In Tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr: The Opening of the King Memorial

08/25/2011 08:23 am ET | Updated Oct 25, 2011

Forty-eight years ago, I was standing approximately 15 yards behind Dr. King when he delivered his "I Have A Dream " speech on August 28th to a crowd of more than 250,000 people assembled at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial at the March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom. 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 (in front of the Lincoln Memorial) their hearts beating as one... It's a shame that the colors of that day -- the blue sky, the vibrant green life, the golden sun everywhere -- are not part of our national memory.

A. Phillip Randolph, Chairman of the March introduced Dr. King, referring to him as "the undisputed great moral leader of our nation." When Dr. King stood up to make his way to the podium, the crowd tensed in unison. There was a thunderous sound of applause as Dr. King stepped up to replace Randolph at the podium. He offered a traditional ad hoc greeting to the vast crowd before him, saying "Brothers and Sisters, I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation."

As Dr. King was reading through the first several paragraphs of his speech, I witnessed Mahalia Jackson, his favorite gospel singer, who had performed earlier in the program, shout to him "Tell 'em about the 'Dream," Martin, tell 'em about the 'Dream.'"

I watched Dr. King push the text of his prepared remarks to one side of the lectern. He shifted gears, abandoning whatever final version of the balance of the text he'd prepared late the previous night, turning away from whatever notes he had scrawled in the margins; all occurring in real-time. I saw Dr. King's body movement change, as he appeared to assume the stance of the preacher in the pulpit of a church. I leaned over to the person who was standing next to me and said "These people out there today don't know it yet, but they are about ready to go to church." I knew Dr. King was about to transform himself into the superb Baptist preacher he was; like three generations of Baptist preachers before him in his family.

Then, honoring Mahalia Jackson's request, Dr. King spoke the words "I have a dream today..." As he continued, extemporaneously speaking and repeating the phrase, "I have a dream," the crowd began shouting "Amen," "Preach Dr. King, preach!" "Tell it like it is, Dr. King, tell like it is," "Well; make it plain Dr, make it plain!" Watching him speak was like capturing lightning in a bottle.

After the crowd began leaving, and most of the people could be seen walking away from the site of the vast area in front of the Lincoln Memorial, I observed A. Phillip Randolph, momentarily standing alone with tears running down his face.

(From Behind the Dream -- The Speech That Transformed A Nation published by Palgrave Macmillan).

At 11 o'clock this, Sunday, August 28th, in Washington, D.C., a Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial will be dedicated and officially opened on the National Mall. It will establish a permanent honor to his legacy and contributions to our nation. The Memorial Mall is the result of the persistence and commitment of Dr. King's fraternity brothers in the Alpha Phi Alpha, and the leadership of Harry E. Johnson, Sr., President & CEO, of the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial Project Foundation. It's construction has been financed by donations from foundations, Fortune 1000 companies, private businesses and individuals.

I am especially proud, to be currently a Scholar Writer in Residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute, at Stanford University. Dr. Clayborne Carson, professor of history at Stanford is Director of the Institute and its King Papers Project. Based on his knowledge and data base at the Institute, Dr. Carson has provided the Memorial with the various quotations of Dr. King that visitors will see inscribed on the walls of the Monument as they walk through the National Mall.

America owes a great debt to Martin Luther King, Jr. Prior to Dr. King, the United States was like an alcoholic or drug addict; addicted and dependent on racial segregation and institutional racism. Our country had tried, unsuccessfully, "to kick" its addiction and dependency on racial segregation. Along came, a young African-American Baptist preacher from Atlanta, GA and Montgomery, Alabama. Through non-violent disobedience to racial segregation, he forced America's conscience to publicly confront the moral contradiction between the way it treated 12 percent of its population, African-Americans, and the principles and precepts enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Dr King enabled America to embark on a multi-step journey of recovery to break its addiction and dependence on segregation and to reclaim and redeem its soul.

How then, do we measure the magnitude of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s contribution to our nation in the pantheon of American history? In 12 years and 4 months, from 1956 to April 4th, 1968, except for President Abraham Lincoln and The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Dr. King may have done more to achieve racial, social, political justice and equality in America than any other event or person in the 200-plus years of the history of the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr. ended "American Apartheid."

One of the more frequent questions asked of me since his assassination on April 4th, 1968, is who today, do I think is most like Martin Luther King, Jr.?

My answer is repetitively consistent: Dr. King was "sui generis," unique, one of a kind. I then continue my answer by posing a rhetorical question to whoever initially asked me the question. I ask "Who today, is most like Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Beethoven, Copernicus, and Mozart"? No one! If they were fortunate enough to be alive during the years 1955 to April 4th, 1968, and went outside at night and looked up and saw a shooting star of incredibly incandescent brightness illuminate the heavenly sky that was Martin Luther King, Jr. We shall never, ever, ever, never, ever, see such a star again in our life time; in a Century, or in a Millennium.

During 1960 to April 1968, I had the privilege of working with Dr. King as his personal lawyer, political advisor, fund-raiser, draft speech writer, confidante and friend. The Memorial on the National Mall has a special and personal meaning to me, as it does for so many other people in the Civil Rights Movement who also worked tirelessly on behalf of Dr. King.

