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Memorial to King nearing completion

The snow has melted from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s forehead and has left only a damp spot on his suit-coat collar. His exquisite, granite face looks as flawless as a child's, but his eyes bear the far-off gaze of a man in thought.

With the sun coming out, it's a good day to work on the statue. And the master sculptor is using the fine, cone-shaped bit of his power tool to smooth the delicate contours of King's lips and etch the creases at the corners of his mouth.

Powdered stone blows away on the wind. The sculptor pauses and leans back to check his progress.

On the scaffolding high above the Tidal Basin, Ed Jackson Jr. watches the work. Through the trees to the north, he can just see the Lincoln Memorial, where the flesh-and-blood King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.

It seems so long ago, that bygone summer when the young black minister challenged the nation to be true to itself, and so far from there to the memorial being completed on a wintry day almost five decades later.

Jackson, 61, the executive architect on the memorial project, was a teenager in segregated McComb, Miss., when King urged his 250,000 listeners on the Mall to hold fast until "justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Right now, the man who for 14 years has propelled the creation of Washington's new $120 million memorial to the slain civil rights leader, is watching his Chinese sculptor, Lei Yixin, complete King's face.

"He's worked on this thing so much, he doesn't even need a picture to finish the image," Jackson says over the buzz of Lei's sculpting tool.

Jackson says Lei will let no one else on his 10-person team work on the face, which is carved from a 46-ton granite block that sits atop the mammoth sculpture.

The 30-foot-8-inch statue of King is the centerpiece of the memorial and is named the "Stone of Hope," for a line from King's speech: "With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope."

It is made of individually carved chunks of granite, seamlessly assembled like a giant set of children's blocks, depicting King in his customary business suit with his arms folded, holding a scroll in his left hand.

Although not as large as some of the city's equestrian monuments, it is more than 10 feet taller than the 19-foot statue of Thomas Jefferson in the Jefferson Memorial and the 19-foot-6-inch statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial.

Placed amid the Japanese cherry trees and facing southeast across the Tidal Basin, the King memorial is likely to become a new symbol of Washington, an international tourist attraction and the fulfillment of dreams when it is dedicated Aug. 28.

Jackson weathered criticism from the federal Commission of Fine Arts that the original sculpture model was too severe and totalitarian. He had the furrows between King's eyebrows removed to soften the image.

Now the "Stone of Hope" is in place, adjusted here and there, yet monumental, as Jackson had promised. Although the main sculpture is finished, more construction and landscaping must be completed.

One day in December, as snow fell from a gray sky, Jackson stood on the scaffolding and reflected on the face that has been hewed from the stone -- an African-American face to stand for the ages with the other monuments to the nation's creators.

"It's like your wildest dream came true," he said.