Washington, D.C. — Thousands of people turned out at the National Mall on Sunday to celebrate the new memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to hear from a series of speakers that included civil rights luminaries, preachers, movie stars and the president of the United States.
In many ways, the tribute to King also served as a political platform for the Obama administration and its supporters, who used the event to advance issues that ranged from affordable health care to union rights, all causes they said King embraced or would have embraced and that are imperiled by the political polarities of the day.
Even if the speakers didn’t make the event political, the crowd would have done so. Indeed, as the Battle Hymn of the Republic was being sung, the crowd all began to chant “four more years” when images of the first family strolling near the new MLK memorial appeared on the two Jumbotrons erected on both sides of the stage at West Potomac Park.
President Obama — who spoke at the base of the MLK memorial and away from the main stage — said the MLK memorial is not just a monument to pay tribute to King as an individual, but to all of the people, including the unsung heroes, who comprised the civil rights movement that King led. The president said the monument also serves as a reminder of the work that has yet to be done.
“Our work is not done,” Obama said. “So on this day, in which we celebrate a man and a movement that did so much for this country, let us draw strength from those earlier struggles.
“Let us remember that change has never been quick,” Obama said, seemingly comparing his own travails as a President who is trying to revive a faltering economy and bring about health care reform to the struggles of King.
He noted that it took a decade “before the moral guidance of Brown v. Board of Education was translated into the enforcement measures of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but those 10 long years did not lead Dr. King to give up.”
“He kept on pushing, he kept on speaking, he kept on marching until change finally came,” Obama said.
Speaker after speaker extolled the enduring legacy of King.
They ranged from famed Black actresses Cicely Tyson and Diahann Carroll to the Rev. Al Sharpton to fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, whose company distributed free white Tommy Hilfiger MLK memorial caps to the crowd.
In a sea of people who wore the caps or T-shirts that invoked King’s famous “I Have a Dream,” speech, several people stood out because of attire affiliated with higher education.
They included fraternity members who sported the black and gold colors of Alpha Phi Alpha — the same fraternity that King belonged to — or the royal purple of Omega Psi Phi.
One man wore a black T-shirt that declared, “I (heart) HBCUs.”
William Johnson, 66, a former Baltimore public school teacher, and his wife, Celestine, a registered nurse, both sported matching black and gold UMBC sweatshirts.
Asked why, Johnson said he and his wife have three daughters, ages 27, 25 and 22, who are all doing postgraduate or graduate work in medicine, gerontology and environmental science, respectively, at UMBC. They also have a son, 18, who just began his undergraduate studies in music at Howard University.
“This is the dream that Dr. King wanted for our kids,” Johnson, 66, said in reference to higher education during an interview on the soggy ground at West Potomac Park.
The dedication event caused Johnson to reflect on his days as a young Black soldier stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., as part of a unit that had been put on alert to quash potential riots of the 1960s. Johnson recalled how he and his fellow Black soldiers were prepared to defy orders.
“I was not prepared to put my bayonet in the face of people that look like me that were fighting for their rights,” Johnson said.
Others spoke of how that same fight continues in the political realm today.
“We got some folks that want to take us back 50 years,” said Ronald Swann, sporting the colors of his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, in a broadside aimed at Obama’s political foes.
A 1976 chemistry and biology graduate from Cheney University, the nation’s oldest HBCU, Swann now works as a regulatory scientist at the FDA.
He said many Black federal employees got the sense that their peers felt they should have been placated by the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first Black president.
But having a Black president, Swann said, doesn’t mean that discrimination and racial prejudice doesn’t persist, including in the workplace.
“Dr. King was responsible for what change we do have, but that change is constant,” Swann said. “We have a long way to go.”