MLK Day 2012 | On the importance of individual contributions
Written by Dr. Ben Dixon, a CIN member since 2005
By now, less than three months since its opening on October 16, 2011, thousands of us have stepped down from our cars, buses and bicycles to set foot on what some may call sacred ground. As each of us approached for the first time the path leading to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., we carried with us our own appreciation of and joy in being able to touch the granite stone out of which the image of the “Dreamer” emerges. We reveled in the opportunity to stand for photos next to the carefully carved prophetic and hopeful statements of Rev. Dr. King, as if to say, “Amen and amen!” to the power and veracity of their content.
My experience at the Memorial was both a real and virtual one. The beauty of the physical surroundings was surpassed only by the beauty of the rainbow of people viewing and paying their respects to the “drum major for justice.” The able-bodied and physically challenged, whites and people of color, children and young adults, traditional and nontraditional families/partnerships, white-collar and blue-collar workers and retirees moved quietly around the Memorial smiling at and greeting each other as if strangers no more, all connected in a common bond, if only momentarily.
I will never know how many visitors that day played a role in (real) or supported in some way (virtual) the building of this Memorial. However, I do know that somebody—indeed, a lot of some bodies—were responsible for the actual creation of this edifice and the opportunity it provides for reflecting on both the status and promise of the American Dream. Whether our relationship to the Memorial is real or virtual, its existence keeps alive King’s pronouncement at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963:
“I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As an undergraduate student at Howard University, I had the very real experience of meeting Dr. King, when he came to speak to us on campus at Cramton Auditorium, where I was serving as the first (student) Assistant Director of the facility. I had the singular privilege of acting as Rev. King’s escort as he and his entourage moved through the building to the stage where he was to deliver his speech. During the entire time, brief as it was, he spoke directly to me, inquiring about my course of study and my aspirations. Needless to say, standing shoulder to shoulder (though I was an inch or so taller than he was) with this giant personality was more than a bit overwhelming. It was a very real touchstone moment for me…one that I still cherish today, nearly 50 years later. Thus, visiting Rev. King’s Memorial in D.C., like reading his writings over the years, served as a virtual touchstone for his philosophy of non-violence, equality and social justice. Little did I know that one day my touchstone experience with Dr. King in 1963-64 would serve as the foundation for my response to an opportunity to touch him again, later in my career.
Jack Kemp said, “The power of one man or one woman doing the right thing for the right reason, and at the right time, is the greatest influence in our society.” MLK’s life and work is one of our greatest examples of this power. It is also a model for each of us, as we move forward to do what we can to help the “Dream” become a reality. That is what motivated me and Jaan Holt to do what we could, as individuals and partners, to convince Virginia Tech to sponsor the International Competition for the design of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Professor Holt served in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, and I was Vice President for Multicultural Affairs. Between us, we were able to fund and support Virginia Tech as the primary volunteer institution to produce and organize the competition. Looking back, I believe this was one of many individual acts, at a time when the memorial was a little more than a dream, that were critical in getting the project off the ground.
Now, the MLK Memorial, nestled on the Tidal Basin in line of sight between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, exists as a real and virtual touchstone for present and future generations to remember that the struggle continues, and that we should honor this legacy by striving to create a better future for all.
Benjamin Dixon, Ed.D., retired Virginia Tech V.P., advises, guides and assists leader managers of public, non-profit, corporate and community entities committed to making their organizations more diverse, inclusive, and productive. He founded an executive coaching, training and consulting company, called Sankofa Futures Consulting, LLC. He is a member of CIN and the giving circle New Mountain Climbers.