Why MLK Memorial is one of the last new structures on the National Mall

The MLK Memorial, which the public gets a glimpse of Monday, is between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. Its centerpiece is a 30-foot statue of Martin Luther King Jr.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
The statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is seen unveiled from scaffolding during the opening of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, Monday. The memorial will be dedicated on Sunday.

On Monday the public gets its first glimpse of a new attraction on the National Mall – the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. More than 25 years in the making, the King Memorial is set amid four acres of cherry trees on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin. That’s a great location, between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and near the FDR Memorial.

That got us to thinking: Who, or what, governs what stuff gets placed on America’s Front Lawn?

Don’t get us wrong – the MLK Memorial looks great and fits right in. Its centerpiece is a 30-foot statue of the civil rights hero, arms folded, gazing into the distance.

But surely there is pressure to fill the Mall with all sorts of statues and plaques. What prevents that from happening?

You guessed it, a law. Congress passed the Commemorative Works Act in 1986, and amended it in 2003.

Among other things, this law designates the central core of the Mall as a “substantially completed work of civic art” within which no further memorials will be erected. The King Memorial thus joins the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Center and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture as the last structures authorized within this space.

But the law also identifies 100 nearby sites that remain eligible for future commemorative works. Memorial Avenue at the George Washington Memorial Bridge, anyone?

Generally speaking, a new military memorial in official Washington may only commemorate a branch of the armed services or a war, under the law. The war has to have ended 10 years prior to the memorial’s authorization.

Memorials commemorating an event, individual, or group can’t be authorized until 25 years after the event, the death of the individual, or the passing of the last member of the group.

Congress (of course) is the body of folks that first authorize and get the memorial ball rolling. Then a number of federal and/or civic groups, such as the National Capital Planning Commission, get to weigh in on the choice of site and design.

By the way, the King Memorial will be dedicated on Aug. 28, the 48th anniversary of King’s delivery of his “I have a dream” speech from a spot nearby.

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