With pride, a touch of self-deprecation and self-confidence, Dr. King would be grateful and humbled by the Memorial Mall erected in his honor. In his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, on December 10th, 1964, he would remind us that he was a representative beneficiary of the blood, sweat and tears of those hundreds of thousands of unsung heroes and heroes who struggled for freedom with him in our country. He said:

I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when twenty-two million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice. I accept this award in behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice.

... I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him.

I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.

I believe that even amid today's motor bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.

I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land.

I still believe that we shall overcome.

Today I come to Oslo as a trustee, inspired and with renewed dedication to humanity. I accept this prize on behalf of all men who love peace and brotherhood. I say I come as a trustee, for in the depths of my heart I am aware that this prize is much more than an honor to me personally.

Again, today, from the depths of his heart, as he acknowledged upon receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, he would be aware that the Memorial on the Mall in his honor is "more than an honor to him" personally. The presence and remarks at the Memorial by President Barack Obama, the first African-American President of the United States, on the same date that Dr. King spoke at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington is an especially moving tribute to his memory and legacy.

Clouds of controversy remain over the Memorial from the selection of Lei Yixin, a Chinese sculptor, instead of an African-American, who carved the stone statue of Dr. King now erected in the Memorial. Some critics suggest that the sculptured features of Dr.King's facial likeness look more "Chinese" than African-American. I leave that judgment to those many people whom I hope will visit the Memorial. To those critics of the selection of a sculptor other than an African-American, I respectfully remind them that Dr. King was not just an American hero. He was and is an international hero.

It would be corruption of everything that he lived, worked and died for to invoke his legacy and name as justification for limiting the selection of a person who would carve his statue out of stone at the Memorial to only a black person. "No other persons need apply."? This is not consistent with the legacy of the Dr. King I knew.

Of course, he would have welcomed and been pleased if a black sculptor had been chosen for the sculpture design. I am certain that he would not have insisted that only a black person was qualified to be considered for the sculpture. Such insistence, again, would be the antithesis to his abiding belief in the commitment to the pursuit of individual excellence. Moreover, he would have most likely deferred to the judgment and choice made under the leadership of his fellow Alpha brother Harry Johnson, president and CEO of the Memorial project.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is a beloved "citizen of the world." His legacy of peaceful non-violent opposition to racial, political or economic injustice has been adopted and applied by millions of oppressed people who are seeking their own form of self-determination and liberation.

Shortly after the Montgomery bus boycott, Hungarian Freedom fighters resisting the Soviet army's invasion of Hungary sang "We Shall Overcome." Chinese students demonstrating in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, sang "We Shall Overcome;" polish workers at the Gdansk, Poland shipyards demonstrating under Leach Walenska's leadership sang "We Shall Overcome;" students in the "Orange Revolution" in the Ukraine demonstrating for a more democratic government, and students tearing down the Berlin Wall between East and West Germany sang "We Shall Overcome;" supporters of the first women elected president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sireleaf, following years of civil war, sang "We Shall Overcome." Demonstrators during the "Arab Spring" in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Israel and Palestine, carried banners and placards bearing quotations from Gandhi and King.

The opening of the Memorial Mall occurs only a few weeks before the 10th Anniversary of the terrorists attack on our World Trade Center in New York City. It also occurs against the backdrop of resumed escalated violence between Israel and Palestine.

For those who loved, admired or respected the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. to leading America to be the best that it can be, they should also remember that the cornerstone of his success in enabling our nation to reclaim its soul was his close working relationship and coalition with the American Jewish community, organized labor and poor people during the Civil Rights Movement. His commitment to peace and non-violence was unshakable.

I will not be surprised, when I visit the Memorial and stand close to Dr. King's statute, if I imagine some tears of sadness rolling down his checks. Tears at the polarized wealth gap in America; the large number of African-Americans incarcerated in our prisons; the high percentage of African-American young men dropping out of High School; the high incidence of out of wed lock births in the African-American community; the rising percentage of HIV/AIDS virus infection within the African-American community; tears at the rising black on black gun violence that has turned several African-American communities into weekend "killing fields;" tears that terrorists have hijacked the respected religion of Islam to use a recruiting tool for commission of acts of unspeakable violence; tears that so many people are without the dignity of a job and that children go to bed hungry in the richest nation in the world; tears at the concerted efforts of some members of Congress and people in the private sector to bring down our country's first African-American president even when he, in the spirit of compromise and in the best interests of our country, agrees to much of what they have proposed.

Dr. King's tears would flow because he would interpret these events as destroying the magnificent dream he had for our country; a repudiation of his abiding commitment to non-violent conflict resolution and love and respect for the dignity, sanctity, and preciousness of every human being in the eyes of God. But, he would still have faith that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice and that America will again reclaim and redeem its soul to be the "America the Beautiful" that the great Ray Charles described in his rendition of this inspiring national musical treasure..

For those who wish to express themselves in support of Dr. King's legacy of peace and non-violence in connection with the opening of the Memorial Mall, I ask that you join me in Tweeting For Peace and Non-Violence in his memory to "Tweet for Peace and Non-Violence at:

We invite all humankind to Tweet for Peace and Non-Violence on these important dates, using their own Twitter accounts and include in the Tweet the hashtag #peace

This post has been updated since its original publication.