By L. Cunningham, 55th Wing Public Affairs
/ Published January 11, 2019
OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- Dr. Martin Luther King, born in Atlanta, Georgia, Jan. 15, 1929, was a Baptist minister, son, husband, father, social activist, civil rights leader and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. On April 4, 1968, while in Memphis, Tennessee, marching with garbage workers on strike, he was assassinated at the young age of 39.
Dr. King’s wife, Kora King, and musician Stevie Wonder delivered a petition to the Speaker of the House in 1982. The petition was signed by six million people in favor of celebrating King’s birthday as a holiday. Martin Luther King Day began in 1986 and is celebrated the third Monday of January every year.
As I think about why this holiday means so much to me, I find myself thinking of another important man - he was a migrant worker born in Hondo, Texas, with ten children. I am his daughter and second generation in America. He worked hard to care for us and impressed on his children the greatness of this country, his love for it and the possibilities it offered to so many people. In his eyes, and now mine, we have seen the greatness of some people and, unfortunately, the ugliness of others.
A couple of years ago, while visiting family in Maryland, I decided to also visit Washington D.C. so I could see in-person monuments that I had only read about and seen on television growing up. I was impressed by the Lincoln Memorial. I was able to read the Gettysburg address on the inner walls which was truly inspiring and I felt pride to be a U.S. citizen. I also visited the National Mall, where the World War II Freedom Wall has 4,048 gold stars, representing 100 soldiers per star, totaling the 405,399 dead or missing during that war. I felt myself tear up at such a large number and knowing the price of war was paid for with so many lives.
But, it was the newest addition, the Martin Luther King Memorial that I was particularly looking forward to seeing. It had just been dedicated a few years earlier in August of 2011. As I neared the monument, I recalled memories from when I was a young girl. I was seven years old in 1965 when King led thousands of non-violent people marching from Selma Alabama across the Pettus Bridge. I remember the television coverage as if it was yesterday.
I watched people being hosed down with water from fire hoses. I watched them being beaten just because they were of color and protesting. I watched King speaking, as all three television stations at the time showed news clips of what was transpiring in Alabama. I watched my parents as they couldn’t believe what was happening. I was scared and confused about what I was watching as a young child.
It would be only at the age of 10 that I would come to realize the truth about some people. In the fifth grade, a new student to our school called me a name, one that will not be repeated. She told me I was not white and I was not an American. I cried on my way home that night and understood my father’s words about the ugliness in some people.
As an adult, approaching the monument, I let my memories take a back seat in my mind’s eye, and I prepared myself to see the monument I had heard so much about.
The monument, which was inspired from King’s, “I have a Dream” speech, is located in West Potomac Park next to the National Mall, covering a total of four acres. As I walked through the granite opening in the Mountain of Despair, I could see in the distance a monumental sculpture of Dr. King in front of me. I couldn’t help but recall the many times I had seen television footage of this man. I felt in awe of his memory - remembering the pivotal role that he played in ending segregation of African American citizens.
Once I entered the Mountain of Despair, I saw a wall to the North and a wall to the South. They are carved with quotes from King – seven on the South and nine on the North.
I found my self-transfixed in front of the North wall as I read these words from his letter, written while in Birmingham, Alabama jail in April 1963, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
This quote almost stopped my heart, I felt as though I could hear King’s voice as I stood there. I then moved over to the second panel, which was from King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway, in 1964.
“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”
I ran my hands along the panels, touching the cool granite stone as a tear ran down my cheeks. I felt inspiration and agony simultaneously as I read the words written by this man years ago. I thought of the quotes I had just finished reading and I recalled the man in whose honor this memorial was built.
I was nine the day King was assassinated, but as an adult looking back, I still feel great sorrow in my heart. We lost a great visionary.
Dr. King was the first African American to be honored at the National Mall. His message is simple - he strove for freedom, justice, and equality amongst all the people of this great Nation. His monument reflects this and, hopefully, inspires all of us as Americans to be better together and, in turn, a better country.