Ed Jackson Jr. spends most of his waking hours toiling inside a construction trailer on a dusty lot in Southwest Washington, D.C. His job description might read as follows: "Capture architectural lightning in a bottle, in a way that memorializes an iconic U.S. figure and effortlessly conveys his peace-loving, egalitarian ethos to millions of people."
A tall order, to be sure, but not one that intimidates Jackson, 61, who is the executive architect for the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. Fifteen years in the making, the four-acre, $120 million project abuts the Tidal Basin and is on a direct line between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials. It is slated to be officially dedicated on Aug. 28.
"We felt it was important for us to have a memorial that reminded every generation what our goals and objectives are, and what we should be trying to achieve as a nation, as a society, as human beings on this planet," says Jackson, who received a doctor of architecture degree from the University of Michigan in 1993.
Jackson believes all of the above will be found in the finished King memorial. It's to be a tour de force of complementary design elements, including a 600-foot long, crescent-shaped granite inscription wall containing 14 notable quotes and statements made by the civil rights leader from 1955 to 1968. There's also a 30-foot tall statue of King.
The project represents a dramatic career shift for Jackson, who spent most of his architectural life as an Army officer designing military health care facilities. But lest anyone think that the King memorial is a capstone for Jackson, it's much more than that — it's a labor of love.
From idea to reality
A member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the African American college fraternity to which King belonged, Jackson was out of the Army by 1996 and had a civilian architecture job in the Washington area. That year, during a conversation with six frat brothers in Silver Spring, Md., Jackson was posed with a challenge: Could he design a memorial for King?
"They had envisioned a project that was probably for $2 million and could be done in two years," Jackson recalls. He said nothing initially, but in Jackson's view "the project had to be significantly larger … to make the kind of statement that would be equivalent to the contribution that [King] had made, not only to America but to a world stage."
Jackson, who hails from McComb, Miss., wasn't intimidated by the undertaking, because he knew his fellow Alphas had his back. In addition, in the years since he'd earned his bachelor of architecture degree from the University of Illinois in 1973, Jackson had encountered several top-notch architects he was sure would gladly serve as touchstones.
Determined to make their King memorial vision a reality, the Alphas worked to get memorial resolutions passed in both houses of Congress, and the authorization to build a memorial was signed by President Clinton in 1998. A ceremonial groundbreaking took place in November 2006.
Of the $120 million needed for the memorial, $108 million had been raised by Nov. 10, 2010, says Harry E. Johnson Sr., president and CEO of the Martin Luther King National Memorial Project Foundation.
General Motors' $10 million gift made it the largest contributor, and the Tommy Hilfiger Corporate Foundation chipped in $5 million. Sheila C. Johnson, vice chairman and president of the Washington Mystics WNBA team, contributed $1 million, as did film director George Lucas and AARP.
Jackson oversaw an international competition to design the King memorial that resulted in more than 900 submissions. But to his horror, when the winning entry was displayed to King's widow, Coretta Scott King, inside a Washington hotel in 2000, she began to shake her head.
"I could tell immediately she was saying, 'No, no, this is not what I want!' " Jackson recalls. " 'This is not what I anticipated!' "
Jackson explained to her why he found the winning design solution compelling. "When a layperson looks at a two-dimensional drawing, they cannot perceive or comprehend the design as depicted, because they see only a two-dimensional representation," Jackson says. "What I had to do was describe it in such a way that it came alive for her, as it did for me.
"As I was proceeding with my story, her head went from moving to east and west, to north and south."
He took things a step further. "I turned to her and I said, 'I will not let you down,' " Jackson remembers of his conversation with King's spouse, who died in 2006.
A father of four and grandfather of two, Jackson feels confident the public will find the King memorial aesthetically pleasing and inspirational when it opens this summer.
"I think that Mrs. King would be extremely proud of what we've been able to accomplish," Jackson says, "and I can say to her, if she were living today: 'Mrs. King, I did not let you down.' "
Blair S. Walker is a writer in Miami.