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Harry E. Johnson Sr.: The Man Behind The MLK Memorial (The Inspirationals)

First Posted: 09/06/11 10:44 AM ET Updated: 11/06/11 05:12 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- Inspiring leaders in America come in all shapes, sizes, colors and creeds, and in all walks of life and public endeavor.

Harry E. Johnson Sr. -- a big man (6'2") with a big, beaming smile -- is one of these leaders. He patrols the grounds of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial along the Tidal Basin on the Washington Mall with the easy, proprietary air of a long-time, popular mayor.

In a sense that is exactly what he is, even though his "city" has yet to be founded, officially.

As much, if not more, than anyone, Johnson built the memorial. As its president and CEO since 2002, he took it from design to completion, raised more than $100 million in private funds and guided a small team of architects and accountants, many his college fraternity brothers.

The dedication, set for late last month, was blown off course by Hurricane Irene. It is being rescheduled for the fall so that President Obama, other dignitaries and members of Dr. King's family can still take part.

Even so, on Labor Day Weekend, the MLK Memorial teemed with visitors. They read carved inscriptions of King's writings and gazed up at the imposing 30-foot-tall granite statue of him, arms crossed, clutching a rolled sheaf of speech papers, gazing across Potomac waters toward monuments commemorating Thomas Jefferson and FDR.

Meanwhile Johnson, 56, is the man to see as he supervises final touches: the bookstore, landscaping and traffic flow on nearby capital roads. He greeted visitors with hand shakes, back slaps and solemn nods.

Over the years the project engendered its share of controversy: about the design of the statue and the grounds, its scale, the choice of a Chinese sculptor, its cost -- even over which words to inscribe where.

Throughout it all Johnson remained a calm, focused and inspirational force. He is an upbeat, can-do product of a tight-knit family and his hometown of St. Louis; of education by nuns and professors in Catholic schools and college; of drill sergeants and the chain-of-command in the Army; of legal education and a career in law; and of membership in and leadership of the nation's premier African-American fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. Martin Luther King was a member too, as are the other key players in the drive to build the memorial.

The memorial seemed like a perfect spot to talk about leadership -- the subject of our HuffPost series, called The Inspirationals. On a recent sunny afternoon, I toured the site with Johnson and stood with him at the entrance to talk about his own story and lessons.

Read excerpts of our discussion below:

Harry, you are not in politics per se, but here we are in the world capital of politics. Do you have any advice on how to be a leader for the politicians who are coming back to work here this week?

Well, we'd sure like to see the man who lives down the street become a member of Alpha Phi Alpha! Let me put that on the record.

Number two, he knows, and good leaders understand, that politics is a game of give and take. And you don't necessarily get everything you want all the time. But if you get 70 percent of what you want versus 100 percent of nothing, you've done well. While you look out for your interests and the interests of your constituents, you also have to look out for the whole, and what makes the whole whole, if you will.

The lesson I would give is the lesson they already know: that is, that you can't be so strong willed that you're not willing to bend. I think Mr. Obama has bent a little bit; I think the other folks need to learn, hey, this is a give and take. You can't be so headstrong that it's my way all the time. The American people, here in this country, it's our way. It's not your way or his way, it's our way. If we'd had a my-way-or-the-highway attitude we'd still be sipping out of separate drinking fountains and some of us would still be getting into the back of the bus.

We're standing almost literally in the shadow of Martin Luther King. What did he teach you -- and us -- about inspirational leadership?

He taught us as kids that anybody could be a leader because anyone can serve. It starts with service. For me, it didn't hurt that in my Catholic grade school the nuns made us learn the "I Have a Dream" speech in speech class. It didn't hurt at all. But the fact is, Dr. King's whole persona was about serving through leadership. And that anybody could be great because anyone could serve. But more than that you have a duty to serve. And if you have a duty to serve then you also have a duty to lead. And when you couple that with everything else you learn in life -- in my case it was ROTC training in college and high school -- you can learn to lead by example.

You said that leadership is learning to "bend" a little. You sure had to do that the other day when the dedication was abruptly canceled.

Well, there was heartbreak that it didn't happen. But that just means God has larger plans for us, or different plans. I did away with the heartbreak and said, "You know what? I really would be heartbroken if someone came out here on that day and got hurt as a result of the hurricane."

