Monumental Errors

Can the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Campaign Be Saved?

It seems odd to say this is a perfect moment to ponder a group of empty structures set along the Potomac that house no humans or libraries and yet contain our most important ideas, but it is exactly the right time—as the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are being debated and abused—to express concern for another memorial slated to sit between those for Jefferson and Lincoln, and near the Washington Monument.

This month the Advertising Council has begun a national public service ad campaign featuring Halle Berry, Al Roker, and Morgan Freeman to help raise money for a memorial on the mall for Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Curiously, the campaign kickoff even included Senator Trent Lott's successor, Senate Majority Leader William Frist, along with a number of African American Democrats in Congress. While most Americans will be hearing about the memorial for the first time by way of these ads, the project itself is in danger of failure. Seven years after Congress granted permission for a King memorial, time is running out, $75 million needs to be raised, and it will take an enormous national effort to make it possible.

The Washington-based Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation is required to build the project with private funds, and the 1996 authorization from Congress (signed by President Bill Clinton) to raise funds expires on November 12, a deadline by which planners have to raise $100 million. To date the foundation says it has raised $25 million in cash and pledges, but reported only $16,794 in cash in the bank in its most recent tax filing. And it is not certain the group can win a three-year extension on the deadline.

illustration: Mirko Ilic´

Alpha male?: Harry E. Johnson, chairman, president, and CEO, King Memorial Foundation, and general president, Alpha Phi Alpha
(photo: Marty Katz)
The head of the foundation, and its dominating force, is Harry E. Johnson, a Houston lawyer described on its web site as "chairman, president and CEO," who is also the general president of the 97-year old African American college fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha. (The organization has 17,500 active members in 750 college and alumni chapters.) Under his leadership the King project has been run as if it were purely an internal Alpha project—for most years management has been almost exclusively Alpha, which in itself means male, and African American, and under a shared oath of secrecy—and in so doing, the organization has failed to serve a man who belongs to the whole nation, whose influence far exceeds the work of any one group. As late as this week, details of board and committee membership had to be obtained directly from Johnson, because available public information on the group and its principals is dated and misleading. Johnson says a new Web site is under construction.

The haphazard and ineffectual effort to raise the $100 million needed to build this memorial—envisioned as a semicircular granite "environment" on the Tidal Basin—has been hampered by an insularity that ignores the very stature of a man who has been honored all over the globe. The diversity and richness of King's influence are the means of creating a campaign large enough to do the job, and yet only in the last few months has the foundation begun to get its act together. The King project still needs to reach out to a wide array of leaders in religious, activist, philanthropic, corporate, labor, civic, and ethnic communities who could no doubt contribute—people who need to be on board full bore for the next five months. This is a project that rightfully ought to have on speed-dial everyone from former presidents to the heads of every major rights group to Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. In the 11th hour, a group with no transparency has begun to develop additional leadership and build a public face. But will it be too little too late for what would be the first national memorial to an African American on the Mall and likely the last memorial to go up there at all?

The ad campaign, designed for free by Saatchi & Saatchi for TV, radio, print, and the Internet, invokes the specter of an America never desegregated by law—Berry being forced, for instance, to sit in a colored-only section of a restaurant. While this approach oversimplifies King's contribution, it is perhaps the work that people know best. His legacy inspired a man named George Sealey to convince the Alphas to take up the memorial as a project in 1984. And King was an Alpha, after all.

In 1997, John Carter, a BellSouth Corp. vice president, became the project's head and guiding spirit. "We now have an opportunity," he told Congress, "to break the trend of memorials to war and erect a monument which delivers a message of lifelong peace in our land. A memorial which embodies not just the image of Dr. King, but the image of America, which is often called the melting pot of the world."

In 1998, King's widow, Coretta Scott King, agreed to be chair of an honorary committee, which Johnson says is co-chaired by former UN ambassador Andrew Young and now includes leaders from other fraternal groups. In 1999, the project finally won approval for the present four-acre site from the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), after a series of presentations before NCPC, the National Park Service (NPS) and the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), all three of which must pass on any memorial in Washington.

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