During my stay in Washington, DC this past Christmas, I hoped to experience something new in a city I am all too familiar with, having spent the better part of my youth there. It had been a city of growing diversity, with immigration from Southeast Asia and Central America, but it was still rooted in a unique past that reflected the local Southern culture and a strong African American presence since Colonial times. DC even had its own “language”. Using words like jonx (junc, jaunt), sice (siced), jone (jonin’) would quickly reveal one’s roots.
So I decided to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, one of the city’s newest and most popular. With the recent protests and highly publicized acts of civil disobedience in order to obtain justice for grievances (based on racial injustice) or to right past wrongs, a visit to the memorial seemed quite appropriate.
Standing at that spot I became transfixed by the view and its historical importance, but had to quickly move, because of the long queue of tourists with selfie sticks who wanted to memorialize that even in their own way.
I stayed at the Washington Hotel, directly adjacent to the Willard where King had stayed. Much of the city, with its low-rise urban fabric, looks strikingly similar to those tumultuous days of the “great struggle” in the 1960s. From there I walked to the King Memorial by way of the Lincoln Memorial. I passed the future Museum of African American History and Culture, a handsome edifice designed by David Adjaye that recalls the image of a traditional African basket. Surrounded by tourists, yet deep in my thoughts and self-aware of my own imperfections and insecurities as I advance in my career, I recalled how our “heroes” were beset by their own imperfections. King was a flawed man, but a leader of a great struggle, and an inspiration to all of humanity.
I made my way to the top of the Lincoln Memorial steps to the spot where King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. The event was engraved in the marble of the landing some years later however the faded lettering is need of some attention. I remembered how in junior high I helped a friend memorize it in its entirety for an oratorical competition. Standing at that spot, I became transfixed by the view and its historical importance but had to quickly move, because of the long queue of tourists with selfie sticks who wanted to memorialize that event in their own way.
Unfortunately the King Memorial was not easily reached from the Lincoln Memorial, in spite of any symbolism from the proximity of the two and its location on a prominent axis linking the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. Symbolism also imbued the design of the memorial itself, as visitors passed through the “mountain of despair” to reach the “stone of hope” upon which Dr. King’s likeness is carved. His statue faces the Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial. While it was imposing, I actually felt a far more powerful connection to Dr. King and his vision at the Lincoln Memorial, especially because of the moving images and recording of that event that we have all seen. The King Memorial did, however, give words to my thoughts. There are fourteen quotes inscribed on two walls. I took one quote to heart:
“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”