Today the sun shined brightly as thousands of people headed to West Potomac Park to see the official dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Getting there is not easy and walking, especially today, was the best option. As we were a stone’s throw away from the memorial (we could see it), our efforts to get there were compounded by the sudden emergence of a road closure. Just like that pedestrians were halted. Throngs of people, of all ages, were turned around and rerouted through the World War II Memorial, passed the reconstruction of the reflecting pool, and by the Korean War Memorial.
Our timing turned out to be perfect. We donned the white MLK Memorial baseball caps all attendees received, courtesy of Tommy Hilfiger, and then found the perfect spot to watch the ceremony. There was a baseball field shielded by barricades and carton boxes. We stood on the edge of this open space, using the boxes as a ledge, for what became our front row seats, minus the chairs, and an unobstructed view. The stage was in the distance, but the jumbo screens were not.
We arrived just as MLK’s daughter, Rev. Bernice King was finishing her remarks. We heard Martin Luther King, III, pay tribute to his father with his wife, Andrea, and daughter, Yolanda by his side.
A host of dignitaries followed including Reverend Jesse Jackson, Representative John Lewis, Ambassador Andrew Young, Reverend Joseph Lowry, Poet Nikki Giovanni, Reverend Al Sharpton, former newsanchor Dan Rather, entertainer Diahann Carroll, actress Cicely Tyson, 12-year-old actress Amandla Stenberg (she paid tribute to the four girls who perished in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham in 1963), advocate Marian Wright Edelman, and MLK Memorial executives and corporate sponsors including General Motors (manufacturer of the presidential limo) and Tommy Hilfiger.
The crowd favorite was Al Sharpton, but my favorite was John Lewis. He reiterated King’s message of non-violence and said that King must be looked upon as one of the founding fathers of the New America, “King liberated a nation. … He finished what the Civil War could not.” Lewis, like many of the others, recalled King’s “I Have A Dream,” speech, but unlike the others Lewis is the only speaker from the March on Washington still alive. He was keeping the dream alive.
Also keeping the dream alive was President Barack Obama. This Obama-friendly crowd erupted with shear joy when images of the first family arriving at the memorial were broadcast on the jumbotron. While the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. was main attraction, the President was right up there. And he seized the opportunity to tie the struggles of the civil rights movement to the struggles of today:
“If he [King] were alive today, I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there; that the businessman can enter tough negotiations with his company’s union without vilifying the right to collectively bargain. He would want us to know we can argue fiercely about the proper size and role of government without questioning each other’s love for this country — (applause) — with the knowledge that in this democracy, government is no distant object but is rather an expression of our common commitments to one another. He would call on us to assume the best in each other rather than the worst, and challenge one another in ways that ultimately heal rather than wound.”
While Obama, and many of the earlier speakers, alluded to work not done, they also remembered the struggles of years past. What resonated most for me was the recognition that change is not easy or quick and it’s about more than passing laws, but enforcing them, as evident by almost a decade of time between the unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision and the integration of the University of Alabama, the last public institution of higher learning to admit African-American students under pressure from the Kennedy Administration [see https://sixdegreesofmillicent.wordpress.com/2011/06/11/the-stand-in-the-schoolhouse-door/%5D
“Our work is not done,” said Obama. “And so on this day, in which we celebrate a man and a movement that did so much for this country, let us draw strength from those earlier struggles. First and foremost, let us remember that change has never been quick. Change has never been simple, or without controversy. Change depends on persistence. Change requires determination. It took a full decade before the moral guidance of Brown v. Board of Education was translated into the enforcement measures of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but those 10 long years did not lead Dr. King to give up. He kept on pushing, he kept on speaking, he kept on marching until change finally came. “
These words are what stood out most to me and that’s because I’m deeply entrenched in writing the biography of Nicholas Katzenbach who was one of the key architects of that change on the federal side.
With much to ponder, including the fact that the first African-American president dedicated the first monument on the mall to a non-elected, and, non-caucasian, man between memorials to President Lincoln and President Jefferson, it was time to head home. As we did, we heard Stevie Wonder singing “Happy Birthday.”
We were moving with the masses until we hit the memorial itself, glimpsed the presidential motorcade leave, and backtracked to an opening where the park service was letting people through. Again timing was on our side. Being among the first through the fence we ended up seeing some of the day’s VIPs leaving the dedication including Aretha Franklin who performed at the dedication, and, Jesse Jackson who was among the speakers.
To read about my first time seeing the MLK, Jr. Memorial click here:
And, to read more about the memorial itself click here: