Emerge is back – thanks to George Curry. Perspective on MLK Memorial

reprinted courtesy of newemergemagazine.com and George Curry

Neither 9/11 Nor Efforts to Marginalize Dr. King Could Keep him off of the National Mall

“of all the African-American athletes, entertainers and other high-profile folk…..only 2 have stepped up as part of the million dollar donor roll” – George Curry as reported on Dr. Leon’s “Inside the Issues” 10.15.11

Harry E. Johnson Sr. was hitting his stride in his effort to raise $120 million to erect a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Washington Mall.  The National Capital Planning Commission had approved a site on the historic expanse of land, the first for an African-American and a peace activist. The design plan had survived the labyrinth of the federal bureaucracy. And General Motors had kicked off the national fundraising drive with a $10 million contribution.

“Everything was ready to go and then 9/11 happened,” recalls Johnson, president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc. “When 9/11 happened, it just shut us down. Every fundraising firm we talked to said, ‘There’s no way you’re going to raise a nickel for a monument to anybody when we’ve just lost 3,000 people. Just sit tight.’ For almost a year, we were just here, marking time, trying to figure out what to do.”

It wasn’t the first – or last – time that Johnson, a Houston attorney, would have to figure out what to do. The memorial’s twisting and uncertain road from conception to completion was filled with speed bumps. And each time, the bumps in the road were successfully navigated by Board Chair Roderick Gillum, Johnson and his small but dedicated staff, and Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

In fact, Washington, D.C.-area members of Alpha Phi Alpha came up with the grandiose idea of erecting a monument to the late civil rights leader that would be sandwiched between memorials to presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. A Mall memorial for Dwight D. Eisenhower isn’t expected to be completed until 2015.

“It started as the idea of five Alpha men,” Johnson explains. “They were sitting around a table one morning discussing who goes to the Mall and why. They said, ‘People of color are not going to visit our nation’s Mall. If, in fact, you want them to see the nation’s Mall, maybe if there were people of color or people who looked like them, they would go. Let’s talk about doing a memorial on the Mall.’

“I’ll be honest with you: They weren’t thinking what we have now,” Johnson says. “This was a local chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha brothers thinking this way. They kept the idea going. They finally brought it to the Alpha Phi Alpha body, to the convention.”

That was in the early 1980s. In January 1984, the five Alphas – Alfred Bailey, George Sealey, Oscar Little, Eddie Madison and John Harvey – made a formal proposal to fraternity President Ozell Sutton and the board of directors. The officers supported the idea and recruited Congressman Julius Dixon (D-Calif.), also an Alpha, to propose federal legislation authorizing the fraternity to embark on a national campaign to memorialize Dr. King, who pledged Alpha as a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, but wasn’t initiated until he was studying at Boston University for his Ph.D. in systematic theology.

In 1993, Milton Davis, a lawyer from Tuskegee, Ala., was elected national president of the Alphas. Toward the end of Davis’ three-year term, he pressed the fraternity to come up with concrete plans for the proposed memorial to King.

“He [Davis] said, ‘Let’s see if we can get some legs on this Martin Luther King deal,” Johnson recalls.  “Milton Davis was succeeded by Adrian Wallace out of Lake Charles, La. Adrian is credited with pulling together a team of folks and saying, ‘Y’all look at this and see what can happen.’”

Things really started after Wallace was elected president of the fraternity in 1997.

Joint Resolution 41, was introduced in the Senate by Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), with Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) added later as a third sponsor. The similar measure, Joint Resolution 113, was introduced in the House by Dixon of California, Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Connie Morella (R-Md.). The bills authorizing Alpha Phi Alpha to proceed were passed by each chamber and signed into law on July 16, 1998, by President Bill Clinton.

Harry Johnson, who was recently elected national president of Alpha Phi Alpha, was preparing for a soft fundraising launch when al-Qaeda terrorists launched a series of suicide attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York were leveled by two incoming airplanes, the Pentagon was struck by another plane and a fourth aircraft crashed in the rural farmland of Shanksville, Pa.

Managing the MLK project alone would have been pressure enough for any ordinary person. But Harry Johnson is no ordinary person. At 6’2,” Johnson has a commanding presence. He is a meticulous dresser, usually sporting a Canali suit, a custom-made shirt with French cuffs, a power tie, and Ferragamo shoes. He offers a firm handshake and disarming smile, especially when making a pitch for contributions.

