorically—to future generations about the importance of peace, justice, democracy, hope, and love.

“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.”— Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967

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Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the 1963 March on Washington, D.C. Decades later, a line from the speech inspired our design for the memorial: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” Nearly fifty years after King delivered this speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a memorial to his legacy was dedicated on the National Mall.

This is an early sketch of my vision for the site. This memorial is as much about America as it is about Dr. King. The memorial speaks to the spirit of who we are as a people, about how far we have come as a nation, about what we hold scared, about what we believe in, and about what we are willing to die for in order to preserve and protect the freedom, democracy, justice, and liberty we possess as citizens of this great country.

I can’t put my figure on it, but there was something special about this team and project, unlike any other project I’ve been associated with. This project team felt like a big family—we shared a commitment to see it through—from the executive staff down to the laborers on the construction site. It was the spirit of Dr. King that united us, E pluribus unum, out of many, one.

In my initial conversations with the sculptor of record, Master Lei YiXin, I stressed the importance of designing the mountain first, then slicing the mountain into three pieces. The backside of the Stone of Hope should be a continuation of the lines of the Mountain of Despair only broken as a result of the separation. He pulled Dr. King out of stone.

Master Lei YiXin used my drawing to create this initial rendering of the sculpture. The final memorial includes a 30-foot-high relief of King named the Stone of Hope, alongside two other pieces of granite that form the Mountain of Despair. The site also includes a 450-foot-long inscription wall that includes excerpts from many of King’s sermons and speeches.

We planted 182 cherry blossom trees on our site and the following spring those trees provided a bouquet of flowers on the anniversary of his death, not to mark his passing but to celebrate his life. Credit: NPSPhoto