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Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Being Built on National Mall

January 15, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: The ceremony was held in November, and now organizers are hoping to move forward with a three-acre site that will include large sculptural elements, walls engraved with King’s words, and areas for contemplation.

All this began as an idea in 1984 from the national African-American fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. Here to tell us more is Darryl Matthews, general president of the fraternity, and Bonnie Fisher, partner in the Roma Design Group, which won a competition to design the memorial.

Mr. Matthews, why don’t you first tell us more about your fraternity and how the idea for the memorial began?

DARRYL MATTHEWS, President, Alpha Phi Alpha: Sure. Alpha Phi Alpha is the first African-American fraternity founded in the United States. We were founded December 4, 1906, and primarily founded as a mechanism to help with the retention of African-American students.

In 1905, our founders discovered that most of that class of students did not return for 1906. So moving fast forward, we say we develop leaders. And that’s our mission statement. And we develop leaders, emphasize academic excellence, brotherhood, while providing service and advocacy for our communities. And, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King was one of our members.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I read that, in 1984, some of the members of your fraternity were wondering why more African-Americans were not going to the National Mall feeling that their history was not represented there.

DARRYL MATTHEWS: Well, that perhaps was part of the discussion, but the major discussion was Dr. Martin Luther King needed to be honored in a fitting tribute for the work that he had done to heal the moral dilemma of America, for him to — that we had not as a nation appreciated this servant of God and all that he tried to do to make America live up to its promise.

The memorial design

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Bonnie Fisher, what was the main thing you felt you needed to do or convey in your design?

BONNIE FISHER, Roma Design Group: Well, if you look at the memorial as a whole and its location on the mall, you referred a little bit earlier to its relationship to the Jefferson, which is across the way on the Tidal Basin, and the Lincoln Memorial, which is very close by, if you were to draw a line between the Jefferson and the Lincoln Memorial, that line goes right through the new site for the Dr. King Memorial.

We tried to build on that axial linkage and express it in the entry experience so that one realizes that Dr. King is one of the most important democratic leaders of modern times, in equal footing to Jefferson, who was the author of the Declaration of Independence, and to Lincoln with his Gettysburg Address.

So placing Dr. King in the context of democracy in the broadest sense was a very important part of the design. Another important part of the design was to create an arcing wall that would reflect in its shape and form the Tidal Basin shoreline that the site sits on, and at the same time create a contemplative, peaceful space that reflected Dr. King's values, as well.

We used landscape elements, because we take a landscape approach to the design, so we used very intentionally stone, water and trees to convey and evoke Dr. King's own metaphorical language where he invokes and evokes, as the great American authors in history have done so in the past, the use of landscape elements to convey his values and the concepts of democracy, hope and justice.

A transformative experience

JEFFREY BROWN: How much do you want, Mr. Matthews, for it to be -- it's an interesting situation, where you're honoring one man, but you're also recalling and trying to bring to life, I guess, a period of American life. How important is that, as well?

DARRYL MATTHEWS: Well, actually that is the centerpiece of it all. It is about Dr. King, but it's not about Dr. King at the same time. It is about the work that he did; it's about the hope that he inspired in America.

It's about the dream and the fact that America is a great country. It's a diverse country. And the very diverse groups that have come together to build this memorial is the dream that Dr. King had for America, diverse groups working together for a common cause.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Ms. Fisher, you know, it's often discussed -- and we've done several stories about memorials recently -- how the Vietnam Memorial changed the way people think about these things. How have you tried to seek a balance between honoring the man and giving people a meaningful experience?

BONNIE FISHER: Well, the memorial is a part of one of the most meaningful public spaces in America, meaning the Capitol Mall and the Tidal Basin. And what we have been trying to do is to not take away from that experience, but to add to it, by providing an experience that is not complete but is personally transformative, so that the visitor can draw conclusions and gain a better understanding of what the intentions are of the memorial and what the intentions were of Dr. King.

For example, one of the elements that exists along the Tidal Basin edge are the cherries, which the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., is so famous for. They happen to bloom exactly at the time of Dr. King's death. So preserving those trees and actually extending them into the memorial itself, not only adds to the experience of the Capitol Mall landscape, but also to the meaning of Dr. King's memorial.

A timetable for construction

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mr. Matthews, we mentioned that there was a groundbreaking. I understand the memorial foundation still has to raise more money. What can you tell us about a timetable for actual construction?

DARRYL MATTHEWS: Well, you know, at the period of the groundbreaking, we were just under $65 million. As of today, we are around $72 million, I believe, if not more. The momentum for the fundraising has just gone gangbusters.

And we expect that, in April of this year, we will begin actual construction and we hope, weather permitting and all other factors, we will finish or complete the memorial by December of 2008.

JEFFREY BROWN: December 2008. So, Bonnie Fisher, you'll have a chance to hopefully see your design in reality?

BONNIE FISHER: We hope so. We've been working very hard, along with our joint venture partners, Devrouax & Purnell, in Washington, D.C., to complete the construction documents and see it be realized.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Bonnie Fisher and Darryl Matthews, thank you both very much.

BONNIE FISHER: Thank you.

DARRYL MATTHEWS: Thank you.