As the first crowds passed through the "Mountain of Despair" -- two large stones guarding the entrance to the monument -- to reach the Mall's newest addition, many approached in silence, some in tears.
"It's emotional. It's a memory of the past, the present and future," Upper Marlboro resident Crystal Randall said while wiping away tears. "This is the dream. He fought. He didn't give up."
D.C. resident Paulette Davis said the statue is "awe inspiring."
Although King wasn't a president -- he is the first non-president, as well as the first African American, memorialized on the Mall -- he generated change as if he were, she said. "This man belongs here."
Many visitors described the opening as historic.
"There is no other place to be today," said June Jeffries of Silver Spring. The monument is an homage to the civil rights movement as a whole, rather than just to King.
Second in line to enter the memorial, District resident Michael Berry brought with him a portrait he had made of King. He said he had read about the memorial, but he wanted to experience the opening firsthand.
"This is a long time coming," said Ken McGrory, who was visiting from New York. "He changed the world that we were being raised in."
While some visitors were overcome with emotion at what they described as the event's historical significance, others were struck by the image of the white granite monument.
Dressed in a suit and tie and wearing a pensive expression, King protrudes from a "stone of hope," an idea that comes from King's "I have a dream" speech. Behind him is a 450-foot granite wall that displays 14 quotes from his speeches.
The stone King's pose reflects strength, Jeffries said. "It evokes him, what he was doing -- the spirit of the times."
Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, who built the memorial, modeled King's expression after photos, said Ed Jackson Jr., the project's executive architect. Lei's studio had a room where every wall was plastered with photos.
"You can see the hope [in King's face]," Lei said through his son, who translated from Mandarin.
Harry Johnson, head of the Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation Inc., said the location is also symbolic. "It creates a visual line of leadership between the Lincoln and the Jefferson memorials."
President Obama is scheduled to speak at the memorial's formal dedication Sunday. More than 300,000 are expected to attend.