WASHINGTON -- Construction can finally begin on the long-delayed Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial slated for the National Mall after the National Park Service issued building permits Thursday for the project.
The memorial was first authorized in 1996. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar joined King's only surviving sibling, Christine King Farris, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus to sign off on the project. A private foundation will build the memorial before turning it over to the park service.
Farris, 82, said she was moved to tears when she saw a video depicting the memorial plaza and towering statue of her brother, nestled among Washington's famous cherry blossoms. She said King would have been humbled.
"I think he would say, 'No, don't do this for me,' but we have to do it because generations yet unborn need to know about Martin Luther King Jr.," she said.
A disagreement over how to secure the site against domestic terrorism delayed the project for a year, but a federal planning agency signed off on a compromise earlier this week.
As Salazar signed the construction permit with Harry Johnson, president of the King memorial foundation, a crowd of supporters and government officials cheered. Salazar said the long planning process "made absolute sense and was in keeping with the law."
The monument will be the first on the mall that is not dedicated to a president or war hero, but rather to a man who waged a battle with peace and nonviolence, Johnson said.
"When future generations visit Washington, they will see a mall that more closely reflects the diversity of our great nation," he said.
Organizers have raised $107 million of the $120 million needed to complete the project -- enough to let them begin building.
Construction is expected to begin within 30 days, said Deryl McKissack, who heads the design-build firm that will manage the project. The family business dates back five generations to a slave builder, she said. Organizers hope to complete construction in 18 to 20 months with an opening in 2011.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have long pushed for the memorial and gathered at the site along the Tidal Basin between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.
"Dr. King, we will break ground," said Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. "We will stand here and honor you, and may I salute you, as we say, the dream is not deferred, and we do know that we shall overcome."