I plan to be among the thousands of people who will celebrate Sunday’s dedication of the national memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. And how could I avoid it? It’s taking place in my adopted hometown and on my birthday.
For most of my life, I have shared my birthday with a special moment in American history. On August 28, 1963, Dr. King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. It’s always irked me that my parents didn’t take me to celebrate my day with those 250,000 people who came out on a swamp-sweltering Wednesday to hear what would become Dr. King’s iconic sermon.
I remember that day vividly not because of the King speech but because I turned 7 that summer, and I was the guest of honor at the only birthday party I ever had. My folks never made much of a fuss about such celebrations. But we happened to be visiting relatives in Baltimore. They couldn’t believe I’d never had a party with bunting and the like. So Aunt Anne, Uncle Frank, and Cousin Frankie took it upon themselves to invite the neighborhood kids to a party in my honor. About the precise time that Dr. King’s booming bass thundered the closing line "Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last," a gaggle of Frankie’s friends, all strangers to me, were singing "Happy birthday, dear Sam. Happy birthday to you."
This year, my birthday will be memorable for a different reason. As I turn 55, President Barack Obama will deliver remarks at the official unveiling of the 30-foot, 8-inch granite sculpture of Dr. King.
The $120 million memorial took 14 years to become a park-like setting nestled among the cherry trees on four acres on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin. The memorial started out as an outrageously impossible idea by some members of my fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, who thought our most famous brother deserved a statue on the mall. They lobbied Congress, took the lead in raising the needed money, and helped create the commission that ultimately built the only national monument in the nation’s capitol that marks the life of a person who wasn’t elected president.
Now that the monument has become reality it’s a perfect time to celebrate. But it’s also appropriate to reflect on what King’s memory represents in our nation’s history. In the sweep of my lifetime, this country has freed itself from the most egregious vestiges of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow, to electing a black man as the most powerful leader in the free world. It’s an ironic and fitting twist of history proving just how much this nation has evolved that President Obama will dedicate the only monument on the Washington Mall honoring an African American.
Not to be lost in the hoopla and celebration, however, is the recognition that so much of Dr. King’s work remains undone. When he died in 1968, Dr. King was denouncing war and urging his fellow countrymen to find ways to deal with poverty, joblessness, and injustice at home. Much of what he preached in the last year of his life could be lifted up as a sermon appropriate for audiences to hear today.
“The dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial has been long-awaited, and people from around the world are coming to experience this historic moment,” Harry E. Johnson Sr., president of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, told The Washington Post. “We are excited to welcome them all.”
So am I. But as the crowds gather in Washington for the swirl of swanky activities leading up to the 11 a.m. unveiling of the monument on my birthday, the one wish I have is that Americans pause long enough to reflect on the progress made and rededicate ourselves to the work left undone. I believe that’s what Dr. King would want, and I can’t imagine a better birthday gift.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP-Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.