By Matthew Koehler
On a beautiful mid-October morning, community leaders, celebrities, a few very big names in national politics, and several hundred people assembled at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial to celebrate its 10th anniversary on the National Mall. Those gathered paid tribute to the civil rights leader’s legacy and tied it into our current socio-political moment.
The police and secret service were out in force on the exceptionally pleasant Thursday morning to secure the area around the Memorial, direct vehicle and foot traffic, and answer questions from curious passersby. While the scheduled commemoration ceremony was to be small and intimate, President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were among the guest speakers.
The commemoration ceremony was emceed by author and actor Hill Harper, who kept the ceremony airy while also tying in themes of social justice. During the national anthem, Harper made a joke about the helicopter flying overhead, saying, “You know it’s a high quality production because they timed the helicopter flying over right as we sang the anthem.”
There was a touching moment when Harper was talking to 4th grader Harrison McRae, who led the gathered celebrants in the Pledge of Allegiance. When Harper asked McRae what Dr. King meant to him, McRae responded, “[He’s] my best friend.”
Around noon, Minister Wintley Phipps did a show-stopping rendition of Amazing Grace.
Shortly thereafter, the helicopters flew overhead and there was a short interlude, then Speaker Pelosi, Vice President Harris, and President Biden arrived.
Pelosi spoke briefly before Biden and Harris, explaining that the “memorial [is] dedicated to peace and non-violence.” She also touched on Biden’s Build Back Better plan, saying, “We must make real the promise of democracy for racial justice and environmental injustice.”
Vice President Harris and President Biden spoke at length, using the opportunity to talk about Dr. King’s legacy and how it relates to the cause for racial justice today, as well as tie in their social and economic plans.
“This monument is distinguished from every other monument along the mall. Dedicated to a man whose voice we can still hear,” Harris said. “We should not have to keep fighting to secure our fundamental rights, but fight we must. Fight we will.”
Harris struck a tone of defiance talking about the Freedom to Vote Act and how Senate Republicans refused to debate the bill in Congress. “Today, as a nation we must summon our own power…we must leverage our own power. [W]e are and must be unwavering in this fight and we must use our voice to call out any effort to obstruct justice.”
President Biden spoke to the moment the country is at right now, calling it an “inflection point” but also struck a hopeful tone. “From here we see the push and pull between progress. It’s up to us to choose who we want to be and what we want to be.”
The 30 foot high granite statue, envisioned by sculptor Lei Yixin and inspired by the line from Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech, (“Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope”) has become a focal point for activists and others. The late Representative John Lewis’ funeral procession even stopped at the Memorial.
Harnessing the power of the recent resurgence of the social justice movement, the Memorial Foundation has focused on supporting the next generation of leaders, sponsoring a Social Justice Fellows Program that “train[s] rising leaders in social justice with a detailed curriculum aimed at giving them the tools needed to succeed.”
One such Social Justice Fellow was Ms. Taylor J. Cowan, who introduced the speakers. Kowan spoke on Dr. King’s message of love, saying, “Dr. King continues to be the embodiment of love – not the easiest virtue to live up to. King’s words have provided me with light, meaning, and purpose throughout my life.”
She said his words constantly remind her to never lose hope.