"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: `We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
-Martin Luther King, Jr. & Thomas Jefferson
Soon, the Tidal Basin will be home to memorials that honor both of the men who made this sentence - perhaps the greatest American quote of all time - possible. Monday morning, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Foundation broke ground on a project that has been decades in the making. First conceived at a Alpha Phi Alpha meeting in 1984, the Memorial should be complete in 2008. Situated on the northeast corner of the Tidal Basin, it will sit between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials - a rare Mall monument to a man who was neither President nor war hero. Rather, it is a memorial for a man who reminded us that "everyone can be great, because everyone can serve."
And serve Dr. King did. But you know that. Every American knows that. And if you don't, well, I'll leave that rich and amazing story to be told by someone better able than I. Instead, I'm just going to offer my own take on today - a very personal experience for me.
(A word about the quotes in the body of the post - I have done my best to be accurate with these quotes, but please don't take them as a certainty. Where there has been a transcript to check them against, I've done so. Where there has not, I've only used quote marks were I am quite sure, but cannot be certain. Thanks. This was originally posted at Blacknell.net.)
It was, to be sure, a very personal experience for almost everyone there. And that does not surprise me at all. Dr. King - even all these years later, even with people who weren't even born when he was murdered - has an impact and reach that is almost impossible to describe. Today, Rep. John Lewis said, of hearing Dr. King's voice on the radio when he was a 15 year old in Troy, Alabama, "when I heard his words: it felt like he was speaking directly to me. John Lewis, you can make a difference." It is no less true for me, or - I suspect - anyone who has ever quietly listened to his words.
Depending on your age, or where you're from, the civil rights struggle may seem less than personal for you. In my own case, circumstances of time and geography were such that I didn't experience its most famous moments directly. I was fortunate, however, to have spent many of my formative years in the aura of many of its most significant actors. When I first moved to Atlanta, Andrew Young was its mayor. My first apartment was in the Vine City neighborhood, adjacent to Morris Brown and the rest of the Atlanta University Center (home to Morehouse, Spelman, Clark, and the Interdenominational Theological Center). For a while, at least, I shopped at the same West End grocery store as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown). Later, I lived and worked at the intersection of Peachtree St. and (Sweet) Auburn, chatting with Rep. Lewis in our office building's elevators, or waiting with Julian Bond for our cars. Early in my career, I was part of the effort to make the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday a "day on, not a day off." Through this, I frequently found myself in Mrs. King's presence while working with Dexter King and other King Center staff. The list goes on and on. The point is, not only is the civil rights struggle itself very much alive, so are many of the people who did so much of the work early on. It isn't history - it's us. Here. Today.
Thus, it was the here and now that I thought about as I watched the dais assemble, and the speakers share their stories. Soledad O'Brien and Tavis Smiley were MC'ing the event, and I think that the entire crowd cringed when Soledad said, "I had a dream that it would not rain." I hope we never fall so far as a society where that will ever be an acceptable punch line. Thankfully, Tavis quickly took over, setting the tone for the day by saying that he was proud to be a part of the day, as he would "rather have the living ideas of the dead, than the dead ideas of the living."
Anthony Williams, outgoing mayor of DC, next welcomed the crowd. Williams, fairly or not, has never been thought of as a particularly powerful speaker, but he brought out great applause when he ended his speech with a call for District voting rights. The crowd itself was interesting. There were your expected politicians - right in front of me were Senators Arlen Specter and Paul Sarbanes, along with Reps. Bobby Scott and Sheila Jackson-Lee. There were also your unexpected - Larry Fishburne was quietly sitting nearby, and next to me were three young men who couldn't have been older than 19 or 20 (as evidenced in no small part by their "Damn, this is *major*, yo." when Smiley and O'Brien first came out - after, oh, John Lewis, Andy Young, and Maya Angelou had already come out. Major, indeed.). Andrew Young then took the stage, introducing Darryl Matthews (president of Alpha Phi Alpha, who pointed out that the memorial is still only 2/3rd of the way towards its fundraising goal) and Tommy Hilfiger (who's purpose was lost on me, honestly). And then, well . . . Bill showed up.
President Clinton, as he always does, delivered a great speech. He looked both to the past and the future, with two things really standing out for me. Putting our moral present in the context of the past, Clinton recalled Jefferson's saying that when he reflected on slavery, he trembled to think that God is just. For me, this brought home some of our own recent moral failures. But ever the optimist about human nature, he went on to say, of Dr. King, "If he were here, he would remind us that the time to do right remains." Indeed, it does. And we should not waste a moment of it.
My brief moment of sharing that optimism was quickly brought back to earth, as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales scurried in late, taking a seat near by. I doubt he would have understood the words, even if he'd heard them. In fact, in the spirit of turning the other cheek, I'm simply going to say that, shortly after the next speech (Oprah's, which was very good), President Bush arrived and gave his speech. My only observation is that Bush would know that there is no such place as "Sweet Auburn, Georgia," if he'd visited Dr. King's tomb more than once. More coverage of Bush's speech here.)
