In Memory Of Dr. King
Hurricane Irene scrubbed the original dedication scheduled back in August. So it happened today. The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. monument finally gets its officious dedication with thousands of people showing up at the National Mall to honor the legacy of the nation’s foremost civil rights leader. President Barack Obama led the who’s who that attended the ceremony. In a speech, Mr. Obama said that Dr. King had faith in all of us and that is why a tribute to him belongs on the Mall. Interestingly, I heard a different story.
What wound up as a tribute to Dr. King started off as a question from members of my old fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, what could the fraternity do to get more black people to visit the National Mall in Washington DC? Ideas were floated about, but a memorial dedicated to the African American experience was the final choice. And even this idea went through a few permutations starting off as a tribute to a series of famous African Americans who have made noticeable contributions to the civil rights movement, but wound up being a tribute to a single African American, the late great Dr. King who was himself a member of Alpha Phi Alpha. That conversation started more than twenty years ago. The rest is now history.
A king’s ransom of one hundred twenty million dollars was raised to build the memorial. That’s a lot of dough spent on a man that I believe would have preferred to have that money spent on the betterment of the community. He didn’t become the civil rights leader the majority of us look up to so that he could be the memorialized in thirty foot tall granite. Dr. King was more humble and much more practical than that. And he certainly wouldn’t waste precious resources on tributes to the past. That’s money that could’ve helped to stimulate the economy of the black community. With unemployment that is twice the national average and a poverty rate approaching something like forty percent, that kind of money would have been very helpful for alleviating some of the problems that are impacting the black community a lot harder than other communities.
How many scholarships and grants for education could have been funded with just a fraction of that money? Another fraction of that money could have been used to provide funds for civic projects in black neighborhoods, long neglected by traditional sources that claim to be racially blind, but operate in manners that say otherwise. And another fraction could be used to fund grants and loans for the development of black entrepreneurs and franchises to help level the racial disparity that has become so endemic to our culture.
But instead of doing something to really help the community, instead of doing something to help more black people become better able to afford a trip to the National Mall for a visit, the decision was made to build a big, four acre, thirty foot tall, solid granite, hundred million dollar bauble to attract more black people. For all of its rocky granite grandeur, the new King memorial is little more than a distraction to help take the black community’s eyes off the proverbial prize.
People want to pat themselves on the back and say what a great job they’ve done with the development of their tribute to Dr. King. But what happens now? More money will have to be devoted to the upkeep of its appearance. No doubt that somebody is going to make a good salary by managing this memorial. Tour guides will tell the tail of what Dr. King stood for and why the memorial was built to honor his legacy. That would be cool if the struggle was done and the disparity was a thing of the past. But unfortunately, that’s hardly the case. And at the rate that we’re going we will never see a real tribute dedicated to what Dr. King was trying to accomplish.
Without a doubt, Dr. King should have a tribute to his good work. That tribute should not be wrapped in rocks shaped to his likeness. To think that this is the pinnacle of Dr. King’s work is to truly misunderstand what he was trying to do. He wasn’t trying to build statues. He was trying to build communities long neglected and excluded. What would honor the good doctor is if we would focus on picking up the work where he left off. Instead, we celebrate the man while his work remains unfinished. The memorial is no tribute to his dream, but instead it is a tribute to the status quo.