The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial will be situated adjacent to the F.D.R. Memorial and create a visual “line of leadership” from the Jefferson Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
After co-hosting the Washington DC Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Groundbreaking ceremony, Tavis talks with former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, poet Maya Angelou, and former congressman Jack Kemp.
Tavis: Not even the threat of rain could keep thousands away from this site here in Washington, who gathered to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On this site, in just months from now, will start construction on the King Memorial. The first person of color to ever be so honored with a monument here on the National Mall. The program today included many dignitaries and celebrities, including President Clinton, President Bush, Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Maya Angelou, Andy Young and so many others.
Before the program started, I sat down with some of them for a brief conversation here, on site, on this historic day. First up, a conversation with former U.S. ambassador and longtime King friend and confidant, Andrew Young.
Rev. Andrew Young
Tavis: Mr. Ambassador, nice to have you here, sir.
Rev. Andrew Young: Good to have us both here.
Tavis: It’s good to be here.
Young: This is a great occasion.
Tavis: It is a great occasion. Did you ever think in your life that this moment might come? First person of color ever to be so honored on the National Mall?
Young: Well, I didn’t think it would come in my lifetime, but once the Alpha Phi Alpha conceived of the idea, it really was very well received in the Congress and the business community. And I think it’s more than just the first African American. It’s – here is a man who shaped America’s history and did it without violence.
And I think that’s, to me, the significance of Martin Luther King’s life. When you look at these statements, they’re all good ideas. Lots of people have said similar things. But nobody was persecuted for 13 years as he was for what he believed. And we tend to forget – we only hear the dream. But in 1956, his home was bombed. In 1957, they indicted him for income tax evasion, charged him with – wanted him to pay taxes on all the collections of the Montgomery Improvement Association. An all-White jury found him innocent, but then the next year, he was stabbed. And he came on to Atlanta in 1960 and got thrown in jail. But it was for driving in Georgia with an expired Alabama driver’s license.
But they took him down to Reedsville Penitentiary, which is 300 miles south of Atlanta, and they put him in chains and threw him in the back of a paddy wagon. And he said that that was the most horrifying experience he ever had. More than being stabbed; more than being bombed. Because he was sure, for six hours’ drive, that he was going to his death.
And then he comes through that. And the FBI starts persecuting him. And every phone call we made, every hotel we stayed in, was bugged. But they didn’t find enough, so they made up stuff and put it in the files.
And so, this is a testimony to the fact not that he had great beliefs. A lot of us had great beliefs. But he stood by those beliefs for 15 years, and suffered almost every day because of them.
Tavis: Let me ask you whether or not you, in fact, believe as I do, that King is the greatest American we’ve ever produced. And I raise that not to get into a fight about who the greatest American is, but I raise it because, for him to be the first person of color so honored, certainly puts him in that pantheon of great American leaders.
Young: Well, it does. And I would say that, that he was the greatest American leader of the second half of the twentieth century. And I’d have to put Ralph Bunch right behind him, because Ralph Bunch really created the United Nations, and gets almost no credit. Because he understood that real power had to be exercised quietly. Martin didn’t have that option.
He was 26 years old when they bombed his house. That was right after the First – Second World War. So all of the brothers showed up with their World War I weaponry. They were ready to go to war. And he said, ‘No, we must find a more excellent way.’
And when I say his home was bombed, his baby was in the front room. And Coretta had just picked her up to go back to the back when the bomb was thrown on the porch and blew the front of the house off.
Tavis: You went right past this notion of King being 26. That is so significant to me that a guy of that age…
Young: It really is. It really is.
Tavis: …could be at the forefront of what has become now, what we know now as the civil rights movement. Why a guy – how a guy so young?
Young: He did not seek it. In fact, he turned down churches in Atlanta with his father, and opportunities to be in universities in New Orleans. And he selected Montgomery because he wanted to be in a quiet little community where he could develop his skills as a pastor. This was a God-sent movement.
Tavis: I’ve often wondered whether or not, as one of his dearest friends and closest aides, you had any sense of the kind of man that you were in the company of. It’s one thing to know that he was doing good work. Maybe you guys were so busy doing the work that you didn’t quite get a sense of who he was. But here we are on the National Mall today, on this occasion. You were with quite a man.
Young: Well, I was. And the thing was, he did not take himself so seriously. And people look at me askance when I say that he was more like an Eddie Murphy or Bill Cosby in private. Even sometimes getting a little Richard Pryor in there. (Laugh)
Tavis: Oh yeah? (Laugh)
Young: He was a comedian. He loved to joke. He did not take himself seriously at all. And he wouldn’t let you take yourself seriously. And the way he made us deal with our fears was he’d say, ‘Oh yeah, somebody’s gonna get killed in Birmingham.’ See? ‘And if it’s you, Tavis, I tell you, I will preach the best eulogy (laugh) ever preached over a brother.’ And then he’d start preaching the eulogy about you. Saying all the embarrassing things you wouldn’t want heard, see? (Laugh) And so, he would have us laughing, rather than crying and being afraid.
