Black St. Louis should take special pride in the historic opening of the MLK Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Though it should be a beacon of pride for all Black Americans – and, indeed, all Americans and all world citizens who believe in freedom, liberty and opportunity for all – we have special reasons to feel proud.
The memorial, more properly named the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, was the result of a large, complex group effort. But it originally was the brainchild of the African-American fraternity that claimed Dr. King as a member, Alpha Phi Alpha, and within that organization it was a black man from St. Louis, Harry E. Johnson Sr., who led the effort, with support every way from another Alpha from St. Louis, Ty Christian. The love and dedication Harry and Ty have shown for their fraternity, their people and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. should be an inspiring example to us all.
Harry and Ty have shown that a noble dream, led by vision and backed with hard work, can build a mountain. It can build the mountain of a monument on the National Mall – the first such monument in our nation to an African American, to a peace activist and to anyone who did not lead the United States as president and commander in chief. St. Louis has a history of looking down upon itself, and Black America has been doing some soul-searching about the future of its young men. Harry and Ty have shown the world that black men from St. Louis can change this country and world for the better by helping to create a monument to peace, equal opportunity and African-American accomplishment.
At the same time, we ask everyone to consider our lead Business story this week, “Money and the MLK Memorial,” written – as it happens – by another African-American man who spent his early years as a journalist in St. Louis, George Curry (who worked for The St. Louis American briefly earlier in his career). Like a good journalist (and George is a great one), he asks hard questions about the MLK Memorial. Specifically, he asks who was willing to contribute to its construction in amounts commensurate to their wealth, and he questions whether Dr. King’s legacy was respected properly by everyone needed to make this dream a reality.
What Curry’s report reveals, according to the last data made public by the memorial foundation, was few large financial contributions toward the monument from Black America when we now have a sizable class of the super-rich who could have afforded to donate $1 million. Sheila Johnson-Newman, co-founder of BET, and Victor B. MacFarlane, a San Francisco developer, were the only blacks who made contributions of $1 million or more. When we consider that the foundation raised more than $100 million, we have to admit this could and arguably should have been done with 100 phone calls to the very wealthiest African Americans. Most of their fortunes would have been impossible without the sweat, blood and ultimately death of Dr. King and others who confronted segregation and injustice.
This is a reminder that Dr. King’s dream was widely and deeply shared. It is not only the people who benefitted directly from his courageous struggles – African Americans – who remember his struggle and his contributions to the nation’s well being and are willing to support its memory. In St. Louis and around the nation, we honor Dr. King’s life and work best when we demonstrate through our actions that we are willing to marhsal the audacity and passion that were essential to making the changes he championed so well. As Dr. King wrote, “It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people ... but for the appalling silence and indifference of good people who sit around and say wait on time.”
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