UPDATE: Sunday's official dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial has been postponed due to the approach of Hurricane Irene and will be rescheduled for sometime in September or October. Today's Table of Brotherhood event, which I am speaking at, will go forward as planned. The King memorial opened to the public on Monday, so those in town for the dedication will still be able to visit it.
On Sunday, the 48th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, the National Memorial honoring his life and legacy will be formally dedicated. The 30-foot statue of Dr. King emerging from a chunk of granite is the first monument on the National Mall honoring an African American.
To mark the occasion, over the last month Chevrolet has sponsored the Table of Brotherhood Project, fostering conversations among people of all ages, races, and backgrounds about education, racial and economic justice, equality of opportunity -- the issues that compelled King to action during his life.
Today, along with Jesse Jackson, John Conyers, Norman Mineta, Debra Lee, Andrew Young, and many others, I'll be in Washington to take part in the Project's closing event.
The King memorial, which sits on four acres near the Tidal Basin, includes a bookstore and a wall filled with some of King's great quotes. It opened to the public on Monday, and is a fitting tribute to the slain civil rights leader's gifts for using words to move hearts and change history.
Its design was inspired by a line from the "Dream" speech: "With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." According to Ed Jackson Jr., who designed the memorial, the chunk of granite King is seen rising out of represents the stone of hope, and a pair of massive boulders that form a path leading to the statue are meant to evoke the mountains of despair.
The tension between hope and despair is fitting, given the unfulfilled nature of so many of King's hopes and dreams for America. Most people forget -- or never knew -- that his historic "Dream" speech was delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom -- and that his main message was not one of racial but of economic equality. Economic equality that remains painfully elusive at a time when black unemployment is much higher than the national average, an appalling 41 percent of black teenagers can't find a job, and African-American households have 20 times less wealth than white households -- with blacks experiencing a 53 percent drop in wealth from 2005 to 2009 (whites lost only 16 percent during that same period).
With our political leaders obsessed with deficits, and jobs still on the policy backburner, another March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is desperately needed.
And King's dream of the future of America's children being driven by the content of their character and not their race or class still remains a dream in a country where one in three black children live in poverty, as opposed to one in ten white children.
As Newark Mayor Cory Booker put it in an eloquent post on this site about the need for all of us to take up Dr. King's dream and "dream a dream that is strong, stubborn and relentless":
Still in America, one's destiny is not determined by merit alone; by how hard one is willing to work, by one's innate acumen or by how much one is willing to sacrifice for their dreams and ambitions. Instead, destinies in America are strongly and even savagely influenced by the zip code one is born in, how much money one's parents have, or put simply, whether one is fortunate enough -- lucky enough -- to have access to decent, safe housing, adequate health care and a thorough education. Frustratingly, decades after some of the most compelling and articulate dreamers gifted our nation progress, we still live in a country where race and socio-economic status are stubbornly, strongly and undeniably correlated with the quality of one's life outcomes.
This is a problem that transcends partisan debate and strikes at the very core of our country's destiny.
As a McKinsey & Company study on "The Economic Impact of the Racial Achievement Gap" reported: "The underutilization of human potential in the United States is extremely costly." The study found that the gap between the performance of black students and white students "imposes on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession. The recurring annual economic cost of the international achievement gap is substantially larger than the deep recession the United States is currently experiencing."
So whether you are focusing on the economic impact of underutilized human resources or on the injustice of entire swaths of our population being forced to deal with poor schools, poor health care, and unrelenting poverty -- the end goal is the same: we need to make sure we don't limit America's future by limiting the potential of our children.
That's why the dedication of the King monument couldn't come at a more opportune time. Hopefully it will refocus our attention on the principles he stood for -- and remind us what authentic leadership looks like.
Unlike most of our current so-called leaders, who derive power from the offices they hold, King's leadership grew out of his moral authority and ability to inspire. He was the ultimate internal leader.
Internal leadership comes from an inner force that compels you to make the world a better place. "There comes a time," Dr. King said in 1968, "when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right." King wasn't steered by the latest poll results; his direction came from an internal compass.
On Friday, I'll join thousands of other Americans paying tribute to King. At Sunday's formal dedication, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Jamie Foxx, and Berry Gordy will be among those leading the ceremony -- topped off by a speech by President Obama.
For those who can't make it to D.C. this weekend, check out Chevrolet's Table of Brotherhood Project, which allows online visitors to post photos, videos and links, and create talking points for conversations. The name of the project is taken from one of the most memorable lines from the "Dream" speech: "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."
The recitation of many of Dr. King's quotes will no doubt be a big part of this weekend's events. Let's hope that by reacquainting ourselves with his still-powerful words, all of us -- from our leaders in Washington to ordinary Americans across the country -- can tap into the better angels he was guided by, and summon the empathy and compassion -- and the willingness to act on them -- that are his most enduring legacies.