The numbers may sound impossible for most of us and easily pocket change for various celebrities: To build the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, $100 million is needed. Call Oprah. Call Cosby. Call Jordan. Call Diddy. Call Russell. Call Tommy Hilfiger. Someone is obviously doing that. But I say: Call us.
Every dollar or five dollars or 50 dollars or whatever can help reach that $100 million goal while each giver reaffirms – or affirms for the first time – a commitment to the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr. and those of the Civil Rights era among whom he was most visible. Behind and beside MLK were many, many people whose names are not well known but can become better known through this campaign and the exhibitions it spawns.
Think about this. The Statue of Liberty was conceived by Edouard de Laboulaye in 1865 as a gift of the French to the United States. The statue was completed by the sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi in 1884. It was unveiled in New York Harbor in 1886, in part after thousands of school kids raised money for its 89-foot pedestal. They nickeled and dimed it in the best of ways.
Let’s do a version of that in this 21st century hip-hop age to not only raise the money needed to complete the project, but also to connect the kids for whom Martin Luther King Jr. is a day off in January – and perhaps part of a pageant in February – to the real MLK and that period of U.S. history. Let’s keep not only hope but also history alive.
The positioning of the statue in Washington along the Tidal Basin is just as dramatic as the location of Miss Liberty in the New York Harbor.
The message it sends is perhaps even more profound than that of Miss Liberty, welcoming European immigrants. (Bring me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!) King was home grown, and the Civil Rights Movement grew from issues that spewed from this soil. That’s why I was so touched seeing Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson at the groundbreaking ceremony a couple of months ago weeping in joy and disbelief that what they went through in the 1960s with King was being recognized in such a grand American way on some of the most hallowed American space, four acres on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Rep. John Lewis, whose life was transformed in 1955 when as a 10th-grader he heard King speak and who went on to lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), to join King and others in the 1963 March on Washington near where the memorial will be and who almost died in the campaign for voting rights in 1965, had this to say on that November 2006 dedication day: “It is a great day because today we will break ground on this little piece of real estate we call the National Mall, this front yard of the nation, to honor one of the founding fathers of modern America. It is a day that we pay tribute not just to a man, but to the transformative power of love, non-violence, peace, and the American dream.”
Oprah Winfrey, who took part in the groundbreaking ceremony on the Mall, acknowledged that she would not be where she is if King had not done what he’d done. In her own way, she said, she is keeping his dream alive. It strains the brain to realize that she has had more than a decade longer to do what she’s doing than he had to do what he did. Sen. Barack Obama, who was also there, put it this way in an interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, a host of the ceremony: “We have made enormous progress, but we haven’t yet arrived at the Promised Land, which just reminds us that we have more work to do. It’s time for men and women of all colors and races to feel that they are fully part of this political community.”
Obama might be running for president of the United States; Oprah has just opened an opulent school for girls in South Africa.
My mantra is: Do something. For more information on this memorial project and how you may become involved, check out www.mlkmemorial.org.