Last year, it was Jan. 16, but this year it's Jan 21, and marks the Martin Luther King Jr. Day, with several activities to mark the event in the United States including the highly anticipated speech of President Barack Obama, as he officially and formally begins his 2nd term in office.
Being a fan of MLK (as he is fondly called), it was a dream fulfilled for me visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial built in his honor in Washington, D.C. in August. It was a most memorable visit, and one of the highpoint of my stay in the U.S. as an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow.
Speaking with a few Americans that I met at the Memorial ground, one could say that the fight for equality has, no doubt, come a very long way. One thing I deduced, was that many Americans - black and white alike, believe that the fight was still a long way to go in terms of equality and blindness to skin colour.
Barbara Grier, an African-American resident in Maryland, said: “There’s more work to be done, and though the American dream is real, the truth is that there are things one still has to work for, and so the struggle continues.”
“The memorial makes me happy, but also makes me sad,” said Mary Cole, another African-American. “While many of us learn with age, he didn’t live long to learn with age, and it’s amazing that someone at his age had so much wisdom.”
Amy Gray, who described herself as a White American said White supremacy is no doubt still there, but, “everybody is connected, though I happen to be white, and the truth is that Martin Luther King is a vintage American in the like of John Kennedy, and we’re lucky in the U.S. to have had him.”
Below is the piece I wrote on my visit to the Memorial in August, published in TELL Magazine in September:
Fulfilling the Dream
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, opened after decades of groundwork, finally opened in the United States, reigniting discourse of how far the country has gone in terms of equal rights
The crescent-shaped granite stonewalls that usher a visitor into the confines of the Memorial, built in honour of Martin Luther King, Jr., are shaped to be like a mountain, cut into two. They are symbolically positioned to lead to a third granite stonewall, from which the striking 9.1meter, m, high statue of King, is carved out.
Known simply as the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, it’s located in West Potomac Park, Washington D.C., United States, U.S. It prides itself as the first Memorial in honour of an African-American, strategically located near the National Mall, in the northwest corner of the Tidal Basin. Sharing the area with the memorials of Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson, all former U.S. presidents, King’s statue is designed to symbolize a “stone of hope” delicately carved out of a “mountain of despair”, overlooking the Tidal Basin - an indication of a calmness that comes after the storm.
“My father was alive during that time and I was exposed to his struggles at the time, and standing here to see a memorial dedicated to him, gives me great joy,” said Louis Gervais, Jr. an Haitian-American, who drove five hours from New York to visit the memorial. “We owe everything to him, more than anything else.”
Visitors from inside and outside of the U.S. have continued to come to see it, since its opening, August 22, after almost two decades of planning, fund-raising and construction, spearheaded by the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Foundation. Visitors cut across every race and skin colour, all fascinated with the idea behind its construction, and indeed, the legacy, life and works of King, which have remained indelible on the minds of people.
One of the major attractions at the memorial, are the words of King engraved on the 140m, marble walls, positioned at the entrance to the memorial. There are 14 of them, selected from his writings, speeches, and sermons, by a “Council of Historian” to re-echo the ideals and principles that guided his life and works. They are as fresh as ever.
A White woman, Amy Gray, who is also a human rights activist and environmentalist, resident in Washington D.C., was very much fascinated with one of the quotes of King delivered at a gathering on April 16, 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
Describing herself as a great fan of King, Gray described him as “an important messenger, a visionary, and somebody with great courage, and emotional capacity.” She said, “Everybody is connected, though I happen to be white, and the truth is that he’s a vintage American in the like of John Kennedy, and we’re lucky in the U.S. to have had him.”
The memorial has in addition to the 14 quotes, two other quotes on both sides of the statue. The first, indeed, forms the thrust of the monument’s design, and is picked from the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered on April 28, 1963, at the march on Washington. It reads thus: “Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope”. The second on the other side, is picked from his “Drum Major” sermon delivered on February 4, 1968, at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. The quote is shortened and paraphrased to read thus: "I Was a Drum Major for Justice, Peace, and Righteousness".
Interestingly, like many other memorials, the King memorial has also been an object sparking controversy. The controversy, in this instance, stems from the paraphrased second quote. Maya Angelou, a poet and author, not long after the memorial opened to the public, expressed concerns over the quote, saying that it portrayed King as an “arrogant twit” who was “praising himself for no reason”, when in actual fact, he made the expression to underplay his achievements. The original text read: “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice, say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.” At the service where he gave the sermon, he had requested that his awards and honours not be mentioned at his funeral.
Ed Jackson, Jr., chief architect of the four-acre monument, which cost about $120 million, however, expressed a different view from those of Angelou, describing the whole effort of constructing the monument as one aimed at creating “more than one definition” of King, in spite of the meaning ascribed to the paraphrased quote. “What we were hoping is that this memorial furthers the dialogue about what Dr. King was about,” he said.
One other striking surprise is that his famous quote, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”, was also not included along with the quotes. It is one, which many like Tarak Patel, an Indian American, resident in New England, on a visit to the monument, said he loves most. “It’s the one I will always remember,” he said. “I’m surprised it was not included, but then the truth is that he really deserves the memorial for all he has done for the civil rights movement in the America, and for giving his life for what he believed in.”
Also surprised is Harvey Jones, 58, an African-American, who grew up during the era of the civil rights movement. “I was very much interested in seeing the quote that they captured,” said Jones, who brought his family to visit the memorial. “But though I’m surprised that the ‘I have a dream’ quote was not included, I can say that all the quotes used were really nice and thought-provoking.”
But for the gunshot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, which led to the death of King on April 4, 1968, a day after his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop”, he would undoubtedly have witnessed the fulfillment of his dream in the person of Barack Obama, who in 2008, emerged as the first African-American to be U.S. president. Indeed, Gervais believes that the King memorial, throws up some thought-provoking questions: “Was it worth killing him? Where are we now? And have we really achieved his dream?”
The questions are ones, which have continued to generate discourse among African-Americans, especially with the allegations that the Republican party, have consistently positioned themselves to block the second-term ambition of President Obama, who is a Democrat. Gervais said, “I think we are still so far away, even with Obama as president, because those in the other party don’t want him to succeed.” His views are shared by Barbara Grier, an African-American resident in Maryland, who said, “There’s more work to be done, and though the American dream is real, the truth is that there are things one still has to work for, and so the struggle continues.”
The success of erecting the monument has very much overshadowed the discussion of whether it was late in coming or not. And, though its formal dedication, scheduled for August 28, was cancelled due to the impacts of Hurricane Irene, it has enjoyed overwhelming reception.
“The memorial makes me happy, but also makes me sad,” said Mary Cole, African-American, also a visitor to the monument. She is glad that the works and legacies of King are being recognized with such a grand monument. Her gladness, however, pales out in realization of the fact that more than four decades after his death, it’s obvious that no one seems to have been able to step into the shoes of King. “I wished we had more of him in our society, and I think our young folks will be a disappointment to him,” she said. “He will be a little bit disappointed in us as a black race.”
Cole, who witnessed the march on Washington, where King delivered the “I have a dream” speech, is indeed, concerned that the “spirit of brotherhood” that was witnessed at the march, no longer really persisted among Americans. “I’m glad I’ve also witnessed this in my lifetime,” she said. “While many of us learn with age, he didn’t live long to learn with age, and it’s amazing that someone at his age had so much wisdom.”