Almost a half-century later, visitors to Washington have the chance to bear witness to history and "the dream" as a national memorial to honor King is dedicated Aug. 28, a date that coincides with the 48th anniversary of that groundbreaking march.
But visitors can view the memorial as soon as Monday, when it officially opens to visitors.
"The city is preparing to welcome thousands of celebrants from across the country and around the world with whom Dr. King's message of peace resonates," says Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination D.C., the city's tourism arm. "We're seeing a particularly strong interest from visitors coming from the Southeast."
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is the first on the National Mall to pay tribute to an African-American and a non-president. It will be adjacent to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and in a direct line between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials.
Located on the Tidal Basin, the King memorial will be surrounded by dozens of the famed Japanese cherry blossom trees and newly planted crape myrtles.
It is described by planners as an "engaging landscape" complete with natural elements and water, meant to convey four themes that were fundamental to King's legacy: democracy, justice, hope and love. The centerpiece — the "Stone of Hope" — features a 30-foot likeness of King. A 450-foot crescent-shaped granite wall is inscribed with King's sermons and public remarks, though not the iconic "I Have a Dream," speech.
Just as freedom seekers traveled to the original March on Washington by bus, car, train, plane and on foot, officials are expecting an influx of visitors from around the country.
"We expect the memorial to enjoy high attendance in the weeks immediately following the opening weekend similar to the World War II monument, which opened in 2004," says Ferguson.
In the days leading up to the dedication, festivities such as concerts, an interfaith prayer service and an expo with vendors at the D.C. Convention Center are planned. Many activities are free.
"The dedication has been long-awaited," adds Harry E. Johnson Sr., president and CEO of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation Inc. in Washington. "People from around the world are coming to experience this tremendous, historic moment. We are excited to welcome them all."
Darryl R. Matthews Sr., a former president of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. — to which King pledged when attending Boston University — said many of his Alpha brothers from Baltimore and across the country will be on hand. Congress passed a joint resolution in 1996 authorizing the fraternity to establish the memorial.
"We are coming to honor and rededicate ourselves to the ideals of this stalwart 20th-century visionary," says Matthews. "This event is a testament as to what can happen when diverse groups come together for a common cause. This was Martin's dream for America."
While many Americans rightly associate King with his Atlanta birthplace, the nation's capital also boasts a unique and substantial connection to the leader.
Visitors to Washington who would like to explore civil rights beyond the new memorial have plenty of options — from walking tours to exhibits and other stirring experiences. Here are 10 recommendations for following King's legacy:
•Civil War to Civil Rights walking tour. Cultural Tourism DC offers this self-guided tour through downtown Washington. There are 21 recommended stops along the route, marked by placards. Go to culturaltourismdc.org. Also, Destination DC has created a pocket guide with commentary, maps and a short history of the 1963 March on Washington — "Experience the Dream: The Official Washington, DC Travel Information Guide for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial."
•The Lincoln Memorial. The site where King delivered his now-famous speech, while overlooking a massive crowd on the Mall during the March on Washington. Footprints mark the spot.
•U Street area. The scene of riots after King's assassination in 1968, the revitalized area is now hip and trendy with shops, clubs and eateries. Visit The African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum for history of the U.S. Colored Troops. Afterward, drop into locally owned Ben's Chili Bowl, a restaurant patronized by Bill Cosby and Obama.