Over the weekend, (on Sunday, Oct. 16), dignitaries gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. at the official dedication ceremony for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, (during which President Obama spoke).
Earlier this academic year, (on Aug. 26), two of WIU’s own dignitaries—president Jack Thomas (center), and Ron Williams, assistant vice president of academic affairs—attended a special Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity dedication for the memorial. Thomas and Williams graciously agreed to share their impressions of this special day—which they experienced with noted Civil Rights leader C.T. Vivian, who grew up in Macomb—and explain the fraternity’s involvement in the dedication, below.
Was your attendance at the dedication ceremony tied to your membership in Alpha Phi Alpha, or were you there to represent WIU, or on your own as African American leaders in higher education?
Our attendance at the dedication ceremony was tied to all three. Dr. King was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, and as members of the same fraternity, we have supported the development of the monument for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. since the fraternity moved the idea forward through congress in the mid-1990s. During the celebration, Dr. Thomas represented Western Illinois University as president.
What was most memorable or surprising about the day? What were some of your impressions of the monument itself, or of the ceremony?
There were many memorable events of the day. The highlight of the dedication ceremony was the speech delivered by Rev. Bernice King, Dr. King’s youngest daughter. Many civil rights leaders were in attendance and gave remarks and/or were recognized. Ambassador Andrew Young, who was a leader in the civil rights movement and a personal friend and confidant to Dr. King, who is also a member of Alpha, provided timely, appropriate remarks that set the tone for the viewing of the memorial. We have been told that the day was similar to the sentiment that was felt almost 40 years to the day of the anniversary of the March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. The actual memorial is a 30-foot statue of Dr. King, emerging from between two mountains and flanked by granite edges that have inscriptions of Dr. King’s most recognized quotes.
Was it planned, or a coincidence, that you met with Rev. C.T. Vivian at this event? What did it feel like to be there with a contemporary of Dr. King’s?
Because Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian is a member of Alpha and was a prominent leader in the civil rights movement, we imagined that he would be there. However, the time we were able to spend with him was not planned. Our time with him is particularly special because he attended college here and received an honorary doctorate from Western Illinois University. He also grew up (for the most part) in Macomb. As usual, we are honored to be in the presence of Dr. Vivian. He has spoken on campus a couple of times and he has a wealth of knowledge regarding civil rights, social justice, the negative affects of poverty, and the lack of access to quality (public) education.
It is a very humbling experience to be in the presence of “giants” like Rev. Dr. Vivian and others who made monumental sacrifices to ensure the civil liberties of under-resourced people in this country.
This project took a long time to get off the ground, in terms of fundraising and getting the design approved, according to news reports. What did you feel upon seeing this memorial finally “come to life”?
Seeing the memorial was absolutely awesome; it was a true testament to what hard work and determination can do. We had heard of it many years ago and are founding sponsors and donors to the “Build The Dream” project. The project was approved to move forward for space on the national mall in 1996.
Overall, what do you think is the most memorable or moving feature of the memorial? What do you hope college students—or anyone who sees it—take away from viewing it?
The most moving feature of the memorial is the statue of Dr. King. His image is chiseled out of the side of a mountain. The view, the image, and the overall theme serve as an example of Dr. King’s dream becoming more of a reality for many Americans. Witnessing the image of Dr. King on the national mall has special importance to us as the sons and grandsons of individuals who: participated in the March on Washington and other demonstrations, risked their lives to sit at lunch counters for service, were denied services and mortgages for homes in “restricted” areas, and traveled in spaces and places where they were hated for the color of the skin and their ethnicity. Additionally,
the quotes that are on display and the entire monument itself should speak to all people, without regard for ethnicity, education attainment level, social economic status, culture, creed, or race, who believe in equality and social justice for the entire U.S. citizenry and global society.