MLK Memorial Prompts Reflection

by Carol Zimmermann

Martin Luther King
A 30-foot sculpture of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is seen Aug. 22 at a memorial to the civil rights leader on the National Mall in Washington. The memorial’s Aug. 28 dedication was postponed because of Hurricane Irene.

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Sister Antona Ebo, an 87-year-old Franciscan Sister of Mary, does not want Washington’s new memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to just be a quick tourist stop.

She hopes visitors take time to reflect on the words of the civil rights leader carved in stone at the memorial, which opened to the public Aug 22. Or better yet, she hopes these words and the 30-foot likeness of Rev. King carved in stone will prompt some soul searching.

“If we have to keep talking about keeping the dream alive, then what have we been doing for it still to be a dream?” said Sister Antona.

“Martin was our dreamer; his dream was for his time. Who are our dreamers today? You have to search kind of hard to find people with new dreams appropriate for our time,” she said.

Sister Antona isn’t one to mince words, showing the same spirit she demonstrated in 1965 when she marched with Rev. King in a legendary protest for voting rights in Selma, Ala. The march took place just days after what has been called “Bloody Sunday” when state troopers assaulted demonstrators with clubs and tear gas.
Although she lives in St. Louis, Sister Antona visited the King memorial a month before it opened during a special preview for members of the National Black Sisters’ Conference and the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus.

The official dedication was scheduled to take place Aug. 28 – 48 years after Rev. King’s famous “I have a dream speech” – but it was postponed until September or October once weather forecasts showed Washington to be in Hurricane Irene’s path.

The memorial has been in the works for more than two decades. It cost $120 million, most of which has already been raised through private and corporate donations. It is the only memorial on the National Mall not dedicated to a war or a U.S. president.

It includes a 450-foot curved wall with quotations from Rev. King’s speeches, but snippets from the March on Washington address are missing from the wall because its designers wanted to promote his lesser-known statements.

Words from that famous speech set the tone though since visitors enter the memorial by going through a passageway of two granite rocks one of which is inscribed with the words: “Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” After the passageway, visitors come to the huge statue of Rev. King, which appears to be have been carved out of a pushed-out section of the two rocks.

The symbolism was not lost on Msgr. Ray East, pastor of St. Teresa of Avila parish in Washington, who said it was powerful to walk through the passageway and come to the other side where crowds assembled at the foot of the King statue.

He likened it to walking through despair to new life or finding light in darkness and love in hate to view a statue that conveys the sense of greatness of a “preacher who rose up when no one else would and spoke of hope and healing.”

Rev. King’s strong sense of hope even amid racism has long inspired Father Patrick Smith, pastor of St. Augustine parish in Washington, the oldest black Catholic church in Washington and a parish that housed many of the marchers that came to Washington in 1963.

Father Smith, who was born two months after the March on Washington, said he was always inspired by Rev. King “for believing in something so much that he was willing to die for it.”

He also said Rev. King’s words have had staying power because his dream was “clearly not just something for the African American community” but instead a “vision of the kingdom of God. That’s why it’s endured,” he told CNS.

And today, nearly 50 years after Rev. King spoke of his hope for racial equality, Americans are closely divided about the extent that dream has being fulfilled.

According to a USA Today/Gallup poll released Aug. 26, 51% feel this vision has been achieved while 49% say it has not. The poll, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, was conducted Aug. 4-7 surveying 1,319 adults.

Just visiting the memorial provides a pointed reminder of the work that still needs to be done, some say.

“We’ve come a mighty long way,” said Sister Roberta Fulton, a member of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur and president of the National Black Sisters’ Conference, “but there is still a lot of work to be done.”

The sister, who is principal of St. Martin de Porres School in Columbia, S.C., took part in the preview tour of the memorial this summer and said she intends to visit it every time she comes to Washington.

She described the memorial as a “blessing to African American people and to the nation” because it will enable people to “see what tremendous strength and faith Dr. King really had to keep moving forward.”