District of Columbia residents watched the sun shine brightly on the façade of the new 30-foot Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial at “D.C. Day,” a chance for people in the District to view of the statute of King and the wall bearing some of his penetrating words.
The statue, conveying an indelible image of King’s face, projects an unwavering dignity and power. It stands in seeming contrast to the feelings of many in the District who are pushing for the city’s full representation in Congress, along with increased employment opportunities for its residents.
“I think it gives us another catalyst, another stimulus to try to work to compel our own rights,” D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray told Politic365. Gray will be marching alongside other advocates for statehood in Saturday’s D.C. Full Democracy Freedom Rally and March, which almost marks the 48th anniversary of King’s March on Washington. King was reportedly a supporter of statehood for the District.
“Democracy hasn’t come to the District of Columbia in ways that it has come to the rest of this nation,” said Gray. “This is a nation that goes to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other places and fights for democracy for others. It’s time for us to fight for people in the District of Columbia. We have 600,000 people who have no vote in Congress. We are the only nation’s capital in the free world that has no vote in this national legislative body. We can’t approve our own budget; we can’t approve our own local laws. That is a travesty of democracy, and it’s time for it to end. “
Many other local politicians attended D.C. Day, including D.C. Council members Vincent Orange, D-At-Large, Michael Brown, Independent-At Large, and Marion Barry, D-Ward 8. Dignitaries included Maudine Cooper, president of the Greater Washington Urban League, Joslyn Williams, president of Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, and Harry E. Johnson Sr., president and CEO of the King Memorial Foundation.
Most agreed that if King were alive today, he would have condemned the high rate of unemployment for minorities nationally and in the District.
“Dr. King would decry it. Dr. King would be pleading with America to recognize that it is time we did more,” said Gray. “Remember what Dr. King was doing the day before he was assassinated, why he was in Memphis in the first place. He was there to march on behalf of rights for sanitation workers in Memphis. He would be arm and arm with us to fight unemployment. He would be urging, he would be cajoling this president to invest more, to work more to invest in stimulus dollars, so we could get people back to work again.”
Cooper, of the Urban League, said King would not be pleased with the situation today. “I think Dr. King would want to know ‘Where we have been all these years?’” said Cooper. “The notion is that he was here, he made his statements, and we took his statements and we sort of sat back and relaxed. We didn’t follow up with the work that we need to implement with all of the things that he said. We’re doing all the work with this statute, but the bottom line is we need to do more — much more.”
Brown, chair of the D.C. City Council’s Committee on Housing and Workforce Development, said King would transition his focus from civil rights restoration to economic empowerment. Brown also said that in the upcoming legislative session he would focus on initiatives to provide job training and more incentives for businesses to hire employees.
“Dr. King would say it is an atrocity for so many men and women to be unemployed in this country,” said Williams, of the AFL-CIO. “And now that we have an African American president in this country, we really need to redouble our effort to make sure that those who have always been at the bottom of the ladder really began to climb up.”
Area residents who viewed the memorial acknowledged issues facing the District but were pleased and proud that the memorial was in place.
“It makes your soul peaceful,” said Jackie Lawson of northeast Washington. “I feel like this is the ultimate…. We’ve reached a plateau. It reminds me of inauguration day … so many cultures and races came together for celebration, and you see a lot of that here.”
Aaron and Gloria Stills were both impressed with the memorial. Gloria Stills, a former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, remembers traveling to the District from her native Albany, Georgia, in 1963 to attend the March on Washington.
She said knew that in her lifetime she would see a national memorial dedicated to the memory of King. “In the sixties we had foresight then,” she said. “We knew that there would be change, so I am glad that I lived to see it, but I knew [it would happen] eventually because I knew that we were worthy.”
Meanwhile, Gray maintained hope that Obama would draw a source of inspiration from King’s legacy while working on his jobs initiative, to be announced in September.
“I hope the president will come back after Labor Day and use Dr. King’s Memorial and Dr. King’s memory as in inspiration to stand up for what I think he needs to stand up for at this stage,” said Gray. “There will be people who will resist it, but he can still stand up for the right thing and there are so many of us out here who will heartily support it.”