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The King Memorial: from martyr to the National Mall


The monument to 20th-century social change leader–and some say 20th-century prophet–the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was finally dedicated this weekend on the National Mall.

On the 16th anniversary of the Million Man March, the president of the United States reminded us that King’s struggle for social change was a protracted one. People forget that the Civil Rights Movement was actually a counter-movement to the 10-year-long policy of resistance that took place from 1954 to 1964. Called Massive Resistance, it was an organized movement to reject and resist the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education case outlawing separate but equal or de jure segregation (racial separation by law).

The movement wasn’t just a grassroots reaction. The resistance flowed from Congress to statehouses to local government, defending the culture and the norms of Jim Crow. One hundred one southern congresspersons (82 House members and 19 senators) signed the Southern Manifesto in 1956, stating that the Supreme Court had overstepped its bounds and had infringed upon states’ rights. It also called for the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren.

Massive Resistance spread across a third of the nation and was the second greatest populist protest movement, aside from the Civil War, in this nation’s history, but it lasted more than twice as long as the Civil War.

More than 300 books have been written about the Civil War. Less than a dozen have been written about Massive Resistance, largely because many of the resisters are still living and are trying to erase that bitter and volatile period in history. It is a history that can never be erased because of the counter movement King led, and the ugly way this period ended. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death will always be a scar on our nation’s conscience.

Why? Because King sought to exert love, peace and nonviolence on an extremely hostile and violent nation that was resisting the change of the day. King exhausted every peaceful remedy over a 13-year period to change the mentality of a racially deranged nation.

The reality is that America never seriously took up a civil rights bill until King came on the scene and pulled back the covers on southern racial hostilities with the Birmingham marches in 1963.

This compelled John F. Kennedy to introduce civil rights legislation, and many suggest it was only passed in memoriam to the late president at the insistenc of his successor, Lyndon Johnson, the first southern president since Andrew Johnson, who became president after Lincoln was assassinated.

By the way, the 13th Amendment was also signed in memoriam to Lincoln who was killed by a confederate sympathizer.

Guilt ended slavery, and guilt put an end to emotional segregation. The Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964, a full 10 years after Brown, and that’s when the signs came down. But it only intensified the country’s disdain for King, who was ultimately killed in the midst of an anti-poverty movement while giving support to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968. America knew things had gone too far, but the “King of Love” was dead.

Killing King almost assured America would burn in its own national hell, as more than 200 cities rioted, but three days later came the Fair Housing Act and a watered down anti-lynching act (America has never passed a stand-alone anti-lynching law) as this postmortem continued.

The after-the-fact legislation was passed in memoriam to King, but the scars over King’s death run deep. In the 20th century, he was given a federal holiday, co-opting “The Dream.”

King meant different things to different people, but one thing is sure: America, both Black and White, has not gotten over King’s death–not if you have any sort of a conscience. With the monument, the postmortem in memoriam for King continues almost a half a century after his death.

America’s guilt seems to always arrive a minute too late. In the case of King, it was 43 years late … but not too late to remind us what King truly meant to the social evolution of the nation.

Maybe the nation had not gone far enough in acknowledging what it had or in what King had done. America builds monuments to its heroes, a constant reminder of the contributions such heroes have made to society. The National Mall is reserved for presidents and war heroes, but mostly presidents. The greatness of America is in the men who built it and the men (and one day women) who defended its truest creed–liberty.

A monument suggests that King is now a certified and documented national hero, in perpetuity, for everyone who ever visits the National Mall from here on out. He probably is the only one (Lincoln included) who demanded liberty and justice for all people. King took the “White Only” sign down off the nation’s most hallowed ground–its National Mall.

Of course, we could go there, but only to look at other people’s heroes, whom we were told, were ours too. Still, we couldn’t put up any statues of our own. King is the first non-president, non-war hero, non-White man on the Mall. His is also the first (mostly) privately funded monument. If the people didn’t make it happen, it would’ve happened. It meant that much to us. Hopefully, it means that much to the nation. They only put these up every 40 or 50 years.

Martin Luther King Jr. is now in his rightful place as a national hero who changed the course, and the culture, of this nation. He now has a physical space in this nation’s capital–like all the other major heroes we honor–on the Nation Mall.

He is a true American hero, with a monument to match his accomplishment…and his sacrifice…for the good of the nation. Let the record now reflect it.

Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of the upcoming book, “Real Eyez: Race, Reality and Politics in 21st Century Popular Culture.” He can be reached at or on Twitter at @dranthonysamad.
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