Martin Luther King Jr.'s statue will soon stand on the statehouse grounds, a move years in the making and wrapped in political symbolism .
At a statehouse ceremony Friday honoring the civil rights icon, Deal pledged that a King statue would be built outside the Gold Dome, overlooking the new Liberty Plaza where demonstrations and gatherings will soon be held.
The governor said it would make a "fitting memorial of Dr. King" within eyeshot of the busy road that bears his name. The move, which Deal first announced last year and repeated in his inaugural speech, comes after years of lobbying from black leaders to put King's visage on the statehouse grounds.
King's physical presence at the statehouse is now limited to an oil portrait that's flanked by a biographical display. After Deal signed an order in 2013 to remove a statue of Tom Watson, a segregationist U.S. Senator known for his racist attacks on blacks, several Democratic leaders pushed him to replace it with a statue of King.
The effort was delayed in 2014 - it was an election year after all - but an agreement was more recently struck.
"We must come together to do much more than to commemorate the life of a great man," said Deal. "We gather to rededicate ourselves to the spirit of selflessness by which he lived so that we may emulate his tireless example."
Even so, many of the details are still being hashed out. State Rep. Calvin Smyre, who Deal assigned as the consigliere to the King family to work out legal disputes, said he had an initial conversation with the King estate's intellectual property attorneys on Thursday.
He said the preliminary plans call for a life-like statue between six and eight feet tall atop a base. The cost estimates range between $100,000 and $300,000, all to be raised through private donations. The ideal spot would be at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Capitol Avenue, a short walk from the new Liberty Plaza, he said.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle involves winning approval from the King estate and his surviving children, who are locked in a legal fight over their father's legacy. None of the children were at Friday's ceremony but Smyre said he was confident an agreement can be reached.
"I'm not worried. I have a great relationship with members of the King family, and everything I've heard from them has been amicable toward a statue," said Smyre. "I don't see this as a really serious challenge."
While King's squabbling children didn't attend, Christine King Farris, his elder sister, spoke in their stead to encourage the non-violent principles her brother championed.
"If somebody had told me when we were young, that one day there would be a national holiday honoring Martin and a statue honoring him on the Mall in Washington, I probably would have encouraged that somebody to get help," she said.
She saved the end of her speech - Deal had left for another meeting - to call for state officials to embrace President Barack Obama's proposal for free community college programs and advocated for an expansion in Medicaid.
"By making healthcare affordable and accessible for all of our citizens, we can put unemployed Georgians to work," she said.
Some members of Georgia's legislative black caucus, who showed up in force at the event, went a step further.
"I would gladly forgo a King statute in a heartbeat for a Medicaid expansion," said state Sen. Vincent Fort, the chamber's No. 2 Democrat. "To people whose family members are sick and dying and don't have insurance, this means little."
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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution