Ten years later, Dr. King's memorial still has lessons for our nation

Ten years later, Dr. King's memorial still has lessons for our nation
© Greg Nash

Engraved in the rising stone wall of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington is one of the civil rights leader’s most instructive quotes: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”  

Those timeless words are one of 14 quotes that adorn the memorial and remind us that the world King foretold in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech was never inevitable. Instead, his quotes caution us that the fulfillment of his “dream” depends on our nation standing united and firmly against injustice.  

In the 10 years since the memorial’s dedication, we have seen our nation struggle, teetering closer and then further from delivering on the promises of democracy. Peaceful demonstrations sometimes have been met with violence. Advancements in equality have at times triggered backlashes of discrimination. Some have sought to restrict free exercises of democracy by placing politics above justice.

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Now, as much as ever, we need King’s spirit, wisdom and guidance. That’s why we are taking this month to mark the 10th anniversary of the MLK Memorial, including with a ceremony at the site on Oct. 21. We are commemorating why our nation built a monument to such a person — the significance of it still standing as the only memorial on the National Mall dedicated to a person of color, and the enduring value it holds for all of us.  

Positioned among monuments to those who signed the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, King’s memorial calls on us to never abandon our collective work to realize the pledges made in those “promissory notes.” At any given time, it shares his prophetic words with a new generation, perhaps spurring and guiding them in their own chapter of the social justice movement. The memorial’s stone carving of King stands not only as a physical tribute to the man, but also as a beacon to motivate today’s leaders and as a space for people to peacefully demonstrate in support of equality for all.  

Three million people, on average, visit the King memorial each year. World leaders, heads of state, elected officials and cultural icons have come to the site, likely seeking wisdom and perspective. Masses of young activists have gathered, protested and marched at the feet of King’s statue.  

As a nation, we must allow ourselves to be inspired by the legacy of King and take steps to ensure equality today and forever into the future. Across the country, in towns large and small, there is a universal yearning for more love, hope and peace in our world. However, that peace does not come passively; it is only possible through action. As King once told us, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”  

As a devoted admirer and student of King’s legacy, I believe deeply in the potential of our country to overcome the injustices that dramatically marked King’s time, as well as our own. 

In honor of this month’s milestone for the memorial, I encourage the D.C. community — and visitors from around the world — to spend time at the site. As you do, let it remind you of why we built a monument to a leader of justice and equality in the heart of our nation’s capital. Allow the memorial’s towering form to lead you to think about the historic change that one courageous person can make in their lives, and let the memorial’s preserved words guide you and push you to live up to King’s dreams and your own.  

Harry E. Johnson Sr. is president and CEO of The Memorial Foundation, the builders of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. Follow on Twitter @MemFoundation.