The long-awaited dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall on Sunday is not just a historic occasion for African-Americans, but a milepost on the nation's journey to social justice.
My own emotions are touched on so many levels—pride as an African-American, and as a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, King's own fraternity and the organization that has driven the project from the beginning, as the leader of a national civil rights and economic empowerment organization, but mostly as an American.
For all the mistakes that have been made attempting to carry out the principles outlined by the Founding Fathers, the principles themselves endure: All men—and let us not forget to include women—are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Perhaps more than anyone in American history, Dr. King embodied that ideal. He literally gave his life for it. Many people wonder if the dedication of his memorial symbolizes the recognition of Dr. King’s historical significance, but it’s clear to me that his prominence has been accepted for many decades now. That the dedication ceremony should take place with an African American president in the White House is a testament to his legacy.
But this dedication comes at a time of great crisis in the African-American community, and we should use this occasion to remember the millions of Americans who are jobless or underemployed and struggling to get by. On the day he was assassinated, Dr. King was in Memphis to support the rights of striking workers. He understood that a job doesn’t just mean a paycheck—it means dignity and self-respect.
The placards that were carried by the striking workers King went to Memphis to support made no reference to pay scales or fringe benefits. They said simply this: “I am a man.” They were fighting for recognition of their very humanity.
There will be many of Dr. King’s wise and eloquent quotations raised during the festivities, and many of them from the final speech he gave in Memphis the day before he died. But what I like to remember, more than any of the words he said, was his absolute fearlessness in confronting the challenges that lay ahead. It’s what we’ll need to face the challenges we face today, and the real legacy that we should remember.
Marc H. Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.