Annette John-Hall: King's memorial overcomes its critics

Posted: October 17, 2011

WASHINGTON - You'd have been hard-pressed to find anybody on the National Mall on Sunday who would dare criticize the memorial to the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Surely nobody would ruin this glorious day.

But there had been critics. People flocked to see the memorial after Hurricane Irene forced postponement of the Aug. 28 dedication. It was as if the delay brought them all out of the woodwork - or, in the case of the King memorial, the granite. Why wasn't an African American sculptor chosen instead of Chinese master Lei Yixin, they whined? And why did Lei make King look so mean, with those folded arms?

And what about the 14 quotations from King's speeches and sermons, carved into the surrounding 450-foot-long inscription wall? Maya Angelou, the author and poet, had a big problem about a truncated quote attributed to King: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

The civil rights leader's exact words: "If you want to say that I was a drum major, say I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the shallow things will not matter."

Angelou complained that the shortened quote made King appear to be just that - shallow.

As a lover of words, I'd tend to agree. Still, the controversy seems shallow to me. I mean, would King, of all people, complain about the race of a person chosen to sculpt him? Heck, he probably wouldn't want a sculpture at all.

It's especially petty when you consider the bigger question, the one nobody has complained about.

How does King, a private citizen and a pacifist, land a spot on the National Mall, a place usually reserved for presidents and monuments to war?

The answer is obvious. King earned his place with his accomplishments and paid for it with his life. He was the only man who was able to change the nation's mind and heart when it came to doing the right thing - securing equal rights for all Americans. "Martin Luther King," said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, "was a founding father for a new America."

And many of the 30,000 who came to West Potomac Park with their fold-up lawn chairs slung over their shoulders to witness history were beneficiaries of King's nonviolent action in the face of unrelenting violence.

"I'm 75 years old. My life was greatly impacted by Dr. King," said John Malachi, who grew up in segregated Washington. Had it not been for the civil rights movement, a white-collar job would be unattainable no matter how many degrees he earned, said Malachi, a retired NASA engineer.

The Rev. Charles A. Dale, 71, certainly remembers those days of Jim Crow. He was in the midst of it, growing up in Alabama, a young foot soldier heeding King's call to march.

"It was so amazing to be part of that," said Dale, a student at Miles College in Birmingham during the civil rights movement. "It goes back to what we had to do to get to where we are now."

Malachi looked over the sea of sun-splashed faces. "You only get a few opportunities to participate in something this historic," Malachi said.

You couldn't have dialed up a more perfect autumn Sunday for a makeup date. People, young and old, of all stripes and representing many states, proudly celebrated the fruition of an idea for a King memorial, first offered by members of the civil right leader's Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. 27 years ago.

And the afternoon's vibe? Let's just say a free concert featuring Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow, James Taylor, and Ledisi is enough to make Bull Connor feel good.

Indeed, it did seem, as the Rev. Bernice King, King's youngest child, suggested, that the day was divinely ordered to coincide with the Occupy protests that have taken place all around the world. Bernice King said her father would have supported a cause that highlights the plight of the oppressed because, after all, he was planning a poor people's march at the time of his assassination.

"He'd be occupying this place until there was a change in the economic system and the distribution of wealth," Bernice King said.

It also seemed fitting that President Obama and the first family were on hand to honor King. A full circle: King made it possible for the nation's first black president to dedicate a memorial to, well, King. Obviously in his element among his most loyal base, Obama was at his oratorical best even though his reflections on King's legacy sounded an awful lot like self-analysis.

While he was reminding the audience that King wasn't always a unifying figure, it was as if Obama was describing himself.

"Even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King was vilified by many, denounced as a rabble-rouser and an agitator, a communist and a radical," Obama said. "He was even attacked by his own people, by those who felt he was going too fast or those who felt he was going too slow; by those who felt he shouldn't meddle in issues like the Vietnam War or the rights of union workers."

Sound familiar?

As the economy continues to struggle, and the gap between rich and poor widens; as the Occupy protests increase and his reelection campaign revs up, Obama tested some of his same themes of 2008 on a crowd he knew would not be hostile.

"Let us remember that change has never been quick. Change has never been simple, or without controversy. Change depends of persistence. Change requires determination. [King] kept on pushing, kept on speaking, kept on marching until change finally came."

At that point, someone in the crowd shouted, "Four more years!" and the chant swept over the crowd like a mighty stream.

Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986,, or @Annettejh on Twitter.


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