Johnson boldly accepted the twin responsibility of managing the MLK project and running his fraternity, both based in the nation’s capital, while commuting from his home in Houston.  His wife, Karen, who kept the family running while her husband almost ran himself into the ground, was fully supportive. “Do what you got to do,” she would say, never complaining about the amount of time he was on the road.

Regardless of where his travels took him, the King memorial remained uppermost in Johnson’s mind.

“I was scared that I would fail,” he acknowledges. “And the mark on me would be: ‘That’s the man who messed it up.’ That’s what drove me. I didn’t want to be that man.”

Johnson wasn’t that man. He became the man to see the project to fruition. From the outset, however, there would be tremendous hurdles. The first was making sure Dr. King wasn’t cosigned to a ghetto of obscurity.

The National Mall, which receives 24 million visitors each year, is generally defined as the area between Independence and Constitution Avenues that stretches 1.9 miles from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial.

“The Park Service basically told us, ‘Here’s the Mall. Eventually, the Mall is going to extend past the Capitol and go across the Anacostia River. So a perfect place for the Martin Luther King Memorial would be in front of RFK Stadium,’” Johnson remembers being told.  Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, the former football home of the Washington Redskins, is not even visible from the Mall.

Johnson pressed for more options.

“Bob Stanton, who was director of the National Park Service, an African-American, a Kappa man, Bob Stanton said, ‘Here’s a piece of land. If they move this road, you could create a 4-acre site on West Basin Drive and Independence.’ So we asked for that land and got it,” Johnson says.

The site is adjacent to the memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Thousands of tourists from around the world flock to the area each spring to see the blossoming of cherry trees that were a gift to the U.S. from Japan in 1912. The trees encircle the Tidal Basin and spill north onto the grounds of the Washington Monument; they typically blossom the last days of March or the first days of April, reaching full bloom in three to seven days.

“It’s a perfect piece of land,” Johnson explains. “So perfect that if you were going to draw a diagonal line from Lincoln to Jefferson, King would be right in the middle. As I always say, what better place to put a King than between two presidents.”

Putting King between two presidents required juggling numerous tasks: regular appearances before the National Park Service and the two commissions that have oversight over construction on the mall, conducting a world-wide search for an artist, raising more than $100 million, making sure people of color participated in every aspect of the memorial and managing the very public fallout when unpopular decisions were announced by the foundation.

Early in the process, a distinguished international panel of architects and designers sponsored a design contest for the memorial. The panel received more than 900 entries from architects, sculptors and professors in 52 countries. ROMA Design Group of San Francisco was declared the winner.

The foundation then had to select a sculptor for the project.

“We found this Chinese guy at an international stone carver’s symposium in Minnesota,” Johnson explains. “Everybody there was from all over the world, including the United States. We showed them what we wanted. They pointed to this guy and said, ‘That’s the guy who can do this.’”

That guy was Master Sculptor Lei Yixin of Changsa, China.  When the foundation announced that he had been selected Sculptor of Record, there was a backlash. Some African-Americans questioned whether Lei Yixin could do justice to the civil rights icon.

Johnson recalls, “At first, they were saying that’s what Dr. King was about – he was about being international, it wasn’t about Black or being an American, but being an international citizen. After that, we had to manage the whole PR fallout.”

And the public relations fallout was framed in Black and White terms.

Ed Dwight, an African-American sculptor, said because Lei Yixon is not Black, “he doesn’t know how black people walk, how they stand, how their shoulders slope.”

Dwight had been commissioned to do a 26-foot granite and cast bronze sculpture of King in Denver, Hank Aaron outside the Atlanta Braves Stadium, Frederick Douglass in the Anacostia section of Washington, Benjamin Mays at Morehouse College and the Underground Railroad in Detroit and Windsor, Canada.  He submitted a model for the project, hoping to add the Mall statue of King to that impressive list but did not make the final cut, so to speak.

Another Black sculptor, Gilbert Young, an Atlanta artist best known for his artwork, He Ain’t Heavy, a painting of an outstretched hand reaching to lift another one from below, started an online petition objecting to the selection under the heading, “King is ours.” In an interview with the Associated Press, Young said: “I believe that black artists have the right to interpret ourselves first. If nobody steps up to the plate to do that, then certainly pass it along to someone else.”

Johnson learned early on that the best way to deal with controversy is to address it head-on as quickly as possible.

