In August 2011 the long awaited Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial situated on the National Mall first opened to the general public and was later dedicated in a formal ceremony in October of the same year. The beautifully carved stone monument was meant to be a great monument to a great man for the entire world to see. While the monument has received mostly praise since it’s unveiling, it has also received some criticisms for the quotes selected to line the walls that flank the likeness of Dr. King which is the monuments centerpiece. Some have even offered unflattering critique to the likeness of Dr. King saying that it is either too small, doesn’t look enough like him or that they would have preferred his facial expression to look different than the current rendering.
But as the country celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. King on the federal holiday in his honor, that has become a National Day of Service, ‘a day on not a day off’ I find myself reflecting once again on my visit to the MLK Memorial. I don’t remember a single quote and I faintly remember the size of the monument or the expression on his face. I do remember three things very vividly though about my experience.
It was a cool late summer afternoon in Washington. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The sun wouldn’t go down for some time after I left the office so I decided to walk down the green of the National Mall beyond the Washington Monument and the World War II Memorial and venture ahead and to the left to see the MLK Memorial with my own eyes. The entire time I wondered what my grandfather and grandmother would have had to say about it if they were still alive.
When I arrived at the Memorial I was impressed by the hush of so many people who were gathered there. Hundreds of people were there but there was not a lot of talking or noise. It was mostly reverence. The most audible noise was the wind, inaudible you knew there were prayers of thankfulness being sent to God. Prayers for a number of reasons. The crowd was young and old, men, women and children and people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Quiet. Reflecting. Respectful.
I walked around for a few minutes before I heard someone call my name. It was a friend of one of my dear friends. He was sitting and taking in the monument for himself. He is African American, in his late forties and an out gay man who has lived in a domestic partnership with his life partner for nearly 20 years. We exchanged pleasantries.
I walked a few feet more and I felt a tap on the shoulder. It was a former colleague. She is a white woman, in her mid-thirties. She was there with her husband, an African American man who happened to be wearing his Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity sweater, and their handsome young son who seemed to be enjoying his time with his family and being outdoors. After I spoke to each of them I decided that I would head home.
As I headed out I heard my name called again. This time it was a young lady who once interned in the office next door to mine. She was excited to see me as I had always been a friendly face and offered her guidance when she asked. She explained that she did very well during her first year of college and that this semester she was home in Washington because she was interning in the Office of the Vice President. I was so proud of her.
Those three moments, those three people I saw are what I remember most about my visit to the MLK Memorial. I know that all three of their life experiences were greatly enriched by Dr. King’s work for equality in all areas of life. When we live our best life, love one another and take full advantage of the opportunities to serve and succeed, we each become living monuments honoring Dr. King.
Martin Luther King Day is every day. The true memorial to Dr. King is the way we live our lives.