MLK memorial dedication is dream fulfilled for black churches

October 17, 2011

WASHINGTON (RNS) In a ceremony that blended worship and a call to
action, tens of thousands gathered Sunday (Oct. 16) for the official
dedication of a national memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"In this place, he will stand for all time, among monuments to those
who fathered this nation and those who defended it; a black preacher
with no official rank or title who somehow gave voice to our deepest
dreams and our most lasting ideals," President Obama said.

Obama spoke in the shadow of the 30-foot sculpture of King's
likeness called the "Stone of Hope," which emerges from a "Mountain of
Despair," both images taken from King's iconic 1963 "I Have a Dream"
speech.

The throngs of people were smaller than the crowds anticipated for
the memorial's original dedication date on Aug. 28, the 48th anniversary
of the March on Washington and King's most famous speech.

Weeks after Hurricane Irene disrupted the original dedication
festivities, those who made it to the rescheduled ceremony said the
delay had not dampened their respect for King's legacy as a religious
and civil rights leader.

"Dr. King was a 20th-century prophet and so that's really
significant to see that we've got a prophet on the National Mall where
presidents usually are," said the Rev. Seretta C. McKnight of Hempstead,
N.Y., who traveled with members of her youth leadership organization.
"He gave his life, so that is the least that can be done to
commemorate."

Held during the traditional Sunday morning worship time, the
ceremony featured choirs, gospel artists Mary Mary, and Aretha Franklin
singing one of King's favorite hymns, "Precious Lord." But it also had
political overtones as some speakers lent support to Obama's
re-election; the crowd occasionally broke into chants of "four more
years!" for the nation's first African-American president.

King family members, civil rights veterans and celebrities said
King's message should not remain solely like the monument, set in stone,
but rather be continually put into practice.

His daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, suggested that God may have
desired for attention to be focused away from the anniversary of King's
"I Have a Dream" speech to more recent calls for economic justice for
the poor.

"Perhaps the postponement was a divine interruption to remind us of
the King that moved us beyond the dream of racial justice to the action
and work of economic justice," she said.

The memorial was supported by a wide array of houses of worship,
particularly black churches, that contributed large and small sums to
make it a reality on the edge of the Tidal Basin. Harry Johnson,
president of the memorial's foundation, said more than 200 churches
contributed $1.8 million to the $120 million memorial, for which $117
million has been raised.

And though not as many as originally planned, church members drove,
bused and flew to Washington for Sunday's dedication.

More than 100 members of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, where
King once served as co-pastor, made the trip. Its pastor, the Rev.
Raphael Warnock, said the black church, in particular, sees in King not
only a national leader but also one of their own.

"Martin Luther King Jr. is, without a doubt, the black church's most
beloved son and celebrated saint," said Warnock, who gave the
benediction and whose choir sang at the ceremony.

While Warnock, 42, was born a year after King's 1968 assassination,
others came because they had a personal connection with King.

The Rev. Fred Taylor, associate pastor of Atlanta's Trinity Baptist
Church, once passed out leaflets for the bus boycott in Montgomery,
Ala., that King help lead.

"I sort of grew and matured as a movement child and I spent my
professional working life as a part of the movement," said Taylor, 68,
who retired in 2007 from the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, which King co-founded.

"My going to this memorial's celebration is a part of my witness as
a preacher of the gospel."

Some whose plans to attend the original dedication were dashed
nevertheless played a significant role in helping the memorial get
built. Obama's former Chicago church, Trinity United Church of Christ,
collected one of the largest sums, $114,142, from its members and other
Chicago churches.

"I think it is appropriate for the church, especially the
African-American church, to support and lift up the legacy of one of the
greatest individuals produced out of the institution," said the Rev.
Otis Moss III, Trinity UCC's senior pastor, whose parents were married
by King and were active in the SCLC.

King's membership in the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity prompted
Johnson, a former national president of the fraternity, to lean on
pastor friends who were fraternity brothers. As a result, several
churches in Texas donated $100,000 each.

The Rev. Joe Ratliff, a fraternity member and a Morehouse College
alumnus like King, is a pastor of one of those churches, Brentwood
Baptist Church in Houston.

"I had no excuse," said Ratliff, who gave the invocation and, as the
sole clergyman on the board of the memorial's foundation, encouraged the
congregation-based fundraising. "I had to push."