“We had already picked him. We had to explain to people why we had picked him,” Johnson states. To explain the selection, Johnson summoned the words of Dr. King.

“In Dr. King’s vernacular, we should not judge a person by the color of his skin but by the content of his character,” Johnson says. “In these terms, artistic character. So we choose the best man for the job.”

Ironically, as Ed Jackson Jr., the African-American chief architect of the project observed, some African-Americans protested the selection of Lei around the same time Simmie Knox, an African-American, was commissioned to paint the official White House portrait of President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. It was the first time a Black artist had been selected for such a prestigious assignment.

It was untenable, in Jackson’s opinion, to argue that African-Americans should be allowed to paint a White president while contending that only Black artists should be allowed to replicate images of African-Americans.

Although Johnson was confident the foundation had made the correct choice, he was nervous nonetheless as he made the 13,170-mile trip to view Lei’s first attempt at recreating an image of Dr. King. He made the 1,056-mile flight from his hometown of Houston to Minneapolis, the 11,578-mile trip from Minneapolis to Shanghai and the final 536-mile leg from Shanghai to Changsa.

“I’m praying all the way,” Johnson recounts. “Let this thing be what we expected.”

Lei has a cavernous studio in his hometown, which is the capital of Hunan province in central China. The 30-foot, 8-inch statue of King, when completed, would dwarf the 19-foot statue of Jefferson and the Abraham Lincoln Memorial, which is 19 feet and 6 inches.

The first rendering of King was carved in clay. And when Johnson saw it, he knew his prayers had been answered.

“When we drove in, he had the statue in a parking lot,” Johnson remembers. “I was just blown away when I saw the clay depiction of it. I’m like, ‘Wow!’– dead on center. When I saw it, my mouth flew open and a tear welled up in my eye.

“He got it. The man did the Martin Luther King Stone of Hope statue in its entirety – 30-feet tall – in clay. We went back a year and a half later and he had done it in porcelain. We went back a year after that and he had it in granite. The rest is history.”

Not quite.

After Johnson closed his mouth and dried up his tears, he instructed Lei to remove the frown from Dr. King’s face. “Through an interpreter, I said, “Master Lei, you can’t have him frowned up.’ Master Lei said, ‘He was a warrior.’ I said, ‘Yes, but he was a warrior for peace.’”

In May 2008, the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts – which along with the Capitol Planning Commission and U.S. Park Service must approve every detail of the project – also wanted some revisions. The tall statue, based on a photograph of King by Bob Fitch, is imposing.

The commission contended the model was too confrontational, adding, “the colossal scale and Social Realist style of the proposed statue recalls a genre of political sculpture that has been recently pulled down in other countries.”

Lei told the Washington Post, “The art of statues originally came from the West. What is the difference in the style in the socialist countries? It’s like ballet. We Chinese can boast that our ballet is among the best in the world. Do not think it is different because it is Chinese.”

To appease the members of the Fine Arts Commission, Lei softened King’s facial expression, the Stone of Hope from which King was emerging became less defined, and the base of the monument was lengthened, showing less of King’s legs but maintaining the statue’s original height.

Several keen-eyed observers pointed out another matter.  Through letters and telephone calls, they let Johnson know that something wasn’t quite right about how King was depicted. Early sketches of the memorial showed King holding a pen in his left hand. There was only one problem – King was right-handed.

It turned out that the original photograph that had been flipped, producing a reverse image of King holding the pen in his left hand. By that time, however, the sculptor was too deep into the project to switch hands. So, the decision was made to replace the pen with a scroll of paper, giving the impression that King could have been gripping a speech. Four months after the Fine Arts Commission raised their initial objections, the design was approved.

The design of the memorial is based on a passage from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. After describing his dream of a nation living out the true meaning of its creed and his children living in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, King said:

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

“This hope is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

Visitors enter the memorial park through two divided stones symbolizing the Mountain of Despair. The Stone of Hope is facing the opposite direction, not far from the Tidal Basin, a reservoir between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel. It is not until one walks around to the front of the Stone of Hope that a stunning sculpture of Dr. King, staring across the Tidal Basin at the Jefferson Memorial, is visible. He is dressed in a business suit with his arms folded across his chest. It is an image designed to show King emerging out of the Mountain of Despair.

On one side of the stone is the inscription, “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” On the other side: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The natural elements of water, stone and trees are used throughout the memorial to highlight the recurring themes of justice, democracy, hope and love. Sculptured on a 450-foot high stone inscription wall along the perimeter of the monument are more than a dozen King quotations.

