Public gets first glimpse of MLK Memorial

It was 27 years ago when the idea of a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was first proposed to be built on the National Mall, reports CBS News Correspondent Chip Reid.

Today the public got its very first glimpse.

On the edge of the Tidal Basin stands an imposing 30-foot-tall granite statue of Dr. King, the first person who's not a president to be honored with a major memorial on the mall - surrounded by monuments and memorials dedicated to presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

Pictures: Martin Luther King Jr. memorial
Special section: Remembering MLK

It was the Lincoln Memorial that was the setting for Dr. King's most famous speech, 48 years ago - a defining moment in the civil rights movement.

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed ..."

"It creates a sense of completeness that Dr. King's contributions now stand at the highest levels of American history," said Mark Morial, president of the National Urban League.

The memorial portrays King emerging from the "stone of hope," while leaving behind what he himself called the "mountain of despair."

Parts of King's other speeches are etched in the surrounding walls ... reminders of his role in the civil rights movement as a leader struggling for justice and equality, until he was assassinated in 1968 at the age of 39.

Some critics say it doesn't look like Dr. King, the result they say of choosing a sculptor from China, Lei Yee-Shin.

But Harry Johnson, CEO of the National Memorial Project Foundation, says they simply chose the best sculptor for the job, something Dr. King would have understood

"Dr. King himself said you shouldn't judge a person by their skin but by the content of their character, and in these terms we're talking about this man's artistic character," said Johnson.

Johnson also notes that King's children say the likeness is a good one

Among people who chose not to wait for the official opening, some see controversy ahead ...

"I think that it's a poor job for a great American," said visitor Glenn Gillis.

But many say this is just what the nation needs now

"I think it really does help us to come closer to the best that we can be," said visitor Patricia Karlin-Neumann. "And at the moment it feels that we are so distant from the best that we can be as a nation."

"It's pretty important," said Rick DelGado. "It's pretty symbolic, and it's very necessary and a long time coming."

The memorial opened to the public Monday morning.

On Thursday they will cover it up again in preparation for the official unveiling next Sunday, a ceremony in which President Obama, the nation's first black president, will participate.