(This is the second part, which follows this. A word about the quotes in the body of the post – I have done my best to be accurate with these quotes, but please don’t take them as a certainty. Where there has been a transcript to check them against, I’ve done so. Where there has not, I’ve only used quote marks were I am quite sure, but cannot be certain. Thanks.)
Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Sen. Obama walked us through what he imagines the memorial will look like, with the mountain of despair at one end, and the at the other. And then he took us to that moment that many of us can imagine – and want very much to get exactly right: one day, his daughter will ask, “Why is this here, daddy? Who was this man?” And he’ll have to answer.
I’ve not yet found a transcript of his speech, which is a shame, because his answer is one that we might all want to give. He started out by saying that he’d have to point out that, unlike the other men honored on the Mall, King was no President. No war hero. In fact, while he was alive, he was reviled by at least as many, if not more than, those who praised him. He would tell her that King was a man with flaws, sometimes filled with doubt. But he would say that King is someone who answered his charge. A man who carried his burden. A man who – and this is the line that really stuck with me – “tried to love somebody.”
Imagine that. A monument on the Mall to a man who simply tried to love somebody.
Byron Cage, well backed by Ft. Washington’s Ebenezer AME Church Choir, took the stage again. After this performance, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) spoke briefly about his own experience meeting Dr. King, which started him down a path from that segregated high school to the halls of the U.S. Capitol building. He also made a point of thanking Connie Morella (former representative from Maryland, and current ambassador to the OECD. Ms. Morella is the kind of Republican we’d all like to see more of, I think.) Finally, he introduced the King children.
The “King children.” Hardly children anymore, but that’s what they’ve been for all of their lives. While they’ve always lived in the shadow of their father (and mother, for some of them), they’ve still developed distinctive public personas, which were clearly on display this morning. Yolanda King went first, and . . .well, her speech was set to music. Really. She then introduced her brother, Martin Luther King, III. He, in his usual quiet and gracious way, invited Dr. King’s sister – Denise King Farris – and her children and grandchildren up to join them.
Martin spoke on the importance of justice to his father’s legacy. He did what no one else, in over a dozen speakers by that point, had done – he called for realizing Dr. King’s dream: peace. The only speaker besides Clinton to explicitly mention nonviolence, he reminded us that it is “more than a tactic, it is a way of life.” Nonviolence is “a means whose end is community.” He asked (perhaps to a President who was no longer around to listen), “What war has ever resulted in lasting peace?” It was a question I can only hope lodged itself in the minds of the politicians and officials that sat around me.
Rev. Bernice King then stepped up, proving that she is, indeed, her father’s daughter. Turning the podium into a pulpit, she praised her father as a great pastor, not to just to his congregation, but to the nation and the world. She reminded us of his telling those around him that hate is too great a burden to bear, a reminder that I, in all honesty, have needed of late. I suspect I’m not the only one. Like her brother, she did not shy away from her father’s politics – decrying the “triple evils of racism, poverty and militarism” which “are clogging our arteries more today, than they were in his.” That is no small statement.
[Dexter wasn’t there, and no explanation was offered, though he was on the original program.]
Dr. Dorothy Height then graced us with her presence. Bringing her 94 years of perspective and context to the table, she talked about the importance of making sure that others honor Dr. King’s legacy with the perspective and context it deserves. The memorial is still not fully funded, and she encouraged us to give – for the past, present, and future. Give for all of us.
As she finished, Rep. Lewis took the stage again, telling us about his relationship with Dr. King – as a leader, a hero, a colleague, a friend. He told us that, of the ten speakers on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King delivered his most famous speech, he is the only one left. As he brought the stage ceremony to a close, he left us with these words:
“That is why I think it is so fitting, so appropriate that on this sacred and hallowed ground, a memorial will be built not only to an American citizen, but to a citizen of the world who gave his life trying to protect the dignity of and the worth of all humankind.
“I want to thank Alpha Phi Alpha for its vision and thank all of those contributors who supported this project, because this monument will inspire generations yet unborn to get in the way. It will help them see that one human being can make a difference.
“But above all, this monument will serve as a reminder to each of us that it is better to love and not to hate, it is better to reconcile and not divide, it is better to build and not tear down.
“It will remind all of us that the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. is not yet accomplished, and each of us must continue to do our part to help build the Beloved Community, a nation and a world at peace with itself.
The stage guests, along with much of the crowd, then moved to a spot closer to the edge of the Tidal Basin for the ceremonial groundbreaking. Dr. Height, pushed by John Lewis, Andy Young, and Jesse Jackson, led the way. Jack Kemp then spoke, calling on Congress and the President to honor King’s legacy by granting full voting rights to DC citizens. He then gave way to two men who were with Dr. King at the Lorraine Motel the day he was murdered.
Jesse Jackson asked us to remember him by challenging power with truth. To “disturb the comfortable, while comforting the disturbed.” Both men spoke of their last hours with Dr. King. Andrew Young’s recollection was the final, and the most powerful. He said that King had chastised them that day for not doing enough to get the message out themselves, saying that “you all have left me out here alone.” At this point, he stopped briefly – in tears – and I think a wave of sadness passed through the crowd. After a few moments he continued, repeating King’s words to him:
“Don’t let me down.”
Don’t let him down.