Tavis: But he made a clear distinction on that point, though. As funny as – you’ve told me many times prior – as funny as he was in private, he was just as serious in public. And I’m told, at least, he was so serious in public because he didn’t want people to mistake his sense of humor with a very serious movement.
Young: Exactly. And he was serious in private. In the private moments in the midnight hour, Martin slept very little. He agonized over every decision. He was up till 1:00, 2:00 in the morning, and he was back up at 6:00. And he was constantly reading; constantly thinking. And Ralph Abernathy used to say that, ‘Martin, you got a war; you trying to fight a war on poverty, but you got a war on sleep.’
Because he did not relax. There was an unrelentless seriousness about the work that he was doing, because he reminded – he said it once that – well, remember when he was stabbed, they carved a cross – they had to open up his chest. And so he had a cross scar on his chest. He said, ‘Look, every morning I wake up and shave and brush my teeth, I know that this day might be my last.’ But he did not take anything lightly. And – well, that’s why we’re here.
Tavis: What do you think he would say about an honor such as this?
Young: Well, I think he would say that you are not honoring him, you are honoring the movement. He was always mindful that he was – well, he used to quote Gandhi. ‘There go my people; I must catch them, for I am their leader.’ And we went to Selma because Amelia Boynton invited us. We went to Birmingham because Fred Shuttlesworth invited us. Wherever we went, there were always people there ahead of us who were caught in the struggle by no choice of their own.
In Mississippi, it was Fanny Lou Hamer. And Aaron Henry. But we went, almost like the apostle Paul, to help the churches in difficulty that were under persecution. So he would always point to the vision, the leadership, and the courage of those peoples whose names will never be known. And yet, we’ll have some of them carved in stone in this monument. It’s not just a Martin Luther King memorial. It’s a memorial to a movement of nonviolent social change.
Suppose the Arabs and Israelis could have had a nonviolent social change movement? Suppose the Kurds and Shiites in Iraq had any concept of nonviolence, see? India did very well till Gandhi died. And once Gandhi died, India split into India and Pakistan. Because there was nobody else to talk nonviolence and let people know they were one people.
Tavis: That point notwithstanding, Mr. Ambassador, there are folk today who say that nonviolence as a philosophy couldn’t work. They say that King never met Bin Laden. They say King never met Hamas. King didn’t know Hizbullah. They say that nonviolence wouldn’t work today.
Young: Well, they’re full of you-know-what.
Young: Because, first place, we knew the North Vietnamese, and we knew that nonviolence would have worked with them. We wouldn’t be with – there wouldn’t be a Bin Laden of Martin Luther King had lived. Because we would – in fact, in 1966, he and Reverend Sandy Ray were taking 5,000 Black pilgrims to the Holy Land. We were taking 5,000 because Israel could only handle 2,500, and Jordan could only handle, so we wanted so many tourists going that they would have to both work together.
And he was hoping to help them see that with tourism and money coming in, there was enough land, there was enough wealth for Israelis and Palestinians alike. And that if everybody’s making money – fact, that’s what the secret of the South was. That we said that we can either make money together, we could live together as brothers and trade, or we’ll perish together as fools. And once you lay that out and begin to take it step-by-step. We would have done something about the Middle East if he had lived.
Tavis: I sit here next to you today, and I can’t help but think about Coretta Scott King, his wife, who did not live long enough to see this, although she knew this day was coming, the plans probably being laid. Your thoughts today about your friend Coretta Scott King?
Young: Well, Coretta was his backbone, also. Most wives would have said, ‘Honey, this is too dangerous; we can’t do this.’ Coretta never said that. Coretta said, ‘We’ve got to do it, and I’m with you. I don’t wanna go to Atlanta. I don’t wanna go back to Marion. I want to be here in Montgomery with you, whatever happens.’ See? Whatever happens. And she was with him every step of the way.
And never sought to discourage him; never raised a question that he wasn’t leaving any money for his children. When he died, he left her that $40,000 house, period. But see, the FBI had been lying, saying that he had Swiss bank accounts. And that we were being funded by the Communists. All kinds of lies that were being told. And those hurt him.
Those hurt him almost more than the bullet, because the one thing he was concerned about was his integrity, and the integrity of this vision, that you can make the world a better place. In fact, you can only make the world a better place if you pursue your goals and your vision without destroying either person or property.
