King's Son And Friend Moved By Memorial Dedication

Aug 24, 2011
Originally published on August 24, 2011 12:02 pm

The new monument honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. is the only one on the National Mall to commemorate an African-American, and the only one on that side of the Mall honoring a nonpresidential figure. It shows King emerging from a stone extracted from a mountain, which is inspired by a line from his famous "I Have a Dream" speech:

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

The monument will be officially dedicated Aug. 28, which is the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington, where King's speech was delivered. It opened to the public on Monday.

Andrew Young, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who was a dear friend and confidant to King, tells NPR host Michel Martin that he "gets choked up" when thinking about the approaching dedication. The conversation also included Martin Luther King III, eldest son of the slain civil rights leader.

Young fought alongside King in the battle against racial segregation and poverty. He recalls King's commitment to the campaign, which stemmed from intense racial hostility particularly in the South. King wanted to return to Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968, to support striking sanitation workers who were paid less and expected to work in bad weather. His airline flight was delayed by a bomb threat.

But Young says King was so adamant about going to Memphis to help the sanitation workers that he took a 4 a.m. bus to get there. He delivered his well-known "Mountaintop" speech that night. And the next day he was assassinated.

Young says he remembers the events leading up to King's death and realizes that King knew exactly what he was doing and the kind of danger to which he was exposing himself.

The ambassador notes that King often said: "You're gonna die. You don't have anything to say about that. That's the one thing that unites all humanity. The only thing you have to say is what you die for. And in order to die for something, you have to start now living for something."

Now, when looking at the monument, Young says he sees nonviolence — the spiritual power of the civil rights movement that changed America.

Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of the slain civil rights leader, says he sees strength and hope when looking at the monument.

"Particularly with this global crisis, a lot of people have lost hope, and hope is so important. What perhaps is most significant is we have in the backdrop presidents and war memorials. And now you have a memorial dedicated to a man who advocated peace, love, forgiveness, respect and dignity," he says.

He adds that perhaps the monument will help America change its course.

"We see crisis scenarios, whether it's in Libya or in many places around the world, where conflict could ultimately destroy a nation. But I think my dad and his team — Ambassador Young and so many others — taught us how we could live together without destroying either person or property," he says.

And as America today is struggling with political polarization and an economic downturn, Young says, the middle class has dropped into poverty, and the number of people who are homeless or jobless is larger than in the 1950s and '60s when King initially challenged the nation to end poverty. Young hopes the monument revives that challenge.

Young adds that the challenge for democracy and free enterprise is to discuss the problems of the poor.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We want to start today with an event that is as big as the movement it symbolizes, the dedication of a national monument honoring the civil rights leader, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is the only monument to an African-American on the National Mall and the only one honoring an individual who did not serve as president. It depicts King emerging from a stone extracted from a mountain.

The design is inspired by a line from his famous, "I have a dream speech."

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

The Reverend MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: With this faith we will be able to hew of the mountain of despair of stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

MARTIN: The monument will be officially dedicated this Sunday which also marks the 48th anniversary of the historic march in Washington where that speech was given, and the monument is already inspiring people across the country. According to a "USA Today" Gallup poll, 70 percent of Americans surveyed say they are interested in visiting the new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. Here to talk with us about all this is Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of the slain civil rights leader and Andrew Young, a very dear friend and colleague of King's who shared the fight against segregation along with him.

He's also the former United States ambassador to the United Nations and a former mayor of Atlanta. And they're both with us from Atlanta and I thank you both so much for joining us.

MARTIN LUTHER KING III: Thank you.

ANDREW YOUNG: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, both of you were on hand in 2006 for the groundbreaking of the monument and Ambassador Young I want to start with you because that was a very emotional day for you and I just wondered do you remember what you were feeling then and what are you feeling now as the official dedication approaches?

YOUNG: I tell you I get choked up every time I think about it because he was, you know, so committed, so dedicated and I contend that I didn't - though I didn't realize it then - but I can contend that he sort of give this whole poor people's campaign to point to the problems of poverty and when it wasn't getting enough attention going from we started in March in Mississippi and we went across the South and then up North and it wasn't getting the recognition that he'd hoped for and so, even though he'd been working all day he said, look, I'm going to Memphis to be with the sanitation workers.

And we said, look you're crazy, and he got up at four o'clock in the morning to catch a six o'clock plane to get to Memphis to be with the sanitation workers. And so, I remember the events that lead up to his death and realized the fact that he knew what he was doing, he knew what the dangers were and he used to say all the time, look, you're going to die. You don't have anything to say about that.

That's the one thing that unites all humanity. The only thing you have to say is what you die for and in order to die for something you have to start now living for something and that was sort of a mantra of his that he preached to us all and he'd say, you know, who wants to die for nothing? You walk out of here and step off a curb and get hit by a truck, you've wasted a wonderful life.

Find something you're willing to give your life to and don't worry about death. Death will take care of itself.

MARTIN: So, when you look at the monument you see what?

