Memorial Perpetuates Martin Luther King Jr.'s Work

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David Greene visits the newest memorial on the National Mall. He talks to families about how to discuss the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial with young people. He also talks to civil rights veteran Lawrence Guyot about the statue, and working side by side with Dr. King in Mississippi in the early sixties.

DAVID GREENE, host:

We bring you now to the National Mall and the site of the new memorial for Dr. Martin Luther King. It's a sun-splashed day, people wandering around, chatting with one another, taking photos and taking in the whole scene.

The statue is granite, and it's Dr. King with his arms crossed, just gazing out across the Tidal Basin, across the water to the Jefferson Memorial. If he were to turn to his left and look just above the treetops, he can see the top of the Washington Monument. And on the side of the statue, the words written: Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

One thing that struck us when we were at the memorial was how final it all seemed. It's a work of granite, words carved in stone, commemorating the past. And might that indicate to young people that the book on civil rights is closed?

Ms. SHANITA WILLIAMS: Oh, absolutely not. I don't think it'll ever be closed, you know, sad to say.

GREENE: That's Shanita Williams from Brandywine, Maryland. She brought her two kids to the see the statue. And says she talked to them beforehand about who Dr. King was and how his vision is still alive.

Civil rights activist Lawrence Guyot says these are conversations that have to happen.

Mr. LAWRENCE GUYOT (Civil Rights Activist): Let me tell you something. What that statue requires is as many people as possible interpreting that statue to young people, before they see it and after they see it.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

GREENE: As we wandered around the memorial, we met a lot of families who had had these conversations, or were having them in front of us.

Mr. MIKE COHEN: I'm Mike Cohen, and this is...

Ms. AVERY COHEN: Avery Cohen.

Ms. GRIER COHEN: Grier Cohen.

GREENE: Avery, who's 10 years old, was heading in to see the memorial.

What do you think you're going to learn from visiting?

Ms. A. COHEN: Probably that he had lots of big dreams, and when he died, we achieved them.

Mr. M. COHEN: You think we've achieved all his dreams, all the world over? Think everybody gets a fair shake, has a fair start in life?

Ms. A. COHEN: Yes.

Mr. M. COHEN: You think so? Well, they don't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: Father and daughter then headed together for the memorial, as other families were leaving.

Ms. BARBARA ELLIOTT: I was just telling my granddaughter about my experience.

GREENE: This is Barbara Elliott. Viewing the statue reminded her of 1963, when she was here on the Mall, listening to Dr. King at the March on Washington.

MS. ELLIOTT: Me and a girlfriend of mine, we caught the bus and came, then we -I'm a Washingtonian. And we came down just to see, because we knew there's movie stars and other people were here. So we came down and...

GREENE: Where were you standing? Do you remember?

MS. ELLIOTT: Near the pool. We were at the pool.

GREENE: The Reflecting Pool.

MS. ELLIOTT: The Reflecting Pool.

GREENE: So really far away.

MS. ELLIOTT: Yes, it was far away. But we could see him from way, far off. And we could hear a little bit of what he was saying.

GREENE: What do you remember hearing? What memory stands out?

MS. ELLIOTT: I remember he said something about black children and white children will hold hands. I remember that part.

(Soundbite of speech)

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr. (Civil Rights Activist): ...in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MS. ELLIOTT: He had a beautiful, moving voice. It made you stop and pay attention.

GREENE: Nearly five decades after that speech, Barbara Elliott brought her granddaughter here to see the memorial.

KENNEDY: I like the - I like the Martin Luther King Statue.

GREENE: And what's your name?

KENNEDY: Kennedy.

GREENE: Kennedy. And how old are you, Kennedy?

KENNEDY: Seven.

GREENE: And so how - when you have a seven-year-old, what sort of conversations did the two of you have about Dr. King and his vision?

MS. ELLIOTT: She knows what civil rights means, somewhat. And I was just telling her what his role was in the Civil Rights Movement, back in those days. She was listening, and she was asking a couple questions, but that's about it.

GREENE: And what do you have on your shirt there?

KENNEDY: A peace sign.

GREENE: It's a very pretty shirt.

KENNEDY: Thank you.

GREENE: That's the voice of a seven-year-old who's just learning about a legacy that Lawrence Guyot, the civil rights leader we heard from earlier, helped to build, right alongside Dr. King.

Like so many others, Guyot paid a price for his work. He was brutally beaten in 1963 when he tried to visit activists arrested after registering black voters. That same year, Guyot served time in Parchman Farm, the dreaded state prison in Mississippi.

Mr. GUYOT: When I went to Parchman, we went on a hunger strike. And I went 17 days without eating anything - imagine that. I did lose a hundred pounds. It was a question of defiance. We were not going to allow them to have complete control over us.

GREENE: I asked him what he remembered about Dr. King, the man.

Mr. GUYOT: Dr. King liked to smoke and didn't like anybody to know he liked to smoke.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GUYOT: Dr. King liked soul food. Dr. King liked women. Dr. King was a raconteur. Dr. King was a man who never, to my knowledge, met a stranger. Dr. King had no affectation whatsoever. Dr. King had a role to do as a public speaker and a public orator and a public leader and a public synthesizer of programming. But he was as human a man could be.

GREENE: I gather it was pretty powerful for you to have your first look at that granite monument.

Mr. GUYOT: It's a crowning achievement and recognition of the work that was done, certainly of Martin Luther King the individual. But Martin Luther King the individual encapsulates everything that gave legitimacy to the right to protest.

GREENE: And so there Dr. King stands today, surrounded by some of the nation's most honored presidents.

Mr. GUYOT: If I had to pick a person who qualified for that, I would have to pick him. Martin Luther King is a deserving of this, because he would have never fought for it. He's deserving of this because his whole life - here's a man who died with $10,000 in his possession. Here's a man who lived for his people and died for his people and for this country.

What manner of man is this? He's the manner of man that deserves a statue.

GREENE: Mr. Guyot, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. GUYOT: It's been a pleasure.

GREENE: That's Lawrence Guyot. He was a civil rights activist alongside Dr. King. The new memorial was to be dedicated this Sunday. The event, though, has been delayed by Hurricane Irene.

(Soundbite of music)

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And from NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION.

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