In a semi-circle on the upper walkway are 24 niches to commemorate Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham and other fallen civil rights heroes. Some of the niches are left open so that other tributes can be added later.

Appeasing the unions was more difficult than satisfying the Fine Arts Commission.

“It got out with the unions that I had these Chinese guys coming to build this Memorial because Master Lei brought 12 or 13 of his workers with him to reassemble his work,” Johnson recalls. “I tried to explain it to the unions. I said, ‘Guys you see this whole plaza area, this is stonework that the unions are going to do.’ And the guy looked up and said, ‘But what about these three pieces here? How come we can’t do that?’

“I said, ‘That’s that man’s work – that’s art. Yes, it needs to be reconfigured when it gets here, but that’s this man’s work.’ That’s like asking Michael Angelo, ‘Hey, you painted this, but when it gets here, can we add a little red and blue color to it?’ You can’t do that. The union guy was sitting here. He said, ‘This is very nice, but we want to do all of it.’ I said, ‘You can’t do all of it.’ I said, ‘Anything else?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Okay, have a good day.’”

About a week later, Johnson was having a good day in Houston until Dina Curtis, his office director in Washington, called to alert him that protesters were assembling outside the National Building Museum, which houses King Memorial office at 401 F Street, N.W.

“I said, ‘Who’s protesting?’ She said, ‘The union.’ I said, ‘The union?’ I thought everything was okay. I said, ‘How many people are there?’ She said, “Seven.’ I said, ‘Let’s move on.’”

Johnson was determined that disadvantaged women and vendors of color would not be deprived of the economic benefits that flowed from erecting the memorial. To do that, he insisted on joint ventures that paired small African-American firms with larger, wealthier White companies.

For the Memorial’s design-build team, for example, he brought together McKissack & McKissack, an African-American woman-owned architecture firm; Gilford Corporation, a Black-owned civil engineering firm; Turner Construction Company, one of the largest general contractors in the nation and Tompkins Builders, a subsidiary of Turner Construction that had been involved in the building of the World War II Memorial, the National Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum.

“We crafted a deal with them. I said, ‘I want the African-American firms to be the lead firm on this.’ The African-American firms are 51 percent in this joint venture. Not only that, I came back and told Turner, ‘Y’all need to put up the bond,’ which was unheard of. A lot of African-American firms don’t have the bonding capacity to do the job. Turner said, ‘Fine, we’ll be glad to do that.’ So we have an African American-run joint venture team that has built the memorial. They used union and non-union workers.”

Harry Johnson knew that in order to pay for that work, he would have to raise money and plenty of it. He turned to Jarvis Stewart, a brash, young, well-connected lobbyist with such blue-chip clients as Toyota, FedEx, Wal-Mart and Verizon. Stewart arranged a meeting between Johnson and Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who had helped filibuster the 1964 Civil Rights Act and had once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Byrd, who later apologized for his earlier views, successfully solicited the help of Mississippi Republican Senator Thad Cochran, who earns an “F” each year on the NAACP Legislative Report Card.

Johnson says his unlikely meeting with Byrd marked the turning point for the fundraising drive.

“We asked for $4 million and he said, ‘Why ask for $4 million? Why don’t you ask for $10 million?” Johnson recalls.  And $10 million is what the foundation received through an amendment attached to a funding bill for the Department of Interior.

“Then, I was able to say we’re up to $40 million and we’re getting close,” Johnson says. “I was able to use that as leverage with other companies.”

The King Memorial was built primarily with private donations, with corporations providing approximately 80 percent of the total. Individual gifts averaged $78, almost double the median telemarking donation of $40.

The list of founding sponsors that donated at least $1 million reads like a Who’s Who of corporate America. GM led the way with its $10 million donation, which equaled the $10 million federal contribution engineered by Senator Byrd. The Tommy Hilfiger Corporate Foundation was the third-largest donor, with $5 million. Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity donated $3.48 million; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the National Basketball Association, each donated $3 million; the Walt Disney Company, $2.75 million; the Coca-Cola Foundation, the Ford Motor Fund, MetLife Foundation, Toyota Foundation and the Verizon Foundation, $2 million each. An additional 39 companies and individuals contributed at least $1 million each, including Delta Airlines, Travelers, Credit Unions of the United States, General Electric, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

As of summer, a surprising number of Fortune 100 companies had contributed less than $100,000 or nothing at all, including:  Citigroup, Philip Morris, Home Depot, J.P. Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, AOL Time Warner, Goldman Sachs Group, United Parcel Service (UPS), Allstate, Sprint and American Express, according to public records.

