Black History

Rising to the Challenge: How the King Memorial Found a Home on the National Mall

When our nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama, officially opens the doors to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) – the latest addition to the National Mall – on Saturday, Sept. 24, it will serve as the culmination of “10 years in the making and 100 years in the making,” says the museum’s director, Lonnie G. Bunch III.

Its narrative, from moments of sweeping uplift and achievement, horrifically framed and punctuated by the wickedness of institutional terrorism, the “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery, will highlight the story of African Americans while seeking to address the question “what is real freedom?”

But before this bronze-colored edifice came into being, the National Mall welcomed the first institution honoring a Black man and by extension Black history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in the form of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

Both the King Memorial and the NMAAHC share several commonalities – challenges of epic proportion that were unknown, never encountered and presumably unheard of by the developers of previously constructed historic landmarks on the Mall. Those visionaries and subsequent leaders of the two Black-themed institutions had to secure millions and millions of dollars, public and private funds, donated by corporations and individuals, before matching dollars would be granted on the approval of members of Congress.

These and other monumental hurdles were recently shared by the Houston-based attorney who years ago assumed the arduous task as the primary fundraiser for the King Memorial and who has since served as the president and CEO of The Memorial Foundation, Inc., the nonprofit financial engine that continues to support the King Memorial.

“The King Memorial was a project started by members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. – I was one of the fraternity’s national presidents at the time. We had the land and the design but we had to go find the money. It was certainly not a one-man job. Actually, the concept had been in place well over 25 years. We had a monumental task before us. And many people, some who the public may never know, emptied their pockets and stepped up to lend a hand in a myriad of ways,” said Harry E. Johnson, Sr., 61, who, by all accounts and according to numerous public testimonies, has remained the driving force behind and chief cheerleader for the King Memorial.

He said navigating the various levels of approval for the National Mall institution came as both a challenge and an eye-opening experience.

“There are several jurisdiction commissions with which you must contend in D.C. and for me and for Lonnie [Bunch], whether it was raising $127 million or $1/2 billion, respectively, the hurdles we had to overcome were mind-boggling,” Johnson said.

“Every time we thought we had moved forward in our fundraising efforts, we were confronted with another dynamic. For those involved with the King Memorial, it would be 9/11, then the tsunami, then Hurricane Katrina. In other words, we had to compete against disasters time and time again while attempting to convince people that donating to our cause was something worthwhile,” said Johnson whose work on the project goes back well over a decade.

“With the new museum, we now have two Black ‘faces’ on the National Mall. That’s certainly reason to celebrate but as I remind people, convincing folks that Dr. King should be on the Mall took a lot of time and patience – a lot of sweat and even tears,” he added.

And on a beautiful late summer afternoon, Johnson welcomed some of the Memorial’s key financial sponsors including several members of Congress, Black and white, to the 9th Annual Leaders of Democracy Awards Luncheon on Wednesday, Sept. 14 on the grounds of the King Memorial in Northwest.

During the luncheon, which took place on the eve of the opening of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc.’s 46th Annual Legislative Conference, Johnson once again shared his gratitude to his board members, fraternity brothers, primary financial contributors, friends and family – all of whom he said have been essential to making the King Memorial a reality and helping it remain, as the mission statement of The Memorial Foundation indicates, “to keep the spirit and work of Dr. King’s living memorial relevant by leveraging [its] role as a beacon of inspiration . . . creating events that enlighten [and] educational programs that train people to work toward democracy, justice, hope and love.”

Awards were presented to three members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congresspersons Charles Rangel, Robin Kelly and Bobby Scott, along with Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski.

In different yet significant ways, each elected official used their influence and well-earned respect by others to ensure that the King Memorial would be built and maintain its stated mission. Other guests at the luncheon included the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. who emphasized the importance of recognizing the millions of Black spirits whose collective efforts have been essential to there now being two institutions on the National Mall that honor the African-American tradition and community.

“As we honor the contributions of those too many to mention, we must also remember that our country will soon have an opportunity to cast our vote for the next president of the United States. We must make sure we vote and that we take others to the polls with us. We’re celebrating today but we can ill-afford to rest on our laurels,” Jackson said.

As for his personal feelings, Johnson said he believes that his friend and colleague Lonnie Bunch has to be enjoying the same kind of euphoria that he first experienced when the King Memorial was completed as the NMAAHC welcomes the first of millions of visitors into its doors.

“Both the King Memorial and the National Museum of African American History and Culture will serve as great additions to fulfilling a legacy and history of our people,” Johnson said. “People can finally see the role that Blacks have played in the U.S. and the significance of Blacks’ participation in making this country what it is today.”

“Both stand as symbols of our service and sacrifices. Both have been dedicated by the same president – the first Black president of the United States. No one will ever be able to deny that when we consider these two major projects and additions to the National Mall,” Johnson said with humility and pride.

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D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Award-winning journalist and 21-year Black Press veteran, book editor, voice-over specialist and college instructor (Philosophy, Religion, Journalism). Before joining us, he led the Miami Times to recognition as NNPA Publication of the Year.

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