Earlier in the week they talked about a hurricane coming, and I said, "If that is the worst that could happen, we'll be OK." And lo and behold we had an earthquake the next day! So I said I need to keep my big mouth shut! But when you sum it all up, the bottom line is we have a memorial that's here forever and ever dedicated to Dr. King, and for all the people of the United States and the world to see, and that's what's important to me.

Did you have doubts along the way?

Yes. I think any project that's worth its while doing, you're going to have some doubts. To go out and say OK, here's the design, here's the land, now you go and raise some $100-120 million ... Very few people have raised $120 million for anything. You say that you're doing it for a memorial, and that it is going to be on federal land, you get your doubters. Of course I had some dark days where I didn't think it was going to happen, but I also had inspirational days, understanding and knowing it would happen.

What was your basic pitch?

It was different for everybody. If someone came and said, "We don't do brick and mortar," I would tell them the old rule I learned in law school. The first rule you learn in law school is that there are rules of law. The second rule of law school you learn in law school is there is an exception to every rule. So I would simply say this is the exception. If someone had personal doubts, I would say, who should really pay for the memorial of Dr. King? Should it be corporations? Foundations? Should it be high-dollar net-worth individuals? Or people like you and I? And I think you answer that by saying, anyone who would ever benefited from anything Dr. King said or did should pay. And when you sit back and take a deep breath, that's all of us.

You were a lawyer in Houston and spent nine years doing this. How did that happen?

I got involved as a result of being the president of Alpha Phi Alpha. When I became the president they had already gotten the land, the design. It was up to me to raise the funds. And so that lingered on throughout my administration as president of Alpha Phi Alpha. Right when I was ready to say "adios," and let somebody else have that headache, a couple of our sponsors said hey, you guys need to stop changing leadership over at the fraternity, and have someone over at this memorial project full time. And we want you.

What made you think that you could do this?

Well my mother taught us very early on you can be whoever you want to be, you can do whatever you want to do, all you have to do is believe in yourself. And whether or not I had a background in fundraising -- I'm a lawyer by trade -- I felt that she had taught us that you're just as good as anybody else. So, for one, I believe I'm just as good as the president of the United States, I just happen to not be the president. But I can walk, talk, and be just as proud as I am of myself as he is of himself, or any world leader. And I think that's part of the leadership skills that we learn, you need to lead: you need to know who you are. And then you need to lead for a cause -- and what better cause could there be than this? So I took it and ran with it.

Was there something in your background that helped give you the confidence?

I grew up in St. Louis -- the west end of St. Louis -- about two blocks from the city limit. My mother and father divorced at a very early age. Mother put us in a Catholic school at an early age. So the school and the friends I had basically became my family as well, as well as everybody on the street. The uniqueness about growing up then was what I didn't understand then, but I understand now.

What was that? We had a neighbor next door who worked at McDonald-Douglas Aircraft Company. He had like six kids, wife stayed home. Next door to them was a minister. Next door to him was a guy who owned a service station; another guy had a barbershop. Another guy sold Sno-Cones in the summertime, candy in the wintertime.

So all around you there was a nucleus of folks who cared about the community. We can make fun of it now, but back then, if in fact you did something, your parents knew you did it before you got home because the neighbor would tell you about it. I have to laugh all the time: the worst beating I had from my mother was trying to be like the other kids on the block and jump on the back of a bread truck and ride it down the street. I'm still scared to eat bread today.

The lesson I learned was: You are different; I'm raising you to be different. There was an expectation from my mother that I would make her proud. There was an expectation from your neighbors, from your church. One of the biggest fears I had was failing in school around my church because guess what, the nuns and the priest had an expectation of you. When I left St. Louis to go to college, the neighbors in the neighborhood said Harry is going off to college! So they gave me luggage, they gave me money. Because they expected me to do great things when I went off to college. When I moved back to St. Louis and went to law school, my church gave me a Black's law dictionary. There was just this expectation that you're going to do good, and you better do good. Because if you fail, it's not just you, it's the whole neighborhood. It's the people who entrusted their faith in you, who believed in you since you were yea tall, that you were different from the other kids.

Who were your role models?

