MLK statue project was spearheaded by Houstonian

October 14, 2011 8:22:25 PM PDT
The new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial will finally get its formal dedication this Sunday. Hurricane Irene blew through Washington, DC on the date of the first scheduled dedication, causing it to be postponed.

But Houston is playing a big role in this historic memorial. In fact, the man who spearheaded the entire operation is a Houston attorney.

"I'm tired, but excited," Harry Johnson said.

Even as thousands poured into Washington from all over the nation six weeks ago, Johnson was still working on completing a monument many thought would never happen.

"It's just a fantastic sight and a great addition to our national memorial," he said.

It's not what he trained for at TSU's Thurgood Marshall School of Law, but it's turned out to be the biggest job of his life.

"Did you ever think it might not be possible?" we asked him.

"Oh, without question. I've had some very sleepless nights," he said.

This low-key lawyer and father-of-three never dreamed he'd be building a monument on the Washington Mall. It all started when members of the nation's largest black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, wanted a memorial to a frat brother -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"One president of Alpha Phi Alpha got a bill passed in Congress in 1996, another president got the land and the design. And then, lo and behold, I become national president of Alpha Phi Alpha and they say now go and raise $100 million," Johnson said.

When his term was up, Johnson was asked to stay on as head of the King Memorial Foundation. And that $100 million tab became $120 million. He learned how to appeal to corporations, churches and individuals. Ten years later, that dream has become real.

"Oh my God, an African American. But not just that, the first non-president, the first man of peace, the first person of color standing here right between Lincoln and Jefferson," Johnson said.

There have been some rough spots. The artist who carved the 30-foot statue of King is Chinese, and many critics didn't like that.

"My argument in favor of having him to do it was simply this: Dr. King said we should not judge a person by the color of his skin but by the content of his character," he said.

Johnson admits he's cried more than once, looking at what's come to pass.

"You get a little taken back, because, oh my God, you just never, never, never believed this could happen. So yeah, I do get choked up," he said. "It's a feeling of exuberance. I was over there Sunday, about 6:30 in the evening. I just sat there and tears came down my face, looking at people admiring the memorial."

What does it mean to have the first African-American grace the Washington Mall?

"I think it tells children, especially children of color - black, brown, any color - that anything's possible," Johnson said. "The best part about all of this for me is that the people of the United States, the people of the world will come and celebrate the ideals for which Dr. King stood for and stand among the other giants of our country."

Johnson is especially excited about Sunday's dedication ceremony, where he will introduce President Barack Obama.

Melanie Lawson is going to the dedication, and her reports will begin Saturday on Eyewitness News. Then watch a special edition of Crossroads at 11am Sunday. You'll see the many ties Houston has to the newest monument on the Washington Mall.


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