First of a two-part series
Wednesday, April 4, marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — a day during which Washingtonians paused to remember, reflect and rededicate their lives to making the District, its sister cities and the nation the Beloved Community that King would hope for, work toward and dream about until his tragic death in Memphis in 1968.
From sunrise to sunset, the greater Washington area became a whirlwind of marches, tributes, worship services, candlelight vigils and even moments of solitude and heartfelt prayer.
Still, this year’s events and those responsible for them do not serve as the first time Americans of all races and religions have assembled for special tributes honoring Dr. King on the date of his death. However, as one of D.C.’s leading businessmen shares, the recent leadership exemplified by our nation’s youth during which they demanded immediate gun reform, would have a distinct impact on the shape and structure of many remembrances of Dr. King’s continuing legacy.
Hundreds assembled in Southwest as the sun’s rays yielded to the moonlight — lifting voices and holding hands in solidarity on the grounds of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
For Harry Johnson, 63, president and CEO of The Memorial Foundation — the builders of the King Memorial — it would add to other powerful, personal memories that have made Johnson, “proud to be a person of color living in America.”
“I was 13 when King was killed. I guess I knew since then that I wanted to one day be able to do something that would keep his memory alive — something that would ensure that our children and our children’s children would know who King was and why he remains so important to our nation and to the world,” said Johnson, who has led the Memorial Foundation since its inception 11 years ago, also leading the way in raising the $127 million needed to build the Memorial.
“My children are great kids and they understand the meaning of the Memorial and why it had to be built,” he said. “We lay a wreath and hold a candlelight vigil each year. But this year was different. Because of the events that recently happened in Florida, we knew we had to involve more youth this time.”
True to that goal, the annual event included prayer, spoken word and songs led by the Duke Ellington School of Performing Arts. Also sharing his gifts — Bishop Michael V. Kelsey Sr. and The New Samaritan Baptist Church Ministry.
Johnson says youth participation should also be part of our community’s efforts to reflect on the sacrifices and successes of Dr. King.
“I think it’s very important for young people who have only read about King, to be able to find ways so that they can better understand and then model his non-violent philosophy and its extension in the Civil Rights Movement,” Johnson adds. “Having our youth take the forefront at this year’s program, we hope, will not only increase their knowledge of the civil rights movement, but also enable them to begin creating a movement of their own. We’re already seeing that happen here in the District and across the U.S.”
“Are we better or worse 50 years later? We need only to look at our youth. In 1963, young people left their classrooms in Birmingham and Montgomery and got involved. We’ve come full circle since then. Two weeks ago here in D.C., thousands of young people filled the streets, saying they wanted to see an end to the violence and killing that now dominates the American landscape.”
“King’s message and inclusion of youth, which many criticized back then, has crossed lines and been viewed as the only way for us to move forward. Today, young people of all ages are asking why our nation has to be such a violent place. They want to see a new way of living emerge. They’re speaking truth to power. And they are the future for America.”
“I think Dr. King would have loved to witness this moment. As for the Black community, we go through ebbs and flows. Years ago, King was our leading voice. Others have since taken up the mantle. I see so much progress since his death, even if just in my own life. I have truly been blessed — like so many other members of the Black community. But we can do much, much more.”
“King, and other leaders decades ago, put their lives on the line in order to make this country and this world a better place for everyone. America has honored Jefferson, Lincoln and Washington with special statues and places where we can recall their outstanding contributions to this nation. We had to also include Dr. King among those leaders in U.S. history.”
“I’ll never forget those days of my youth when I first saw Dr. King on television. He was an orator unrivaled by almost anyone else. But what struck me most was despite being in a sea of violence, he was always calm, he was always one who showed the power of love.”
“He will always be … our King,” Johnson said.