April 4, 1968. I was in the first grade. Time has dimmed my memory but I can still see my mother entering my classroom, taking me by the hand and whisking me home. Later, I discovered Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. Riots had broken out at many of the schools in town and rumors swirled that violence was going to overtake the entire city, as it had happened in other parts of the country. The frustration, rage and grief of a people lit the country on fire.
The following year, as I readied myself for school, my mother thrust a black turtleneck at me announcing that I would be wearing the shirt to school. I hated turtlenecks and protested. My older sister, ever the diplomat, explained that it was “Wear Black Day” at school and if I didn’t wear the shirt, I’d be beaten by my classmates. Needless to say, I wore the shirt. I wish my mother had told me that I was wearing the shirt to honor Dr. King. Perhaps then the gesture would have had meaning. As it was, I spent the entire day tugging at the shirt, scratching my neck, and wondering why I was the only kid wearing black on “Wear Black Day.”
Throughout my college years, I adopted the wearing of a black armband as my own personal tribute. I like to say I wore it as a symbol of remembrance and solidarity with The Cause. And I did. But it is also true that it was a political statement as fashion. I was never one to be part of the “in” crowd, but on January 15th, with my black armband, I was so “in” I was out. When my classmates asked me about my attire, I would casually respond that this was my way of paying tribute to an American hero. Their eyes would grow wide and for a brief moment I was hip and oh-so-politically conscious. I was also pretentious, but thankfully, such pretensions in our youth are forgiven.
I take the task of honoring the life of Dr. King very seriously. A true example of courage and selflessness, he has been a shining light in my life. That is why I think it is important to imbue any tribute with real meaning. Through the years, I have attended public assemblies, marched in parades, and given speeches, yet somehow, none of these gestures have seemed to be quite adequate.
A handful of years ago, the gallant brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., the nation’s first Black Greek letter organization (and the fraternity of which King was a member), led the drive to build a national memorial for Dr. King on the Mall in Washington D.C. The memorial was unveiled in August of 2011 and is stationed between the Lincoln Memorial — where he delivered his “I Have A Dream” address — and the Jefferson Memorial. Who better to integrate this hallowed ground than Dr. King?
During the fund raising, I worked with the fraternity to raise the more than $100 million to pay for the memorial. All that work seems inadequate. Perhaps the reason is, other than the money that was donated, there has been no investment in other people.
I can’t help but wonder if — as honored as Dr. King would be by a stone memorial – if he wouldn’t prefer that we build a living memorial by continuing the work he started. How many poor children could be educated with $100 million? How many hungry families could be fed? A hundred million dollars and the energy required to raise that much capital has the potential to build the type of living memorial that will continue to resonate for generations, long after any stone monument has turned to dust.
Please don’t misunderstand. The memorial is an expression of love and respect, and in it holds the work of a lot of very fine people. I am not suggesting that their work was in vein.
I am, however, suggesting that there is still work to be done. Today, in honor of the MLK holiday, why not call the Corporation for National and Community Service and find out how to begin donating service within your own communities.
Dr. King dedicated his life to the uplifting of people. He spoke of himself as an extremist for love. He committed his body to laying the case for human dignity. Shouldn’t any tribute to Dr. King involve a similar investment in our neighbors? There is nothing wrong with assemblies, parades, speeches or even wearing black turtlenecks. But let’s also begin reaching out with love and spread our nation with light instead of fire.