Building a Memorial for Dr. King Construction of The Martin Luther King National Memorial begins this fall. It will stand among the world famous presidential monuments in downtown Washington, D.C. But it hasn't been without controversy.
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Building a Memorial for Dr. King

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Building a Memorial for Dr. King

Building a Memorial for Dr. King

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Between Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, there will soon be a King. The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial will be built among the famous presidential monuments in Washington, D.C. Set to open by early 2009, it will feature his famous words carved in stone, plus a waterfall, a grove of trees, and a statue of Dr. King. All of these will take a $100 million to complete. Who's making it happen? The Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Projects Foundation.

Harry Johnson is the foundation's president and CEO. He joins me now. Mr. Johnson, welcome on.

Mr. HARRY JOHNSON (President and CEO, Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So this memorial project has been in the works for about 20 years. And you are a member of Alpha Phi Alpha - that was Dr. King's fraternity. Where do you stand in terms of fundraising groundbreaking, and what did Alpha Phi Alpha had to do with it?

Mr. JOHNSON: I am so pleased to let you and your listeners to know that we spent $81 million out of the needed 100 that we need to raise. We're excited. How Alpha Phi Alpha got involved in this project was simply this, members of our fraternity, years ago, thought there ought to be a memorial to memorialize Dr. King in Washington, D.C. So they brought forth the idea to Alpha Phi Alpha. Alpha Phi Alpha more than 20 years and earned and set out to make this happen, and about 10 years ago, created this foundation to raise the funds to build the memorial. We're pleased that we have a design team onboard and ready to ground break any, hopefully, any month now so we can have this memorial completed in early 2009.

CHIDEYA: So give me a sense of walking through this memorial if you were someone who was walking someone for the first time, what would you tell them? Oh, look to the right, look to the left, this is what you're seeing.

Mr. JOHNSON: As you walk through from Independence Drive at West Basin, you will walk through two large blocks of granite. We call that the mountain of despair. Take it from King's words and his speeches. Once you walk through the Mountain of Despair, then you will see a little waterfall on each side, left and right. And then you will see a crescent-shape wall, abutting right up against the Mount of Despair, 24 panels with Dr. King's words on those panels, so (unintelligible) maybe to read those words, walk around in serenity, and hear and see Dr. King's words.

Then they still have not seen Dr. King. They walk out towards a Tidal Basin, looking at Jefferson and there on another piece of granite, 30 feet tall, will be Dr. King looking at Jefferson and then they will, for the first time, see Dr. King. They will also see a variety of trees. This is a landscape solution, so they will see (unintelligible), pine trees, magnolia trees. But we always like to point out that in April, when Dr. King was assassinated, the (unintelligible) cherry blossoms will bloom the week that Dr. King was assassinated, and we're going to have plenty of cherry blossoms there at the site.

CHIDEYA: Now, this is a big, expensive project being built on a very precious piece of federal land on the mall. There's a lot of politics involved in what gets put on the mall. How did your organization acquire or settle on these acres beside the Tidal Basin?

Mr. JOHNSON: We looked around D.C. and we were given choices of land, and then it was pointed out that here was, perhaps, four acres of land that could be carved out if we move a street, West Basin Drive, over a little bit, and so we decided on that land, and we felt in earnest that what a terrific place to place Dr. King between the Lincoln and the Jefferson Memorials, especially near the Lincoln - where he gave his famous "I have a dream" speech.

CHIDEYA: Now, there's a little bit of controversy. There is a Chinese artist -Lei Yixin - who has been named to execute the King's statue and there's a black artist named Ed Dwight who was involved in one point in the planning. There are some people who are not happy that the final sculpture was not American and not African-American specifically. What do you say to how the process was unfolding, and why you made your decision?

Mr. JOHNSON: I would tell everybody that there really is no controversy. What we have here is a competing interest of someone who continues to want to be a part of the project and they are no longer part of the project. A team of designers, artists and sculptures went, and they chose Master Lei, including Ed Dwight. We were looking for a person who could carve into stone. But we kept finding out was that there were plenty of artists out here, including Mr. Dwight and others, who used the medium of bronze. This is going to be a stone piece and they selected Master Lei. But I'm pleased to let your listeners know that it's not Master Lei alone. We're doing everything in the team kind of effort with the memorial.

Who do I mean by that? Ed - Master Lei, Lei will be working with two other African Americans working in conjunction to build this memorial, to carve it into granite. We have Ed Hamilton and also Dr. Jon Lockhart, two African-American artists, who'll be working with Lei to insure that we have the proper perspectives in terms of African-American involvement with that process.

CHIDEYA: Now, there's a whole bunch of financial considerations that go into this project. You are raising $100 million. You are over three-quarters of the way there. And there are monuments that are built with both private and public money. The Vietnam Memorial was built mainly with private fundraising. How much of your budget have you gotten or will you be getting from the federal government? And what about from large corporations?

Mr. JOHNSON: We're pleased to announce that we did receive a matching grant from the federal government in appropriation, $10 million. That was done in a matching and we were able to raise that match in eight short months. Corporations, we have General Motors onboard, Toyota, Ford, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, you name it. We have those corporations onboard and many of them helped contribute over a million dollars or more towards the memorial. But we also have some high dollar network individuals involved in the process as well. The Mystics' owner, Sheila Johnson. We have a design developer involved with us as well. So we're pleased that we are moving toward that goal.

CHIDEYA: Quickly, what do you hope young people will see when they look up at the completed memorial?

Mr. JOHNSON: We hope that young people, once they come and see the memorial, they will see, number one, the first, a man of peace, a man of color on the Mall. But also they see Dr. King in his proper perspective as an American hero. What do I mean by that? We know about Dr. King. They recite his "I Have a Dream" speech. However, many children cannot put him in his proper perspective in terms of what he really did to change this country and the world. We hope that they will get that once they come to D.C. and see his memorial.

CHIDEYA: Well, Mr. Johnson, thank you so much.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you. We appreciate being with you.

CHIDEYA: Harry Johnson is the president and CEO of the Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King Junior National Memorial Project Foundation. He joined me from member station KUHF in Houston. And tomorrow, we'll hear from sculptor Ed Dwight about his role in planning the King memorial.

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