Tavis: Let me close with this as an exit question. Of all – we all have our favorites – but of all the things that King said, what are the words that you have most gone back to over the years? I know there are many, but just give me one set of words that you’ve gone back to consistently over the years that you’ve used in your own life.
Young: Well, ‘if you’ve never found something you’re willing to die for, you’re not fit to live.’ And I get caught in all kinds of controversy, and people say, ‘Why do you talk like that?’ And I have to remind them, Martin Luther King died trying to speak the truth. If all I get is a little controversy for speaking the truth, if I did less, I would not be worth living.
Tavis: Ambassador Young, always a pleasure to see you. Congratulations to you and all those in the movement that made this day possible for me and the rest of America.
Young: Well, it’s a great day. And I – it reminds me of Resurrection City, ’cause we were out in the water, and it’s almost as thought the Lord tested us to see are we fairweather patriots, or (laugh) can we do it in bad weather, too?
Tavis: Well, we doing it in bad weather here in DC. Nice to see you, Mr. Ambassador.
Tavis: Thank you, sir.
Tavis: Jack Kemp, so many former things. Former NFL quarterback, former congressman, (laugh) former vice presidential running mate, vice presidential candidate, former Cabinet member, and today, a member of this King Committee. Thank you for making this happen.
Jack Kemp: Well, thank you, Tavis, and let me introduce you to a King kid. My grandson, Jonah Paul Kemp.
Tavis: Hey, Jonah, nice to meet you.
Kemp: His daddy played in the Canadian Football League, and thanks for having me.
Tavis: And I’m glad to have you. Speaking of young men and women, young boys and girls like Jonah, what does this day say to them? What’s the message for Jonah?
Kemp: Well, the message is that Dr. King not only helped liberate African Americans; he liberated all Americans, White and Black. He gave us back our dignity by passing a civil rights, human rights legislation that not only enabled and empowered Black folks, but White, as well. Because we removed the stain of treating people of color less than human. And that’s over. We’ve come a long way. And as Andy Young just said, we got a long way to go. But we’re coming a long way.
Tavis: You and I have not always respectfully agreed on policy, but the one thing I’ve always said consistently about you is that, in part, because of your experience in the NFL, with a line of Black guys blocking for you, you understood and have gotten race relations better than most Americans. Tell me what you think that experience meant to you, in terms of being able to shake it up with people of color.
Kemp: Well, you’re absolutely right. You can’t play quarterback in pro football (laugh) and not treat people…
Tavis: Especially your line.
Kemp: Yes, absolutely.
Tavis: Especially your line, yeah.
Kemp: I was president of the Football Players Union for five years. I take pride in the fact that when I went to Congress, and particularly as a Republican, a Lincoln Republican, I wanted to make sure that there was a voice for African Americans in the Republican Party. It’s weak, unfortunately. I was the national campaign chairman for Michael Steele.
Sorry he didn’t make it to the U.S. Senate. But nonetheless, I think the party of Lincoln has to welcome home the African American and people of color, because we will not be whole, W-H-O-L-E, until people feel comfortable in a party of civil, human, equal and voting rights.
Tavis: Finally, what’s your sense of the progress, or lack thereof, that we are making on race relations as King looks down on this event today.
Kemp: Wow. Well, he’s here, no doubt, looking down on us. As I said earlier, we’ve come a long way. I watch your show.
Tavis: Thank you.
Kemp: And what a great book you wrote. But we’ve got a long way to go. You want people to be judged, as Dr. King said, not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. I want him to know what it’s like to be in a country of heterogeneity, of people of color, of people who care about the same things that my mama and papa believed in.
The chance to own a home; chance to own an education; chance to get access to capital. This is the real civil rights battle of the twenty-first century, which you wrote about.
Tavis: Yeah, I thank you. Jonah, nice to meet you. Glad to have you on the program. And Mr. Kemp, pleasure to see you.
Kemp: Tavis, thank you for all you do.
Tavis: Thank you, sir.
Kemp: Godspeed, man. Wish you well.
Tavis: Thank you.
Tavis: Harry Johnson, nice to see you.
Harry Johnson: What a pleasure to see you again, sir.
Tavis: Congratulations to you.
Johnson: Well, thank you. It’s all of ours, it’s everybody’s.
Tavis: Well, as the president and CEO of this King project, you made this happen. You and your fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. Tell me right quick how this actually came to be. A lot of folk talked about a King Memorial, but his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, got behind the idea and made it work.
Johnson: A lot of brothers, Al Bailey and a few other brothers, got together in 1983 and said, ‘There ought to be a memorial on the Mall.’ They conceived the idea, rolled it through the fraternity, and many of our past general presidents, and the current general president, Darryl Matthews, saw that it took place in getting the bill passed.
Tavis: So tell me what it’s taking to build this memorial, and where you are, relative to where you need to be?
