By KENYA KING (Special to the Daily World)
On Aug. 28, 2011, Congressman John Lewis will return to the grounds in Washington, D.C., where he marched 48 years ago with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lewis was only 23 years old when he joined Dr. King and four other civil rights leaders to organize a march on Washington for jobs and economic equality in 1963.
The march’s organizers, who were called the Big Six, included Lewis, Dr. King, A. Phillip Randolph, James Farmer, Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins. They are credited with spearheading the pivotal march that was the catalyst for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Lewis shed a tear as he recollected being the only person of the group still alive. “I just feel more than blessed to have had the opportunity to get to know all of these people,” said Lewis.
This time on the National Mall, Lewis will not be there to protest, but he will be celebrating the dedication of the long-awaited memorial in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I’ve had an opportunity to visit the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It is one of the most amazing, unbelievable monuments to this man of peace, to this man of love and nonviolence,” said Lewis.
“Never before in the history of our country has there been a memorial, a monument on the front door of America on the National Mall to a person of peace, to a person of love and nonviolence. In the past we have honored great presidents, soldiers – people who fought in battle, but never, ever to a simple Baptist minister, preacher, leader, [and] crusader. It is so fitting and it’s so appropriate for him to be standing there facing Jefferson, with his back sort of turned to Lincoln between these two great American presidents.”
In 2004, the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, in partnership with the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Foundation, has worked to galvanize funding resources for a memorial in honor of Dr. King. The fraternity launched a “Build a Dream” campaign to raise $100 million to build and maintain the memorial. A “Dream Team” of celebrities joined their efforts from the onset and many are expected to participate in the days of festivities leading up to the dedication.
This memorial will be the first recognition of a non-president on the National Mall and will be the second national memorial in honor of Dr. King. Mrs. Coretta Scott King organized and dedicated the first memorial to Dr. King in June of 1968, shortly after King’s death. Today the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolence and Social Change, which Mrs. King established, is a living memorial that thousands visit each year.
“Mrs. King would be very pleased I believe,” said Lewis. “Very proud to see this memorial to Martin Luther King Jr., to her husband, to this founding father of the new America. Dr. King and I believe Mrs. King would agree, not only liberated a people, but he liberated a nation, and even in death, he still liberated people.
“Not just in America, but around the world, when you travel to Africa, to the Middle East, to Asia, to Central, South America. People say over and over again, even in Eastern Europe, people say we’ve read about Martin Luther King Jr. We’ve studied him! He inspired us [and] the Civil Rights Movement. So I think in years to come, there will be people coming, not just from all over America, but coming from over the world to stop at the monument and pay tribute to Dr. King.”
Lewis says he’s seen the memorial on three occasions and touched Dr. King’s face on the monument. “They invited me to come up on the scaffold and I went up on the very top and I touched the likeness of Dr. King, touched his head, rubbed his face. And before I made it back down, I cried,” said Lewis.
With a gentle smile and chuckle, Lewis says when returning back to the memorial, “we will not just say we’re going to go check on brother Lincoln or brother Jefferson or brother Washington, but we’ll be saying we’re going to check on brother King” and wondering what Dr. King is thinking and saying.
With the election of President Barack Obama, the first Black U. S. president, Lewis, says he’s often asked is if this means Dr. King’s dream is now fulfilled. “No, it’s a down-payment,” said Lewis.
“We’ve made such progress, but we still have a distance to go. There are still too many people, Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Asian American, and Native Americans that are still left out and left behind. When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, he was working on something called the Poor People’s Campaign. The last time I saw him alive was two weeks before his death. He was meeting with a group of ordinary, low-income and poor citizens. He was going to go to Washington and put on the American agenda the needs of the poor. And that’s where we are today.”
Lewis stated that Dr. King wanted to make the Constitution and Declaration of Independence a reality, not mere words on paper, which was the reason he and his colleagues organized the march, despite President Kennedy’s disapproval. Ultimately, their efforts succeeded and President Kennedy invited the Big Six to the White House.
“He stood in the door of the Oval Office. It was like a proud and beaming father. He was so happy that everything had gone off so well. He shook hands with each one of us. He said you did a good job. And when he got to Dr. King he said – ‘and you had a dream.’ It was my last time seeing President Kennedy,” said Lewis. Kennedy was assassinated months later.
“So when we go back on this Aug. 28, yes we will be thanking and saluting the memory of Dr. King and what he did and what he said. But we will also think about the four little girls who were killed in Birmingham, the civil rights workers killed in Mississippi, the leadership of President Kennedy and President Johnson. So many other people that marched who participated in the freedom rides, the march from Selma to Montgomery, and the hundred, the thousands, that marched on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.”
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial opened to the public on Monday, Aug. 22 and the official dedication will take place on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 28. A week of celebratory activities will also occur. Among the many events include a civil rights concert, a public expo, a women’s and civil rights pioneers’ luncheon and a gala for global leaders.
“On one hand it’s like we’re coming together,” said Lewis. “It’s like the circle has been reconnected. But so many of the people that participated, they will not be there, [but] their spirit will be there.”
For additional information about the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and celebration activities, visit www.dedicatethedream.org.