Monumental Errors


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.

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.

Seed money to get the project going came from the fraternity—according to tax filings, several hundred thousand dollars—and from General Motors (GM), which contributed $750,000, but it is unclear how the funds have been spent. An additional $10 million promise from GM—$5 million cash and $5 million in “cause-related” marketing—was also made, according to Paul Du Bois, a former executive director of the King project. Du Bois, who is now president of the American Slavery Memorial Museum, was with the memorial from November 2000 until March 2001, and was unable to secure a letter of confirmation from GM during his tenure. In 2001, during the project’s intense licensing talks with the King Center and the King family, a larger donation was on hold, said GM spokesman Bill Noack.

During that time Tommy Hilfiger also verbally offered a mostly marketing donation—$4 million in marketing, and between $600, 000 and $1 million in cash. (It is now described on the Hilfiger Web site as cash and in-kind services.) Johnson told the Voice that Hilfiger and his CEO, Joel Horowitz, now sit on the foundation’s Executive Leadership Council, along with Gary Cowger, president of General Motors North America, and Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins.

When asked the names of the foundation’s big donors, Johnson named the only corporations the group has ever had on board: GM, Hilfiger, and BellSouth. Not much headway has been made with corporate America over the past seven years, which may not be purely the foundation’s fault.

The “project team” still listed on the foundation Web site actually disbanded several years ago, but it includes nine men and one woman, most of whom are business people. Four of those are, however, still officers of the foundation.

Over the years, that team has also included at least one person from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change in Atlanta, which is run by the King family, but none appears on the most recent team list. In fact, Johnson says, the foundation only settled its years-long King licensing negotiations “about a month ago.” An agreement was reached, he says, with Intellectual Properties Management (IPM), which handles King licensing, that “is favorable to IPM and the King family.” He insists no fees were paid to the King family or the King Center. Asked about fees to IPM, Johnson reiterated only that they had “a deal” and that IPM was primarily worried that the memorial might sell memorabilia using King’s name or image.

On the other hand, Robert Vickers, who is communications manager for both IPM and the King Center, told the Voice that negotiations are still ongoing between “IPM and the Alpha Phi Alpha Foundation” with some completion possible at a Friday meeting. The mention of an APA Foundation is indicative of the blurred lines in this project. The memorial foundation seems no more distinct from the Alphas than IPM does from the King Center and the King family.

To secure the King family’s cooperation, the foundation went several years ago to Alpha brother and King family consultant Andrew Young. After much urging, Young set up the meeting and then was called away. According to Du Bois, the King family group had already asked for 50 percent of all money raised for the memorial to go to the King Center or for someone from the center to attend all meetings with potential corporate funders. The foundation would not agree. But, in the meeting, Johnson suddenly made an offer of $600,000 (to be paid at $50,000 a quarter for three years). As Du Bois remembers it, Dexter King responded by saying, “That’s very generous of you, but my father was a spiritual man and he set aside the question of money, but if he were to take it—his spirit is speaking to me and he’s saying it really should be $800,000.” Then almost immediately King backed off, finding the $600,000 sufficient. According to Du Bois, when the fraternity board learned of Johnson’s offer, it was rescinded. Johnson denies that he ever made such an offer; King couldn’t be reached for comment.

As late as 2001, the foundation was still negotiating a licensing agreement with the King Center, and news reports at the time, quoting Johnson, asserted that the memorial’s fundraising had already been hurt by word of King family demands. A center spokesperson said then that any fee the center received would help offset losses in its own fundraising due to the memorial’s drive for funding. And, according to Du Bois, potential funders, including some corporations, were reluctant to give money to any group associated with the King Center, in part because of long-standing prior obligations to support the center.

This drama may help to account for the fact that the fraternity itself lowered its fundraising goals over time from a total of $10 million to $1 million, according to internal documents. In addition, nearly $200,000 in seed money provided by the fraternity as a gift, according to Du Bois, was designated by Johnson as a loan, which remains outstanding on the foundation’s filings—now a tab running around $700,000. The fraternity also began a campaign to sell memorial “bricks” to raise money, but that drive seems never to have caught fire. For a group with only 17,500 members to raise that kind of money would have obligated each to make a fairly hefty donation.

The project has generally had very little money in the bank and very high expenses—travel bills were $154,338 for 2000, and $94,343 in 2001, according to IRS filings. There have been numerous changes of staffing, including at least four executive directors and three accountants. In 1999, the King Memorial Project hired the Alford Group Inc., a national fundraising consulting firm, “to coordinate internal and external fundraising efforts.” Alford, which, according to the 2000 filing, was paid $331,440, studied the foundation’s fundraising prospects and submitted recommendations, which, with one exception, were taken up only recently. Johnson would not then permit the director to recruit people for any of the three boards that Alford recommended they set up and said he would not have time to attend to the task himself for several months, according to Du Bois. Alford withdrew from the project; its president, Mark Dennis, was unavailable for an interview.

A professional fundraising firm does not appear on tax forms until the filing for 2001, which says the Development Resources firm was paid $200,000. When asked the name of the fundraiser on board, Johnson did not know offhand.

In 1999 the foundation sponsored an international competition for designs for the memorial and received nearly 900 proposals from dozens of countries. The winning design came from ROMA Design Group of San Francisco. According to documents obtained by the Voice, by February 2001 the architects were getting nervous about not having a finalized contract and continuing to make outlays for the project. In a letter to the foundation, Boris Dramov, a principal of the firm, asked about the contract and said ROMA could not continue to carry costs without “implications to our firm.” This week, an upbeat Dramov denied there had been any problems and said, “We’re intending to proceed with the implementation of the project.” They have set up an entity called the Devrouax and Purnell/ROMA Design Group Joint Venture for the construction phase. “We have had a very good reception and support for the design from the NCPC, the CFA, and the National Park Service,” said Dramov. “We don’t have the kind of design issues that have plagued other projects on the mall.”

All the same, according to a source close to the project, there were rancorous meetings with the three governing bodies, and at one session, a King foundation honcho tossed a book at someone at the table. The same groups will also be pivotal in obtaining an extension for the project.

“In order to raise millions of dollars, you need two things: excellent leaders and administration,” says Du Bois. “There was a brief time when we had both. Now, it’s a tragedy that once again, under the leadership of Harry Johnson, they don’t have either one. I’d give anything to have them succeed, but at the moment . . .”

King deserves to be on the mall, but perhaps the Alphas need to look beyond themselves to make it happen. There is a memorable quote from 1957, when King himself chided the fraternity for wasting money that should have gone to the struggle. At an Alpha convention he attended, according to Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters, someone had announced, bragging, that the members had spent $500,000 on liquor. “A handful of Negroes,” said King, ” . . . spent more money in one week for whiskey than all of the 16 million Negroes spent that whole year for the United Negro College Fund and for the NAACP. Now that was a tragedy.” Maybe the thousands of members of the fraternity of Paul Robeson and Thurgood Marshall need to make sure their leadership does it right.