Well, there was certainly my father, who passed away at an early age. But there were men in my neighborhood who taught us, who brought us along to go play basketball, baseball, put us in positions of leadership. The priest at the church did the same thing. But more than that actually when I actually got to college and high school, ROTC -- understanding that you need to be a leader if you are going to be an officer in the United States Army. I do believe sincerely that every person in this United States ought to do the military, ought to do some service to their country. I believe we owe that to our country and our heritage, and I am proud that I've done that.

What did you learn in the military?

Basically what they teach you in the military is that you lead by example. You can't doubt yourself, you have to lead, and you lead by example. But more than that you lead whether you make a mistake or not, you lead. Because you're going to make some mistakes, but you have to be sure of yourself. You have to feel comfortable about what you have tried to do. The army teaches you that you have to walk and talk like you know that you're in charge, so that you have authority. Then you can share that authority with them if they're willing to follow.

Unless you count the Freemasons, this is the first monument essentially built by a fraternity. Tell me about Alpha Phi Alpha and its role.

It's the first intercollegiate fraternity for African Americans founded in the United States. The men who founded it were visionary men. They were normal individuals, some of them sons of domestic workers in upstate New York, some of whose own ancestors had gotten got there because of the Underground Railroad. The founders at Cornell had enough gumption and enough skill to understand that, if we're going to lead our own people, we had to be educated, college educated. They spread the fraternity throughout the United States.

But then they said let's not make this just something that happens in college. It should happen after college in the alumni chapter. The great things Alpha Phi Alpha has done -- whether it is helping to found the Urban League, NAACP, Congressional Black Caucus, many other organizations -- is to propel men of color into leadership positions. When you go to college and start reading the history of Alpha Phi Alpha, one name that pops is Martin Luther King Jr. Another is Ed Brooke, the first African American senator in this century. So you want to be a leader like them. I wanted to be like them.

Members of the fraternity were the first to push the idea of a memorial. But in the end it couldn't be run directly by the fraternity. We had to recognize that most people wouldn't understand what an African American fraternity does. So I had to convince the members that, while we all love this fraternity and its foundation, it has to be an inclusive foundation.

How did you convince them?

I was everything but a child of God. [laughter]. The Alphas are the ones who gave me the biggest headache! "Brother President, you can't do that, this is an Alpha project!" But my response to them was simply this: show me the Alpha man with a hundred million dollars -- it's an Alpha project! Until you show me the Alpha man with a hundred million dollars, we need to open this up to the world. And it's because of that vision that we were allowed to bring in other people to be on the board, and to, say, meet with J.W. Marriot, or the people of General Motors, or Tommy Hilfiger or others, and say that this is not just an African American project, this is a project that belongs to the country, and not just to the country but indeed to the world. Then I had to show them -- corporate America -- that we are and could be fiscally responsible and great stewards of your money. So we had clean audits from day one with this foundation.

Are there special leadership lessons for us all in the black experience in America?

I think African Americans have a special sense of not necessarily leadership, but basically a sense of survivorship: how to survive in certain situations. I think the same is true of all people of color in America. I think they would say the same thing: you can't learn how to handle yourself in the streets without being some type of leader. On the other hand, there is something about leadership that is the same whoever you are or whatever your background. Back in the 60s, when there were street gangs, there would be a leader in that gang, and people said if that person had gone to college he could probably be the president of IBM. There are innate characteristics that leaders have, that are just there. Whether they are from a particular neighborhood, of whether they are from colored America.

What are those characteristics?

Number one: that you put your event, put your company, put whatever cause you're fighting before yourself almost. Number two: that you believe in the people that follow you, are serving you and working for you, and that you will go to bat for them. Number three: that you have loyalty to a cause that is far greater than you, for the greater -- I think -- good of all. Number four: that you have integrity, that you are sincere about what you do. And number five: that you have humility, that you don't think so much of yourself that you can't be humble enough to -- as we used to say when I pledged Alpha Phi Alpha -- even though you have a college degree, you can still talk to a kid who's in fourth grade, and make sense to that kid, as easily as you can to somebody in a board room. You can talk to anybody.

Video by Sara Kenigsberg

The Inspirationals
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The Huffington Post is highlighting effective, inspirational leaders in walks and worlds beyond the traditional venues, hoping that by doing so we can remind ourselves (and those in the high and mighty offices) what the country lacks.

We call these leaders The Inspirationals.

In this series, we ask them to tell their story: how they see the world and their role in it.

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