Georgia leaders unveiled the first statue of Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday at the statehouse grounds, more than three years after Gov. Nathan Deal first announced the project.
The governor joined Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, members of the King family and other dignitaries on Monday outside the Georgia statehouse to lift the curtain on the long-awaited statue.
“Our actions here today represent the evolved mindset of our state as we continue to reconcile our history and our hearts,” said Deal.
The Rev. Bernice King evoked her father’s words when she said the “sons of slaves and former slave owners” united to strike a deal to build this monument. She said it provides a “symbol of hope to a nation in turmoil again.”
And Reed reflected on the decades-long fight to bring King’s statue to the statehouse grounds, invoking King’s rejoinder from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that waiting often means never.
“Never has become now,” Reed said.
The statue is wrapped in political symbolism, and it was unveiled on the anniversary of King’s famed “I Have Dream” speech. King’s physical presence at the statehouse is now limited to an oil portrait on the Capitol’s second floor.
It’s been a long time coming.
At a 2014 King Day ceremony at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Deal pledged to honor King’s legacy with a statue on the statehouse grounds. The Republican set the stage for the decision months earlier with his decision to remove a statue of a white supremacist politician from the Capitol grounds.
But the plans to honor the civil rights legend stalled over negotiations with the King estate, then they were plunged into limbo when the original sculptor, Andy Davis, died after his motorcycle was hit by a pickup truck.
A new sculptor, Atlanta artist Martin Dawe, was tapped in June 2016, and state officials lined up corporate sponsors to pick up part of the tab. He’s been under intense professional pressure to get King’s likeness just right.
The unveiling comes at a time of new scrutiny into symbols from the Jim Crow era in Georgia and around the nation.
Lawmakers are expected to debate next year how to handle the more than 100 Civil War monuments scattered across the state. And descendants of Alexander H. Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, want to remove his statue from the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.