BY JIM NORMAN, THE RECORD
HACKENSACK — Martin Luther King Jr., rendered in a heroic-sized bronze statue in a rough-textured finish, gazed resolutely from a black marble pedestal toward the northwest on Sunday, the Hackensack River flowing under a brilliant autumn sky behind him.
Hundreds of people gathered at a brick-paved circular memorial site on the Fairleigh Dickinson University campus amid the spiced aroma of multi-hued chrysanthemums to witness a white plastic wrap pulled from the 7 1/2-foot figure of the civil rights leader, who was slain by an assassin in Memphis 46 years ago at the age of 39.
Sculptor Richard Blake said it took two years to create the larger-than-life likeness in his studio in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, after he was selected from among 14 artists who submitted proposals to the Bergen County Martin Luther King Jr. Monument Committee four years ago.
Blake said he had chosen to cast King in a classical posture, clad in an academic robe and holding a scrolled document in his right hand. “But there’s a roughness around it, he said, referring to the textured finish of the metal, to capture the feeling of “the mountain” that King had referred to in the speech he made the night before he was slain.
In the speech, King foresaw his own death, and said that although he “would like to live a long life,” he was “not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
Working with a $250,000 budget for the project, the committee rounded up donations ranging from $25,000 and more, down to just pennies — literally pennies — collected by school children in Teaneck.
Aaron Rodriguez, a student at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Teaneck, was among the many local and county dignitaries, religious leaders, civil right activists who spoke about the deeper meaning of the monument as a memorial to past struggles and as an inspiration to stay focused on the continuing fight for liberty, justice and equality.
Aaron pulled the microphone down to his level, looked at the crowd, and said: “We gave change to create change.” And then he sat down.
“That was short and sweet, plain and simple,” said the master of ceremonies, Clinton Lacey, as he adjusted the microphone back to adult height. “But profound.”
Also contributing to the fund-raising effort, hundreds of people paid to have paving stones engraved with their names, or in memory of others, or with their thoughts.
“We stand on the shoulders of giants,” Lacey said. “All of you beautiful people, all of you activists, all of you warriors — we all stand on the shoulders of giants, like Dr. King. And now, we must be the giants for the coming generations.”
It was a theme that was expressed over and over. David Ganz, chairman of the Bergen County Board of Chosen Freeholders, urged the crowd to carry on in King’s memory and “never forget his voice, the voice of the voiceless, the voice of the downtrodden, the voice of the disenfranchised.”
And Valerie Huttle, the Democratic assemblywoman who represents the district, described how she and her husband, Mayor Frank Huttle III of Englewood, had won an auction for the maquette — the desk-sized clay sculpture that served as the initial illustration for the artist’s concept — and then donated it to the Englewood Public Library for permanent display there.
“Dr. King’s legacy must be carried on by future generations,” she said. “More than 150 million Americans, almost half of our total population, were born after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King,” Frank Huttle added. “We have to carry the torch.”
“Let us pick up his fallen banner,” Jeanette Curtis, said, reading from her poem, “for it would be a pity to let his presence and his dreams fade like the sound of a distant muffled drum.”