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The Monument & ‘The Man’

In the history of Washington monuments, the National Memorial in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was completed with lightning speed and that by itself is a tribute to the quality of the man.  by Yussuf J. Simmonds
NNPA News Service

In the history of Washington monuments, the National Memorial in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was completed with lightning speed and that by itself is a tribute to the quality of the man: his life, his work and his accomplishments. 

Dr. King never held political or elective office; he was not the traditional celebrity; nor was he molded in the footsteps of the rich and the famous. But he was rich and famous in his service to his fellow man; many came to hear him speak; and when he dreamed, he dreamt of a world of peace and understanding among men (and women) – peace, “not just the absence of war,” he would say, “but the presence of justice.” 

 MLK memorial
 Those unable to visit Washington D.C. for the official unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial may wish to view the site via a web cam available at www.MLKMemorial.org/earthcam. The image above was captured with the web camera Wednesday.

That is the King that is being immortalized in Washington, D.C. on Sunday (Aug. 28).

The National Memorial is located on a four-acre site that is situated adjacent to the FDR Memorial, and in a direct line between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. Congress passed a Joint Resolution in 1996 authorizing Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. to establish a Memorial in Washington, D.C. honoring Dr. King.

As the project began to unfold, its magnitude created many bumps in the road – all smoothed out as time went by. 

McKissack & McKissack, the oldest minority-owned architecture firm in the country, headed up the design team that consisted of construction, architect and building entities. The centerpiece of the memorial is a three-story high sculpture of Dr. King that is made of granite symbolically reflective of the character of the man – unyielding, enduring and steadfast.  There are walls around the memorial on which selected portions of Dr. King’s speeches and sermons are etched. Those selections were chosen by a group of historians, including Maya Angelou, Cornel West, the late John Hope Franklin and Henry Louis Gates.

The controversy over the choice of a Chinese sculptor was one of the bumps in the road. Martin Luther King III seemed to have mitigated that by saying that he’s seen “probably 50 sculptures of my dad, and (I) would say 47 of them are not good reflections” but that “this particular artist – he’s done a good job.”

The celebration and its significance

The Aug. 28 dedication coincides with the 48th anniversary of the historic March on Washington and Dr. King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Dr. King’s protégés, VIPs, celebrities and top entertainers are scheduled to participate in the dedication ceremonies, with President Barack Obama delivering remarks.

Here is what some of the notables are saying as they reflect on Dr. King, the memorial and the event:

The Rev. Jesse Jackson

“Dr. King was a source of inspiration. Blacks in the South, under the laws of oppressive segregation, were held down by fear; so he had to inspire them to choose hope over fear.  Blacks in the North and in the West, it wasn’t so much fear as it was cynicism: the belief that we could not win. Many Blacks went North and West where there was a little more dignity than the Southern oppression; they were free but not equal. Dr. King’s mission was to change the law. It was a struggle to end (unjust) law. But it was also to take our consciousness beyond just legal oppression to economic justice. Many of our freedom allies would not be our economic allies. Dr. King’s last campaign was to end the war in Vietnam and a war on poverty; and that’s where we are today.”



Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), Congressional Black Caucus chairman

“No African American alive would ever believe that the final monument on the mall would be that of Martin Luther King Jr. We, of course, realize that Dr. King is now serving as a reminder to all of us that we must remain vigilant on issues of justice, and his monument, the statue that is now on the mall is a reminder. He’s looking across the city and across the nation …when you look at the sculpture depicting him and the appearance of his facial expression is very serious. ‘I’m looking at you guys … stay on the job and do the right thing.’”



The Rev. Joseph Lowery, Former president, SCLC

 “I think it’s a great honor for Dr. King and for the nation. I think he belongs in that environment on the mall because I consider him to be one of the fathers of the nation…having led the nation to a new era of racial justice in his lifetime.”



The Rev. James Lawson

(Civil rights activist and former Memphis pastor who invited Dr. King to Memphis in support of the striking sanitation workers.)

“I have mixed feelings about the event, though I look forward to being there. We have built a monument to a dead hero, and dead heroes are easier to take than live advocates of truth and justice are tolerated. I see it as a historical moment to be more tactful and powerful than any of us understand.

“King was the Moses of the 20th century for Western civilization; he was a Jesus figure of the 20th century. His voice was the major voice many people around the world heard, and listen for, and by 1967, in the United States, 90 something percent of us black people said, ‘he speaks for me.’  That has never happened in the history of humankind except for people like (Mahatma) Gandhi of India, and Nelson Mandela of South Africa. But unless black people, Hispanics and people of goodwill, and women in the United States can really recover that story; we are not going to move to confront our nation, with its obligation to continue this journey.”



Julianne Malveaux, Economist; President, Bennett College for Women

“There is an excitement around the way this monument, against all odds, has been constructed and is being celebrated. But even as we relish and enjoy the moment, it is important to ask, ‘What Would Martin Say’ as we celebrate. He said, ‘The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil, or to consume the abundant animal life around them.’

 “When he uttered these words, the poverty rate was about 10 percent; now it exceeds 12 percent, with the rate for African Americans and Latinos flirting with 25 percent. Shouldn’t some of our celebration of Dr. King include the continuation of his fight against poverty?”



Benjamin Jealous, NAACP president, CEO

 “The work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is not over. The civil rights community must ensure that his dream becomes a reality.”



Myrlie Evers-Williams

(Former NAACP chairperson and author, Evers-Williams is the widow of Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in Mississippi in 1963)

“The honoring of this great American hero also inspires us to remember the great heroes and sheroes of the civil rights movement. Through the civil rights movement, America has seen many positive changes in this ongoing struggle for equal opportunity and Justice….

“We have a responsibility to enhance the Legacy of Dr. King and the many other civil rights leaders who gave their lives, by being activist citizens on behalf of all, but especially those who are less fortunate. We have to guard the freedoms and democracy that Dr. King lived and died for. It is imperative that the history of the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King and his great work be transferred to our next generations.”



Marc H. Morial, President, CEO National Urban League

“My own emotions are touched on so many levels – pride as an African-American, as a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity – King’s own fraternity and the organization that has driven the project from the beginning, as the leader of a national civil rights and economic empowerment organization, but mostly as an American.

“For all the mistakes that have been made attempting to carry out the principles outlined by the Founding Fathers, the principles themselves endure: All men – and let us not forget to include women – are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Perhaps more than anyone in American history, Dr. King embodied that ideal.”

(Yussuf J. Simmonds is managing editor of the Los Angeles Sentinel. This story reflects a contribution from the NNPA News Service.)


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