Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Standing tall, King memorial opens, at last -- Aug. 24, 2011 column


On a breezy August evening in the nation’s capital, a mother and daughter linger before a quotation by Martin Luther King Jr. engraved in granite.

With some help from her mom, the little girl reads: “If we are to have peace on Earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

“What does it mean?” her mother asks. The daughter shakes her head. Mom reads the quotation slowly, and then they talk quietly, heads bent together, still points in a swirling crowd.

Young and old, black and white, locals and tourists have come out after supper on this week night, drawn to the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial with its larger-than-life depiction of the slain civil rights leader. Some can remember King, most remember what their parents and grandparents said of him, and everybody wants the children to know about the man who changed America forever.

We look up, up, up to the granite head against a cloudless indigo sky, to the resolute eyes and mouth, the veins in the left hand, the crossed arms. Thoughtful and yet joyful, we snap pictures. Couples hug, and kids laugh. Some people push old folks in wheelchairs or give toddlers rides on shoulders.

President Barack Obama and other dignitaries were scheduled to dedicate the memorial on Sunday, the 48th anniversary of King’s “I have a dream” speech, but an approaching hurricane forced a postponement until September or October.

The memorial belongs to ordinary Americans, a reminder sited between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials of our nation’s struggle for freedom and equality.

Facts tell part of the memorial’s story. The statue of King is 30-feet high, about 11feet taller than either the Lincoln or the Jefferson. Lei Yixin, who is Chinese, sculpted it of shrimp pink granite from China. Flanking the statue are curved walls with 14 quotations from King’s sermons, speeches and writings. The granite for the inscription walls came from Canada.

I’d read about the California NAACP’s protest that an African American sculptor hadn’t been chosen and how members of Congress had asked that American granite be used. The private foundation that envisioned and raised most of the $120 million for the monument had its own ideas.

Some critics say a visitor would never know about the civil rights movement by visiting the memorial. It’s true there’s no mention of the Montgomery bus boycott or the fire hoses and dogs that were unleashed on the nonviolent protesters in Birmingham, although one of the quotations is from King’s famous letter from the Birmingham jail.

There’s also no mention of the 1964 Nobel peace prize King won for his non-violent tactics, although there are two quotes from Norway, 1964.

For me, visiting the memorial swept criticisms aside. Like the nearby memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the King memorial calls out to be walked, touched and shared.

The power of language looms large, for King had only the power of words -- and not the power of the presidency -- to make his voice heard. Most important, the memorial reflects King’s vision of how he wanted to be remembered.

On Feb. 4, 1968, he preached what became known as the “drum major instinct” sermon in which he talked about the desire everyone has for praise and to be first, a drum major, in life’s parade. He also imagined his own funeral. Don’t mention the Nobel Prize or the hundreds of other awards I’ve won, he said.

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice…say I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter,” he said.

Two months later to the day, King was killed by a gunman in Memphis.

And that’s why on the side of his monument is the phrase, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

The words make us all stand a little taller.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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