*The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial (The Memorial) opened to the public Monday, August 22, 2011 marking the first day of a four day celebration of the newest monument in Washington on the National Mall recognizing a man of peace and of color and to honor someone other than a U.S. President. The $120 million Memorial unveiling also marks the 48th anniversary of Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The Memorial, which has been more than 25 years in the making, is located on a 4-acre site in West Potomac Park on the National Mall at the intersection of West Basin Drive and Independence Avenue, South West. The official address of the monument, 1964 Independence Avenue, S.W., commemorates the year that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.
The centerpiece of The Memorial is called the “Stone of Hope” and features a 30-foot-high granite likeness of King made of natural elements and two other pieces of stone that symbolize the “mountain of despair” situated on the northwest corner of the Tidal Basin in a direct line between the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials on the National Mall where Dr. King delivered his most memorable speech on August 28, 1963.
Visitors will pass through the “mountains” on the way to “hope.” In addition, a 450-foot granite wall will include excerpts of the great orator sermons and public addresses to serve as living testaments of his vision of America. Twenty-four niches will adorn the walkway in memory of the people who lost their lives in the civil rights moment. For 14 years Dr. Ed Jackson, Jr. has been the chief navigator of The Memorial. As the project’s executive architect, Jackson worked closely with sculptor Lei Yixin.
“The MLK Memorial will be a fitting tribute to Dr. King,” according to Harry E. Johnson, president & CEO, the Washington, DC Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation. “Drawing from Dr. King’s speeches and using his own rich language, the King Memorial will be a public sanctuary where future generations of Americans, regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation can come to honor Dr. King.”
Leading up to The Memorial dedication, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc. (The Foundation) hosted a star-studded four-day celebration kicking off with the official public opening followed by the “Honoring Global Leaders for Peace International Gala” at the Washington Convention Center on Wednesday, August 24.
The program included remarks from leaders who have been involved with endeavors of peace, including General Motors vice president of diversity Eric Peterson. The evening also included performances by celebrated performers Patti LaBelle, Eddie Levert and Stevie Wonder.
On Thursday, August 25, General Motors, GM Foundation and Chevrolet hosted a Civil Rights Pioneers luncheon honoring past, present and future pioneers. General Motors, GM Foundation and Chevrolet are among the largest sponsors of The Memorial having donated more than $10 million to The Foundation, Inc. to build a memorial to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As longstanding supporters of the project, all three are committed to raising public awareness of The Memorial in the nation’s capital.
During The Memorial Dedication events GM showcased its Table of Brotherhood Exhibit in Washington D.C. This Table, signed by the panelists, is part of the Chevrolet Table of Brotherhood Project, which visited four U.S. cities to bring together thought leaders, elected officials, community advocates, and ordinary Americans to discuss the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through the lens of four permeating issues: economy, health care, education, and cultural diversity and tolerance.
The Chevrolet Table of Brotherhood four-city tour culminated in Washington, D.C. and allowed Chevrolet and the GM Foundation to continue to help raise awareness of The Memorial. Before arriving in D.C., the tour made stops in Atlanta, Chicago, and Memphis and consisted of organized conversations about issues as relevant and poignant today as they were when Dr. King spoke about them decades ago.
The tour, which was moderated by CNN Analyst Roland Martin, included the following topics of discussion: The Future of Education; Realizing the Dream: Freedom, Racism and Progress; The Future of our Youth; and Civil Rights Progress: A Look Back/A Look Forward.
On Friday, August 26, The Foundation held a “Women Who Dare to Dream” luncheon, honoring women civil rights leaders including a poetry reading by Maya Angelou and musical selections by India.Arie, Ledisi and Lalah Hathaway just to name a few. Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman told attendees that black women have come a long way and that they have a lot going on, because their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and many other women before them, dared to dream.
Vivian Pickard, president, GM Foundation and director of GM corporate affairs, was one of the featured speakers who celebrated the women of the civil rights movement and recognized that their legacy of strength and dignity continue to inspire hope among women.
The Memorial promises to rekindle global interest in the life and legacy of one of the greatest champions of civil and human rights the world has ever known. In these times of rampant domestic and international turmoil and division, Dr. King’s message of justice, democracy, hope and love is needed more than ever.
The Memorial project was the brainchild of Alpha Phi Alpha, the world’s oldest intercollegiate fraternity founded by African American men. Fraternity leaders conceived the idea in 1984, sixteen years after Dr. King’s death and only months after President Reagan signed the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday into law.
Since 2002, the massive fund-raising effort needed to bring The Memorial project to fruition, has been led by former Alpha Phi Alpha president and Houston lawyer, Harry E. Johnson, Sr. Under Johnson’s leadership, The Foundation has raised more than $114 million from scores of corporate donors and thousands of citizens who want to ensure that Dr. King’s legacy endures.
“Dr. King himself was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha as were National Urban League legends Lester Granger and Whitney M. Young, Jr., who were also colleagues and friends of Dr. King. I too am a proud Alpha Phi Alpha Brother,” confessed proud frat brother Johnson who was just eight years old when Dr. King led the 1963 March on Washington where he delivered one of the most well-known speeches in American history. “I owe much of my success as a lawyer and activist to the inspiration of Dr. King and the changes he brought about through non-violent action,” stated Johnson.
Johnson is a graduate of Xavier University in New Orleans and received his law degree from Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law. He served as President of Alpha Phi Alpha from 2001-2004, and for his leadership of the King Memorial project, was awarded the prestigious “President’s Award” at January’s Trumpet Awards Gala in Atlanta.
“We build this memorial because…when our nation was about to split in two – black versus white, rich versus poor – Dr. King said we should live together as brothers or perish as fools,” concluded Johnson. The Memorial which was slated to be dedicated by President Barack Obama on August 28, 2011 has been postponed to a later date in September or October due to Hurricane Irene. (Photos courtesy Monica Morgan Photography via General Motors)
Audrey J. Bernard is an established chronicler of Black society and Urban happenings based in the New York City area.