Equally surprising, only two African-American millionaires,

Sheila Johnson-Newman, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), and Victor B. MacFarlane, a San Francisco-based real estate mogul, made a personal or corporate donation of at least $1 million.

Johnson, the only African-American other than Barack Obama to raise more than $100 million in a public campaign, refused to be drawn into a discussion about those who declined to donate to the King Memorial.

Ever the diplomat, Johnson says, “There are a number of other good ideas out there that people give their money to.”

But he never passes up the opportunity to remind anyone who would listen that the memorial to Dr. King was not just a good idea, but a great one. As an added incentive, he reminds potential donors that the names of founding sponsors – those firms or individuals that gave at least $1 million – would be listed on a special donors wall in the Memorial’s bookstore.

“We try to make the case,” says Johnson, sounding like the lawyer that he is. “Who should really pay for this memorial? Should it be corporations? Foundations? High-net individuals? My response is always the same: ‘It should be anyone who ever benefited from anything Dr. King said or did.’ That includes all of us.”

If corporate executives remain unmoved by that pitch, Johnson shifts into another gear, turning the boardroom into his private courtroom:

“If we really get into it, I’ll say, ’Do you understand we don’t build memorials to individuals? This is not a memorial to Dr. King. Would we have built a memorial to Jefferson, who was a slave owner?  We built a memorial to Jefferson because of the ideals that he had, the ideals of a democracy. This country could have been an oligarchy; it could have been a kingdom. But Jefferson said it ought to be a democracy. That’s why we built that memorial to Jefferson.

“Why did we build a memorial to Lincoln? Not because he freed the slaves – the South would never authorize a memorial being built to a man because he freed the slaves. We built it because in 1865, this country had been split in two. It was President Lincoln who brought us back together.”

With his audience growing more attentive, Harry Johnson delivers his closing argument.

“Why are we building this memorial to Dr. King?” he asks no one in particular. Johnson then answers his own question. “Because in 1961, ’62, ’63, ’64, ’65, this country was being split in two – Black versus White, rich versus poor – and Dr. King brought this country back together. So we build this memorial not for Dr. King, but the ideals for which he stood.”

By that point, someone would have usually told Johnson, “We like your passion.”

It was recognition of that passion, intellect and vision that led to President Obama accepting an invitation to speak at the commemoration service and burying a time capsule that will not be opened for another 50 years. The dedication service on the Mall was scheduled for August 28, which would have been the third anniversary of Obama’s Democratic acceptance speech in Denver, but was delayed until October 16 because of Hurricane Irene.

On Sunday, the first Black occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will christen another memorable street address: 1964 Independence Avenue. No one knew when the plans were developed that the address of the memorial would mirror the year of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Before we could even conceive the idea, people we don’t even know died to build this memorial,” Harry Johnson says with a well-deserved sense of accomplishment. “Yes, I’ve done some work on it, maybe a lot of work in some people’s eyes. But people we don’t even know died for the memorial and others would die to see it.”

And it is something special to see.

“Dr. King is on the Tidal Basin, where the cherry blossoms – the famed tree that came to us from Japan – happen to bloom in a gorgeous pink color,” Johnson says. “It blossoms typically every year around the time Dr. King was killed [April 4]. We’re adding another 165 cherry trees to the site. So, people will come from all over the world. They are going to come here looking for those cherry blossoms and walk right into Dr. King.”

And they’ll walk into Dr. King in large part because contrary to his original fear, Harry E. Johnson Sr. didn’t mess it up.


postscript…..by fredyt123

I happened to be fortunate to visit the monument on 8.28.11.  There still remains a major conflict of the number of African-American workers who participated in the employment of the monument.  There still are questions of why sculptors such as Ed Dwight, etc. were not selected.  One can only conclude the Chinese government or through their influence issued mandates in return for monetary support.

Finally, regarding Dr. Maya Angelou’s remark about “The Drum Major” inference, on 8.28.11 at approximately 1:30 pm, I personally spoke to Adrian Wallace and he made it clear….Dr. Angelou was part of the academic committee who was responsible for the 14 panels and other renderings of Dr. King’s messages.  So…..if that is true, how did she not know how the words would be placed?????

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