YOUNG: I see not black, I see non-violence. I see the spiritual power of that movement that changed America and didn't kill anybody and didn't destroy any property. And I wish we could have gotten that lesson to Libya because Libya's going through a very, very hard time pulling itself together. We got that message into southern Africa and we worked with Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda and they - and President Obasanjo of Nigeria just around Rhodesia and Namibia and South Africa and to work with the leadership.

It took a little longer but those countries were transformed without violence and we developed pretty much a stable leadership that has run those countries and I think that's what this statue stands for me. It stands for the possibility of changing the world without violence.

MARTIN: Mr. King what about you? And, you know, I've been thinking about you because you're also a father now and you - this monument is a wonderful accomplishment but I'm sure you would have liked to have had your father with you to watch you grow up and help you grow. When you look at it what do you see?

III: Well, the first thing that I see is strength and hope. You know, one of the challenges in our nation and world particularly with this global crisis is a lot of people have lost hope and hope is so important. What perhaps is most significant is we have in the backdrop presidents in war memorials and now, you have a memorial dedicated to a man who advocated peace and love and forgiveness and respect and dignity. And all of that is manifested for what I see as I see this monument that perhaps it helps us begin to change course in this nation and really perhaps throughout the world.

Because so many will come to the shores of this nation and will come to our nations capital to visit, not just domestically but people from all over the globe. So, I think it helps America in a real sense because it's not just presidents and war memorials but as I said, it is a phenomenal incredible man who led a movement changed this nation without using one weapon, in a very positive way, a way that we will always remember, a way that will be sustaining because we see crisis scenarios, whether it's in Libya or in many places around the world where conflict could ultimately destroy a nation.

But I think my dad and his team Ambassador Young and so many others taught us how we could live together without destroying either person or property. And this, I mean, this is really short of phenomenal, what it represents and the fact that, I mean, quite frankly, you know, we don't know what's going to happen in our national government and what I mean by that is we'd certainly have a King holiday and hopefully we will have one but there used to be a George Washington and an Abraham Lincoln day.

Now, it's President's Day, so in theory, King holiday could be changed to something else, Human Rights Day. But as long as this civilization exists, as long as our nations capital exists there will be a monument forever representing peace, non-violence and love, as Martin Luther King Junior advocated.

YOUNG: And I never thought of that. That's interesting. But you just look at - you look at even the difference between Egypt and Libya where in Egypt they started their revolution like we started ours - at the hour of prayer on their knees. Now, it was not without trouble and difficulty but they'll have much less trouble putting together Egypt than they will Libya or than we will have in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, it's a message to of non-violence that I think is the important thing here. That's the powerful thing.

MARTIN: We're talking about the upcoming dedication of the memorial to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I'm joined by King confidante, the former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, and Dr. King's eldest son, Martin Luther King III. The monument is being officially dedicated on Sunday.

You know, we were - we reached out to NPR fans on Facebook and Twitter, and we asked them what the monument meant to them. And we got over 450 comments on Facebook alone in just the couple of hours that we posted that message.

And I'll just read one of them to you from a woman named Tiffany Jones. She says: To me, it means and represents the true American dream that my ancestors strived and died for, to see a monument that looks like me or the sons I will have and raise will finally be able to see themselves in a monument, unlike the statues already present, such as the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore. We, as people in culture, will be able to correlate Dr. King's vision and our great history and future.

That's just one of the, you know, responses that we saw.

You know what I was curious about, though? We are in a very polarized time, politically, and it's also a time when a lot of people are suffering economically, both in the United States and around the world. And I'm wondering if you feel that this dedication at this particular moment in history is meaningful in that way.

And Ambassador Young, I'll start with you.

YOUNG: Well, in the sense that it focuses on poverty. Now, when Dr. King was talking about poverty, he was talking about people who were making less than - well, we were 30 percent of the population.

I think the middle class has dropped into the area of poverty now, and so the number of people that are homeless or without any kind of job or benefits is larger now than it was when he challenged the nation to end poverty.

And so I hope this revives that challenge, because it's ridiculous that we have not found a way to deal with poverty. And I say that communism failed because it couldn't create a middle class. We have learned how to create a middle class. China has created a middle class. India's created a middle class, South Africa, Brazil, Nigeria.

The challenge for democracy and free enterprise is to address the problems of the poor, otherwise they will rise up and destroy what we have. And I think that there is the capacity in a free market democracy. In fact, it even makes good business sense.

There's a book that I like called "Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid." The poor are really an unserved market. And once you find a way to include them and make them feel a part of the society, you don't have the kind of disruptions you get in other parts of the world, where people are left out.

MARTIN: Gentlemen, I need to ask you to stay with us as we take a short break. When we come back, we're going to continue this conversation about the dedication of the new memorial to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Mall. Its formal dedication is set for this Sunday.

Our guests are Andrew Young, former ambassador to the United Nations and a close confidante of Dr. King's, and Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of the slain civil rights leader and an activist in his own right.

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Please stay with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.