Five thousand miles couldn’t stop Vernelle Dickerson from paying her respects to one of the most influential men in her life. A South Carolina native, Dickerson remembers the harsh conditions she and countless African Americans faced daily growing up in the Jim Crow South.
So when Dickerson, 59, learned that her trip to visit her daughter and grandson in the District coincided with the one-year anniversary of the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, she knew she had to be there.
“This is just exhilarating,” said Dickerson, a retiree. “I’m full of happiness and I feel great because I just loved [Dr. King] and to me, he’s one of the greatest men who have ever lived. I just feel really good and proud that he’s the first black man to sit among all of these other memorials.”
More than 150 people joined Dickerson on Tuesday, August 28, to pay tribute to King’s legacy during the King Memorial anniversary celebration on the National Mall. Photographers jostled for position as they crowded around Harry E. Johnson Sr., president and CEO of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, as he welcomed guests and discussed the memorial’s impact. Last year, Hurricane Irene delayed the official opening of the memorial, however, last Tuesday’s clear blue skies and cool breeze set the stage for a memorable event.
“We are so pleased that millions of people have come to visit this memorial,” said Johnson, 57, who calls Houston, Texas home. “I think it’s evident that when you come here you see people of all hues, races, creeds and colors. We’re excited about it.”
After Johnson addressed the crowd, he turned the microphone over to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), Robert G. Stanton, senior advisor to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, all of whom delivered rousing speeches. But perhaps the highlight of the evening came when Stanton stood behind the oak podium and asked those in attendance to join him in giving a round of applause to every young person in the crowd. Stanton mentioned the three tenets of King’s legacy: democracy, hope and love, and challenged each young person to finish what King started.
Stanton’s speech resonated with Shaunda Patterson-Strachan, who attended the celebration with her six-year-old daughter Daria. Patterson-Strachan, an attorney, said that she often talks with her daughter about the significance of King’s civil rights efforts, the positive impact on the lives of African Americans and how they paved the way for Barack Obama, the country’s first African-American president. Despite being just six years old, Patterson-Strachan says Daria understands. As her daughter stood next to her side, she discussed King’s impact on the youngster.
“As a parent, I feel like [Daria’s] living in a society where she can do anything that she wants,” said Patterson-Strachan, 36, who lives in Southeast. “There’s no question about that. I do feel that when she gets a little bit older, she’ll have the chance to stop, look back and will be inspired by what’s going on. She can go on and do things that will help us fulfill Dr. King’s dream.”
Reggie Hammond made his first visit to the memorial a memorable one. Hammond, a Georgia Department of Health and Human Services employee, visited the District on vacation from Atlanta, Ga. The irony wasn’t lost on Hammond who said he always takes friends and family visiting Atlanta to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center. And while much of society has undergone a radical transformation, Hammond said more can and needs to be done.
“As we’ve gone through integration, I think that our children have gotten farther away from the culture from which we have come from and the sacrifices we made,” said Hammond, 55. “I think we have to keep reinforcing the fact that [young people] are able to do what they want to do because others before them paid the cost.”
As the sun slowly slipped behind skyscrapers across the Potomac in nearby Rosslyn, Va., it created the perfect magenta backdrop as the celebration concluded with a showing of The Long Walk Home, the 1990 film that chronicled the lives of two Alabama women during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.
Many who attended the anniversary celebration showed up for various reasons.
Ivan Tilghman had just returned home from Vietnam when King was assassinated in April 1968. His death devastated the young soldier who struggled to understand how a country that sent him to risk his life on the battlefield didn’t deem him worthy enough to share a restroom with Caucasians. Forty-two years later, Tilghman stood no more than 500 feet from the statue of the man he respects and reflected on the current state of race relations.
“I feel like [society has] improved. But, we have a long way to go. This monument is a great step toward realizing King’s dream that all men are created equal and all men should walk together, hold hands and be in harmony with each other,” said the 68-year-old Bowie, Md. resident.