Martin Luther King Jr.: A Dream Realized

Martin Luther King Jr.: A Dream Realized

MLK Foundation president Harry Johnson discusses the challenges and joys of raising millions to build a monument to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Published August 22, 2011

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., Harry E. Johnson, President/CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation, and District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray tour the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington. (Photo: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

On Aug. 28, the anniversary of his famous Dream speech, a national memorial to the Martin Luther King Jr. will be dedicated as the world watches and listens to a star-studded line-up that includes President Obama, Aretha Franklin and others who will gather to honor the civil rights legend. But if it were not for the efforts of an everyday hero, Harry Johnson, Sr., president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, the celebration might still be a dream.


The monument was the brainchild of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, of which King was a member, who played a pivotal role in getting approval for the monument to be built on the National Mall. Since 2002, Johnson, a past president of the fraternity, has worked ardently to raise the $120 million needed to build the King monument, leaving behind a lucrative, and probably less stressful, law career in Texas. When he came on board, General Motors and fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger had said that they would contribute $10 million and $15 million, respectively, but there were no firm commitments. Locking them down was easy, compared to what happened over the next several months.


“When we got ready to do our initial fundraising campaign, 9/11 occurred. So, we had to go silent for another year,” Johnson recalled. “Shortly thereafter, we began a campaign and the tsunami occurred; shortly after that, it was Katrina. So we did find that every 18 months, there was some type of man-made or natural disaster that we had to deal with and we just persevered through that and even the bad economy.”


So far, Johnson has raised $114 million, but must still raise an additional $6 million. The largest contributions have come from GM ($10 million) and Hilfiger ($7 million), as well as donations at the $1 million to $3 million level. The foundation hosted a Dream Concert in 2006 at Radio City Music Hall that featured such artists as Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Babyface and Garth Brooks, and Dream Dinners in various cities around the nation. Several large corporations, such as Viacom, Exxon Mobil, Shell and other oil companies, also played major roles in the fundraising effort.


One of the most heartening aspects of the effort, Johnson said, was a very successful grassroots campaign that enabled ordinary citizens, from faith-based groups to school children, to contribute whatever they could to make a dream come true.


“We had a 'Kids for King' campaign where we asked kids to write to us and tell them what Dr. King meant to them. They would tell us their story and perhaps send in a donation of $1 or $5,” Johnson said, adding that children from a school in Houston raised $3700 by bringing in their dimes and quarters.


In addition to learning about the gift of giving, the children’s fundraising efforts provided opportunities for them to learn about King, as well as other civil rights leaders, including Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., and others.


“There are unsung heroes who they may not have ever heard of, like Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt T. Walker or Dorothy Height,” Johnson said. “I think these are people who they need to learn more about and say, “Wow. These folks made a difference—not just in their lives, but in our lives and in the future lives to be born.”


The King monument is the first to memorialize someone who is not a president and who is African-American. Johnson said that while his Alpha brothers’ primary aim was to honor the civil rights legend, they also wanted the entice young people to go to the National Mall and be able to see someone who looks like them. He hopes that visitors will find it a place of serenity where they can think about King’s words and deeds and incorporate into their lives the monument's four themes: hope, democracy, justice and love.

Written by Joyce Jones


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