Many people around the world, especially those under a certain age, don’t know or have forgotten that Martin Luther King Jr. was a fiercely anti-war activist, who frequently spoke out against the Vietnam war. So it is fitting that the five-day celebration of the King Memorial began with a gala dinner focused on nonviolent efforts to achieve global peace and democracy.
“For many people who are of my generation, Dr. Martin Luther King was the defining leader of an era. To my high school class, his dream was our awakening to the crucial political and moral questions of our time. He taught us, as he said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, that civilization and violence are antithetical concepts, and nonviolence is a powerful moral force for social transformation,” said MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell, who served as mistress of ceremony at the international salute dinner that kicked off a five-day celebration of the King Memorial dedication.
Mitchell recalled the dismay that King felt when others questioned his call for “a declaration of independence from the Vietnam war.” To him it was a signal that people didn’t truly understand him, his commitment or calling.
“That is why this memorial that will be dedicated this weekend matters so much, not only for our generations but for future generations. Through his words and powerful gaze and his eyes carved from the stone of hope, we can all try to know him, to better understand where he was trying to lead us to a revolution that’s still unfinished nearly a half century later,” Mitchell said.
Fellow man of faith and Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu was unable to attend the dinner in person, but delivered a video message.
“I am one of the millions who owe their freedom to Dr. King’s advocacy of democracy, justice, hope and love. Dr. King’s teaching inspired and established a new era of civil rights in America. His spirit has encouraged new democracies around the world, including here in South Africa,” Desmond said. “And the power of his legacy continues to inspire and guide people searching for freedom and equality. This wonderful memorial will permanently stand in the heart of America’s capital city, but the values it represents will reach and resound around the world.”
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who served in former President Bill Clinton’s administration, spoke about how King believed that morality should be at the core of international relationships, which some might wonder, today, whether that is a reasonable standard to set, given nations’ individual and often conflicting economic, political and security interests.
“It's far easier to talk about the redemptive power of love than it is to apply that concept in a complex and challenging world. We cannot always live up to the standard that Dr. King established and we should admit that. But if we ever fail to acknowledge morality as a guiding light, we are truly lost and we should never forget that,” Albright said.
The evening’s sweetest moment came when a delighted and genuinely surprised Albright was presented with a miniature replica of the King Memorial, but it was most profound when Stevie Wonder made a surprise appearance, taking the stage to describe how he was able to “see” the memorial through touch, thanks to Harry Johnson, president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation, who made it possible for him to ride a cherry picker to experience the King statue by hand. Wonder announced that he would donate $10,000 per year so that as many other blind people as possible could do the same, and if that’s not enough, he quipped, he’ll simply have to sell more records.
“As I touched this memorial of Dr. King, I think of what I hope we all will do. I hope we will remember the meaning behind the monument. I hope that we’ll remember, touching the base of it, the people who are poor in this country that are suffering and that our spirits are tall enough — as tall as the monument stands — [to do] something about that,” Wonder said.
(Photo: AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)