It was very hot and sultry last Friday afternoon as I left a meeting I had attended in the DC suburbs. According to the radio announcer, 103 degrees with humidity making the “feels like” temperature somewhere around 110. I remember thinking that was what Houston was like in the summer, noting that the vehicle I was driving was one I bought in Houston in the summer of 2009 when the AC went out in my Chevy Malibu. It wasn’t exactly the kind of day to visit an outdoor landmark, but I try to see something every time I go to Washington.
This time, it was the Martin Luther King Memorial, which was under construction the last time we were in the city. Now completed, it stands just off Independence Avenue, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
The memorial does an excellent job of symbolic commemoration of the man, Dr. King, and his cause, the Civil Rights Movement. His profile is carved into a large granite block, giving the appearance of emerging from it. The other pieces of the memorial are also stone carvings, and rock work. And it does what it is intended to do for those looking at it, at least, it did for me. I got the same kind of feeling as I walked through this memorial as I did when I first approached the Oklahoma City bombing memorial, and when I walked up to the site of the World Trade Center in New York for the first time, and most recently, walking out toward the memorial wall at the Flight 98 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I am old enough to remember seeing bits and pieces of Dr. King’s work on television, and to remember his assassination. I was eleven, and shortly after that, a singer named Donovan helped to permanently etch those memories into my mind with his song, “Abraham, Martin and John.”
Part of the memorial includes a glassed-in book shop just across the street. Partly because it was so hot, and partly because reading and writing are a personal passion, I spent quite a bit of time in there. I think that having a bookstore available with subject matter specifically related to the history of what you’ve just seen is important, and more people should take advantage of the opportunity to enlighten and inform themselves of that history. Unfortunately, lack of historical background knowledge seems to be a common problem in our culture that clouds the truth and opens the door for prejudice and bigotry, which only leads to more conflict of the kind that Dr. King dedicated his life to preventing. The bookstore at the MLK memorial should be one of the most crowded venues in Washington.
Visiting any memorial or monument in Washington in the summertime involves standing in line and encountering a crowd. And so it was with the MLK memorial as well, except that the crowd there was noticeably more African American than at any of the other memorials in the area. Oh, there are African Americans everywhere else. But there aren’t as many whites at the MLK memorial, and that’s noticeable. That’s a real shame, too, because the civil rights that Dr. King fought so hard to achieve are a benefit to all Americans, and his struggle is the struggle of every American, not just those of African American descent.
Having been in Christian vocational ministry for thirty years, now, mostly in Christian school education, when the subject of Martin Luther King comes up, the attitudes change. Everyone has their opinion, but among white, middle class, conservative, evangelical Christians there is still an expression and an attitude that conveys patient tolerance, and not much else, like we have to do this to be polite or something. As far as having a real understanding of the whole civil rights struggle, the segregation, the misery of poverty, and the pain inflicted upon people who were simply trying to free themselves from oppression, if it exists among whites, it is buried deep and hard to find.
I once worked at a Christian school that wouldn’t recognize the holiday set aside for Dr. King’s birthday. They thought they were doing something wonderful by allowing African American students an excused absence to attend the parade downtown. They could only see the holiday, the parade and the whole celebration as an “African American event.” They have completely missed the point. And while I was visiting there last Friday, I thought of three different Washington, DC trips that I led for eighth grade students in another Christian school in Texas where I served as an administrator. The King memorial would have been on our itinerary. What would they have thought about that, before and after seeing it and studying about his life?
It’s a remarkable memorial. Go see it, and be touched. Be blessed.
For some related reading on a similar subject, go to the link on my blogroll for Dwight McKissic’s blog, and read his posts regarding the resolution he presented to the Southern Baptist Convention on repudiating Mormon documents. http://dwightmckissic.wordpress.com/