After Bush's departure, Diane Sawyer read us a letter from perhaps the only living person who can even begin to approach the moral leadership that King gave us - Nelson Mandela. Maya Angelou then asked us to "look where we've all come from." After a pause, Tavis Smiley introduced the next speaker as "someone who has recently sold a few books, a United States Senator, and maybe just maybe . . . ," cracking a knowing grin, "ahhh, nevermind." And Barack Obama, of course, came to the podium. The welcome that greeted him was the biggest of the morning, greater than even President Clinton's or Oprah's.
Sen. Obama walked us through what he imagines the memorial will look like, with the mountain of despair at one end, and the at the other. And then he took us to that moment that many of us can imagine - and want very much to get exactly right: one day, his daughter will ask, "Why is this here, daddy? Who was this man?" And he'll have to answer.
I've not yet found a transcript of his speech, which is a shame, because his answer is one that we might all want to give. He started out by saying that he'd have to point out that, unlike the other men honored on the Mall, King was no President. No war hero. In fact, while he was alive, he was reviled by at least as many, if not more than, those who praised him. He would tell her that King was a man with flaws, sometimes filled with doubt. But he would say that King is someone who answered his charge. A man who carried his burden. A man who - and this is the line that really stuck with me - "tried to love somebody."
Imagine that. A monument on the Mall to a man who simply tried to love somebody.
Byron Cage, well backed by Ft. Washington's Ebenezer AME Church Choir, took the stage again. After this performance, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) spoke briefly about his own experience meeting Dr. King, which started him down a path from that segregated high school to the halls of the U.S. Capitol building. He also made a point of thanking Connie Morella (former representative from Maryland, and current ambassador to the OECD. Ms. Morella is the kind of Republican we'd all like to see more of, I think.) Finally, he introduced the King children.
The "King children." Hardly children anymore, but that's what they've been for all of their lives. While they've always lived in the shadow of their father (and mother, for some of them), they've still developed distinctive public personas, which were clearly on display this morning. Yolanda King went first, and . . .well, her speech was set to music. Really. She then introduced her brother, Martin Luther King, III. He, in his usual quiet and gracious way, invited Dr. King's sister - Denise King Farris - and her children and grandchildren up to join them.
Martin spoke on the importance of justice to his father's legacy. He did what no one else, in over a dozen speakers by that point, had done - he called for realizing Dr. King's dream: peace. The only speaker besides Clinton to explicitly mention nonviolence, he reminded us that it is "more than a tactic, it is a way of life." Nonviolence is "a means whose end is community." He asked (perhaps to a President who was no longer around to listen), "What war has ever resulted in lasting peace?" It was a question I can only hope lodged itself in the minds of the politicians and officials that sat around me.
Rev. Bernice King then stepped up, proving that she is, indeed, her father's daughter. Turning the podium into a pulpit, she praised her father as a great pastor, not to just to his congregation, but to the nation and the world. She reminded us of his telling those around him that hate is too great a burden to bear, a reminder that I, in all honesty, have needed of late. I suspect I'm not the only one. Like her brother, she did not shy away from her father's politics - decrying the "triple evils of racism, poverty and militarism" which "are clogging our arteries more today, than they were in his." That is no small statement.
[Dexter wasn't there, and no explanation was offered, though he was on the original program.]
Dr. Dorothy Height then graced us with her presence. Bringing her 94 years of perspective and context to the table, she talked about the importance of making sure that others honor Dr. King's legacy with the perspective and context it deserves. The memorial is still not fully funded, and she encouraged us to give - for the past, present, and future. Give for all of us.
As she finished, Rep. Lewis took the stage again, telling us about his relationship with Dr. King - as a leader, a hero, a colleague, a friend. He told us that, of the ten speakers on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King delivered his most famous speech, he is the only one left. As he brought the stage ceremony to a close, he left us with these words:
"That is why I think it is so fitting, so appropriate that on this sacred and hallowed ground, a memorial will be built not only to an American citizen, but to a citizen of the world who gave his life trying to protect the dignity of and the worth of all humankind.
"I want to thank Alpha Phi Alpha for its vision and thank all of those contributors who supported this project, because this monument will inspire generations yet unborn to get in the way. It will help them see that one human being can make a difference.
"But above all, this monument will serve as a reminder to each of us that it is better to love and not to hate, it is better to reconcile and not divide, it is better to build and not tear down.
"It will remind all of us that the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. is not yet accomplished, and each of us must continue to do our part to help build the Beloved Community, a nation and a world at peace with itself.
The stage guests, along with much of the crowd, then moved to a spot closer to the edge of the Tidal Basin for the ceremonial groundbreaking. Dr. Height, pushed by John Lewis, Andy Young, and Jesse Jackson, led the way. Jack Kemp then spoke, calling on Congress and the President to honor King's legacy by granting full voting rights to DC citizens. He then gave way to two men who were with Dr. King at the Lorraine Motel the day he was murdered.
Jesse Jackson asked us to remember him by challenging power with truth. To "disturb the comfortable, while comforting the disturbed." Both men spoke of their last hours with Dr. King. Andrew Young's recollection was the final, and the most powerful. He said that King had chastised them that day for not doing enough to get the message out themselves, saying that "you all have left me out here alone." At this point, he stopped briefly - in tears - and I think a wave of sadness passed through the crowd. After a few moments he continued, repeating King's words to him:
"Don't let me down."
Don't let him down.(Apologies for the poor image formatting - more pictures, in a better presentation - are here.)