A Kentucky State University grad and his fraternity brothers can say they played a small role in this week’s historic dedication of a towering memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C.
Bill Wilson, now associate vice president for development at KSU, and Central Kentucky alumni members of Alpha Phi Alpha raised more than $25,000 toward the monument’s construction.
It will be the first memorial for an African American leader on the hallowed grounds of the National Mall.
“For me it was kind of a personal hoorah because he’s the first African American to be honored in such a way,” Wilson told The State Journal this week.
“Usually the mall is reserved for presidents and war veterans, but considering all he’s done – not only for African Americans but America as a whole – I thought it was very, very appropriate.”
The members of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, which King joined as a graduate student at Boston University’s School of Theology, first proposed the monument’s construction in 1983.
Congress authorized it in 1996, but the project dragged for 15 years as overall costs for the memorial rose to $120 million, and the government demanded tougher security amid threats of domestic terrorism. About $5 million remains to be raised.
Wilson says the toughest part wasn’t the political wrangling, but the fundraising. His Lexington-based fraternity organization raised its contribution slowly over 20 years.
Harry Johnson, a 56-year-old Houston attorney and Alpha Phi Alpha member who led the effort nationally for the past 11 years, told the Associated Press that the memorial foundation put its fundraising campaign on hold in 2001 as the nation recovered from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Then came the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and other disasters, plus an economic downturn, all of which made raising donations even more daunting, Johnson told the AP.
But the lengthy timeframe was expected – and worth it, Wilson said.
“It did take a long time, and I think for those people who worked so diligently and hard, it makes me feel good that as Americans we pulled together to finish this project,” he said.
“It’s more than just a monument – it’s monumental in what was accomplished.”
Wilson was a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity while he was a KSU history student from 1963 to 1967. He was one of the 10,000 who marched up Capital Avenue with King during his 1964 visit to Frankfort.
“It was kind of a neat experience to say I had heard and walked and marched with him,” Wilson said.
He was a graduate student at the University of Kentucky in 1968 when he got word that King had been assassinated, what he calls “one of the saddest moments of my life.”
“I think this was a wonderful thing that our fraternity did, but it was everybody working together, and I think it is a testament to what people can do when they work together as a team,” he said.
King believed Americans could accomplish a great deal if they cooperated despite their racial and religious differences, Wilson said.
“This project gave us an opportunity to practice that in another way.”
Monday’s opening of the monument had little fanfare, but that will change during a week of events leading up to Sunday’s dedication, which falls on the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington. President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak at the ceremony.
Alpha Phi Alpha members have scheduled a weekend of black-tie celebrations, including luncheons, receptions and a gala.
Wilson received an official invitation to the event this week, and he plans to frame the ornate document as a keepsake.
With students moving back to campus this week, Wilson says he can’t make the trip to Washington, D.C., for the dedication, but the next time he travels there, the monument will be his first stop.
King’s likeness rises a full 30 feet over the memorial landscape, looking toward the horizon with his arms crossed. It is situated between memorials to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, which are about 20 feet tall.
The central theme is King as a symbol of hope emerging from a boulder — a “mountain of despair,” as King said in his famous 1963 speech.
Visitors pass through a narrow opening in the “mountain” to symbolize the struggle for civil rights before entering an open plaza, but they won’t discover King’s statue immediately.
Waterfalls will draw visitors to either side of the plaza to first see curving granite walls carved with 14 lesser-known quotations from King, such as his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance remarks and his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Executive architect Ed Jackson Jr., 62, who oversaw the design process for 15 years, planned to fill the plaza with magnolia, pine and crepe myrtle trees to tie the landscape to King’s childhood in Georgia. But he changed the design to include 185 cherry trees when he learned Washington’s famed cherry blossoms reach full bloom each April at the time when King was assassinated.
The granite for King’s statue was chosen because when lit at night, it lends a brownish tone to King’s likeness. The stone, however, only exists in China, Jackson said; some wanted it to come from the U.S.
Eventually, Jackson hopes to add King’s voice to the visitor’s experience by introducing iPads or other devices with educational features and recordings of speeches while people walk through the plaza.
“Dr. King came along right at the height of the television era,” he said. “So we can take advantage of that.”
The road to Sunday’s dedication has run through hurdles of all kinds – not unlike the long struggle over King’s legacy itself.
There were skirmishes over who would sculpt King’s likeness, where the granite would come from and who would profit from the mammoth $120 million fundraising effort as his family demanded a licensing fee to support its Atlanta civil rights organization.
Race, too, was a factor in the struggle over how the memorial would be conceived.
The surprise selection of a Chinese sculptor for King’s statue in 2007 eventually drew protests.
A black painter launched a petition to try to force a change, saying black artists should have first rights to interpret the memory of the man who did so much for his fellow African-Americans. A bronze sculptor from Denver complained he was pushed aside. Human rights advocates chimed in, saying King would have detested China’s record on civil liberties.
Still, the memorial foundation maintained King was inclusive of all people and never wavered from the selection of a Chinese sculptor.
For all the troubles from concept to construction, King’s contemporaries say the memorial captures his message for a new generation, and it has drawn tears for many when they saw it for the first time.
U. S. Rep. John Lewis, who met King as a teenager and is the lone surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington, said the statue is the best likeness he’s ever seen.
“He’s not looking down, he’s looking straight ahead,” Lewis told the AP.
“Dr. King was an emancipator, he was a liberator. He liberated not just a people. He liberated a nation. His ideas, his message of peace and love are still liberating people. I think people will come from all over the world to be inspired to go out to act, to do something.”
Associated Press reporters Brett Zongker and Errin Haines contributed to this report.