"This started 26 years ago," said Harry Johnson, president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation, with the vision of five members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. For years, he said, at each of the conventions, there would be a box, soliciting donations towards a national monument to one of the organization's most notable members, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King was initiated into the fraternity in 1952 while at Boston University.
Alpha Phi Alpha members George Sealey, Alfred Bailey, Oscar Little, Eddie Madison and John Harvey presented a proposal for a King Memorial to the organization's board of directors in 1984. Those men, according to Dr. Ed Jackson, the project's executive architect, were the principal drivers of the project on Capitol Hill, walking the halls of Congress generating support for the effort. He said, "They believed in what they were doing."
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed legislation approving a memorial to Dr. King in the District and shortly thereafter the National Capital Memorial Commission recommended a location. By the end of 1998, Congress had approved a site for the memorial, Coretta Scott King had agreed to head the project's honorary committee and the charter for the National Memorial Project Inc. was approved, readying the organization for the next steps.
The design of the monument was selected through an international competition, where a jury, headed by Dr. Jackson, evaluated more than 900 entries from over 40 countries. After selecting one they liked, the committee requested it be modified to include an image of Dr. King, which led to the final design.
Then, Johnson said, began the search for an artist with the expertise in the medium – granite – and the talent to carve the image of Dr. King into the 30-foot-tall slab. The selection committee went to a stone carver's symposium, and while there came across many people interested in doing the work but, Johnson said, one name kept coming up, even from other carvers, as the best person for the job – Lei Yixin of China.
Johnson took the organization's helm in the late 1990s and project fundraising quietly began, with General Motors being the first major sponsor. "The week we were going to start the public [fundraising] campaign," said Johnson, "9/11 occurred. That set us back another year.
While the fundraising phase of this project had been beset with a variety of issues – Jackson mentions Hurricane Katrina, tsunami, Haiti and the recession – it marched steadily on. We raised it, Jackson said, "in spite of all that has occurred during the major part of our fundraising period." Along the way, many people of influence gave of their time and notoriety to promote the project and fundraising. In 2006 Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity set a $300,000 annual fundraising goal for the memorial project, which they have met or exceeded every year.
As the project moved forward, not only did the fundraising come together, but so did a lot of other things. The site originally recommended and approved is not the final site of the monument. Based on comments from Dr. Jackson, this site is much better. "This is one of the last major land parcels," he said, "that provides a wonderful vista … a very contemplative environment. You escape the city. You think that you are in the middle of a green forest."
Also the address of the memorial, 1964 Independence Drive. Dr. King was instrumental in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and won the Nobel Peace Prize that year. The spot of the memorial along the tidal basin, with cherry blossoms that bloom in April, the month Dr. King was killed and the dedication/unveiling on Aug. 28 – which was not planned because they were not sure when construction would be completed – the date of Dr. King's March on Washington and the famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and the date President Obama accepted the Democratic Party nomination for president, and the fact that the memorial was finished during the term of America's first Black president, are all signs, to Johnson and Jackson that this project was meant to be. "It's ironic that these things are coming together at this time," Johnson said.
With just days before the memorial is officially opened to the public, only a few people have actually seen the carving of Dr. King. Jackson says people will be pleased. He said the Foundation was lucky to get an artist with the skill to capture the image of Dr. King and present it in a stately way. He said the likeness has brought numerous visitors to tears.
Johnson concurred, decrying the controversy that has surrounded the selection of a Chinese artist for this project, saying people are awestruck when they see it. He confirmed that family members had been to the site several times and had seen the statue. "They [Dr. King's family] are very pleased," he said.
It has been a long road, but on Aug. 28, 48 years after Dr. King delivered one of his most revered speeches, telling everyone of his dream for all men to live in peace and for them to be judged by the content of their character, a memorial honoring this man of peace and justice, within sight of where he stood when he shared those thoughts, will be revealed to the public.
For more information on events and activities leading up to the opening of the memorial to the public, please visit www.mlkmemorial.org.