Martin Luther King Memorial: Dedication Cancelled, Family And Friends Remember Landmark Speech

08/28/2011 09:54 pm ET | Updated Oct 28, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Martin Luther King III stood in the sun-splashed lobby of the Willard Intercontinental Hotel late last week, looking like a heavier, balder version of his father, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A few people approached the younger King with stories of how they knew his father way back when or how their father marched with his father in such and such a city or town.

The younger King had stayed at the same hotel nearly a dozen times before, but this occasion was different. It was here, 48 years ago, that Martin Luther King, Jr., and a group of trusted advisers put the final touches on the "I Have A Dream" speech just hours before hundreds of thousands of people descended on the city for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

While snippets from the speech have become obligatory when discussing the Civil Rights Movement, in its day, the address was a radical call to action.

On Friday, the leader's son stood in the hotel lobby looking somewhat resigned. Members of the King family, a long list of celebrities, politicians, activists and thousands of others traveled to Washington for the official dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall, which was to be held today. However, as Hurricane Irene bore down on the East Coast, organizers decided to cancel the event.

“Although we have not had the official dedication, for us, personally, it is quite fulfilling,” the younger King said. “It’s most amazing that, at a time in the history of our nation where we have historically had monuments for presidents and war memorials, we now have a man of peace and love.”

King said that he “can only imagine” what those final hours must have been like, his father and his father’s most trusted advisors wrestling over the tone and words of the speech’s final draft.

“We were right there in the corner of the lobby,” said Clarence B. Jones, Rev. King’s attorney and confidant who helped write the speech. “We were sequestered and he was listening to last minute suggestions of what people thought he should say.”

In addition to Jones, the group with Dr. King included the labor leader and civil rights advocate Cleveland Robinson; the reverends Walter Fauntroy, Bernard Lee and Ralph Abernathy; the professor Lawrence Reddick and the activist Bayard Rustin.

Jones said that a bellman, whom they tipped $10, cordoned off the area with tables, chairs and plants, then summoned a waiter who brought over sandwiches and hors d’oeuvres.

"For the first few minutes, Martin tried his best to sort out the blast of voices," Jones wrote in Behind The Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation, published earlier this year. "But he lost patience quickly enough. He had intended this to be a session of thoughtful questions and the ideas those questions bring forth. But it seemed everyone had a stake in this speech, a predetermined angle."

He said that King then told him to take notes, which he did, and later took them back to his room along with an earlier draft of the speech, to hammer into a well-organized template for King to wrap up himself.

"All of us experienced mood swings over the hours, back and forth from exhilaration to pessimism," Jones recalled. "Naturally, we were excited by the possibility of creating something for which perhaps one of the largest crowds of people for civil rights in the history of the country might assemble."

Jones, who was standing about 15 yards behind Dr. King the next day as he delivered the speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, recalled the scene: "A quarter of a million people, human beings who generally had spent their lives treated as something less, stood shoulder to shoulder across that vast lawn."

It was a magnificent day, he said, with "the blue sky, the vibrant green life, the golden sun everywhere."

Back at the Willard last week, as King hoisted his 3-year-old, Yolanda, into his arms, Jeanne Brayboy made her way over from across the lobby. She pulled out an envelope she had tucked into her purse and had carried with her all the way from Charlotte, N.C.

"I went to college with your father," Brayboy said, sliding a handful of black and white photos from the envelope, and holding them up for King to see.

Brayboy, 81, was a classmate of Rev. King’s at Boston University, where he earned a PhD in theology and she a master’s degree in music. The photos were taken during a going away party King and some of their mutual friends had thrown for her at the end of the semester. She described her old friend as fun, easygoing and down to earth.

"He was fun, but he was serious," she said. That was back in 1953, a decade before King lead the historic march on Washington.

Brayboy huddled close to her friend's son, the two of them poring over the old photos.

"Nobody dreamed of the heights he was going to achieve, that he was going to change the world," she said, a warm smile spreading over her face. "But he used to always say that he wasn’t going to be no ordinary preacher. He’d always say that."

Although the official dedication was canceled, Alpha Phi Alpha, the fraternity to which King belonged and that had taken the lead in raising funds and assuring that the monument would be built, held its own private dedication on Friday afternoon in Washington under a sweltering sun.

Nearly 1,000 Alphas and a number of congressmen followed a silent procession onto the memorial site. They were joined by other members of the King family as well as the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, Sr.

"We’re standing on the enormous shoulder of the generation of people who opened the doors for all of us, but its also a reaffirmation of the values that Dr. King worked and died for," said Marc Morial, a fraternity brother and the president of the National Urban League. "And it should remind us that the fight we have today, against intolerance, poverty and economic disparities is a fight we must have and a fight we must fight."

Some have said the monument shows King in far too aggressive a stance -- one that may not reflect his belief in nonviolence. But others, including Jackson, said that King was far more radical than people understood, and that his use of love and of peaceful protest was as militant and more effective than anyone with a gun could have been at the time.

"He was considered one of the most dangerous men in America," said Jackson, who became a protege of King's a few years after the March. "It comes full circle. Many of those who embrace him today and the statue... They admire him but don’t want to follow his teachings. People love models more than they love martyrs. So if he [gave] that same speech on the mall this Sunday, you’d see some politicians ducking."