Johnson: It’s taking $100 million. Today we’re at $64.6. We have some huge announcements tonight with a lot of our corporate supporters. But we still want the grassroots people to come out, help us build this memorial.
Tavis: What does it mean to you, though, to be a part of history in helping to create this monument?
Johnson: This is akin, Tavis, to building the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, or the Statue of Liberty. To have a piece of this history is something that we take with us to our grandchildren and our children. And for years to come, this memorial’s gonna be here into perpetuity.
Tavis: Now for those who are not here today and obviously can’t see where we’re located on the Mall, give them some sense, for those who’ve been to DC, of where the monument is going to be placed, in fact.
Johnson: How pleased we are that we have prime real estate, four acres of land between the Lincoln and the Jefferson Memorial on the tidal basin. So Dr. King will be looking across at Jefferson.
Tavis: What do you make of that, given his raising Jefferson and Lincoln in his speeches?
Johnson: It basically comes back 360 degrees to say look, ‘We have come to collect on the promissory note that you told us we had.’ Putting Dr. King here basically says that we feel he’s on equal footing with the other icons of our country.
Tavis: And finally, what does that statement then say to America, given that this is the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever? And as we just discussed with Ambassador Young, he’s the first person of color to be honored in this way on the National Mall. What’s that say to America in a contemporary sense?
Johnson: What it tells America right now is that we need to show the world that we are indeed the diversified country that we claim to be, and that finally we have a Mall with our her…s and sher…s that looks like America.
Tavis: Harry Johnson, congratulations.
Johnson: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Thank you for your hard work.
Johnson: We appreciate you.
Tavis: To make this possible.
Johnson: We appreciate you very much.
Tavis: Thank you, sir.
Tavis: No introduction necessary here. My favorite guest of all time, and more appearances on this program than anybody in the country.
Maya Angelou: So I’m told. (Laugh) Thank you. So I’m told. (Laugh) Thank you, (unintelligible).
Tavis: How are you?
Angelou: I’m wonderful.
Tavis: You look wonderful. What does this day mean to you?
Angelou: Oh. Oh, my Lord. I look back over centuries to see this day. It’s hallelujah; it’s congratulations; it’s thank God; it’s thank my country; it’s thank Martin and thank his – thank Coretta, and thank everybody. I’m in an attitude of gratitude.
Tavis: Attitude of gratitude. (Laugh)
Angelou: That’s it.
Tavis: When you sit down to craft a p…m that celebrates this day, great p…t that you are, where do you begin?
Angelou: Yes, that’s the problem. That’s the difficulty.
I start off being thankful. But in this case, I’ve not really written a p…m. I’ve written something, but I’m using a p…m written by Robert Hayden, the great African American, great American p…t. And he must have written it 50 years ago, but it’s for this day. And I’m using it today.
Tavis: What does this day, from your perspective, say to America? What ought this day say to America?
Angelou: Well, the day – America is saying to us all by this day, America is saying, ‘I’m proud of you.’ You see?
Angelou: If I’m here on the Mall, I’m here betwixt and between Lincoln and Jefferson and Washington, (unintelligible) big, White, old, dead, great presidents, and I’m a Black, and I’m a man, I’m not a president, and I’m standing on this Mall? I am being told by my country, you can be proud of me, because I’m proud of you. I’m not putting you where Langston Hughes said, ‘I, too, sing America. You make me eat in the kitchen. But someday, you’ll see how beautiful I am. And I will eat in the dining room with you.’ Uh huh. Now you see how beautiful I am.
Tavis: What does this day, then, say to ordinary, everyday Americans about the kind of contribution you can make? King was not a president. He started out a young kid in Atlanta, and went on to become, I think, the greatest American we’ve ever produced. What does it say to everyday people about the kind of contribution you can make if you’re serious about it?
Angelou: It means that everybody can do it. See, in some ways, people make Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and all the great men and women seem larger than life, and that’s dangerous. Because it tells young people, ‘You can never be that. ‘Cause that’s – they’re bigger than life.’ Well, young people ought to be able to see. I mean Black ones, and I mean White ones, and Asians and Spanish people. They should be able to see that and say, ‘Yes, I can.’
Tavis: What is, in your mind, the legacy of this great man, finally?
Angelou: Not mush.
Tavis: Just love.
Angelou: Not mush. Not sentimentality, but love. I think it may be the element which keeps the stars in the firmament. It may keep the blood rushing through the veins.
Tavis: And that’s why I love you. (Laugh) Dr. Angelou, nice to see you.
Angelou: Thank you (unintelligible). I love seeing you, my dear.
Tavis: I love you.
Angelou: I love you.
Tavis: Thank you very much.
For more information about the memorial honoring Dr. King, log on to BuildtheDream.org.