MIAMI BEACH – Former President William Jefferson Clinton recently got a standing ovation at the Miami Dream Dinner for the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial.
The dinner, which took place at the newly renovated Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel on Jan. 8, served as a fundraiser to benefit the building of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, DC. It also gave South Floridians an opportunity to reflect on King’s legacy of racial peace and justice.
The memorial will stand on a four-acre site on the National Mall along the Tidal Basin, adjacent to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and on a direct line between the Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson memorials.
Supporting the memorial is important, Clinton said, “because there will come a time when our children will not remember
Dr. King. It’s important not to forget the importance of symbolism. We are a long way from fulfilling the dream, but we are advancing.”
Clinton accepted the Humanitarian Award in recognition of his unparalleled work related to economic empowerment, racial, ethnic and religious reconciliation, health security, leadership development and citizen service. He was also recognized for his role in the King memorial’s construction.
“I am proud that I was able to sign the legislation in 1996 to approve construction on the mall,’’ Clinton said. “The memorial should be placed there because it’s the exact spot in which Dr. King gave his August 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. That speech changed America in many ways.”
The dinner’s lead sponsor, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, gave $1 million to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Foundation for the memorial’s construction.
To date, the King memorial foundation has raised $102 million of the $120 million needed to complete the project’s funding, according to Harry E. Johnson Sr., the memorial foundation’s president and CEO.
The $102 million includes a good portion of the money from the Miami Dream Dinner, but some is still coming in, said Rita Orszag, the King memorial foundation’s spokesperson. “For example, one dinner guest, who had already donated $2,000, walked up to Harry at the dinner and handed him a check for an additional $8,000.”
Clinton said during his speech, “It’s not that much money to commemorate someone so important to American history.”
“A BEAUTIFUL ADDITION”
Johnson said the memorial will be “a beautiful addition to the nation’s mall, and Clinton has been a huge supporter from the beginning. Also, it’s fitting that the memorial will be dedicated by (President-elect) Barack Obama.”
Clinton said that when Obama gives his inaugural speech, it will be just across the mall from the King memorial.
“In fact, his speech and Dr. King’s [I Have a] Dream speech are linked. One would not occur if the first did not happen,” Clinton said.
The U.S. House of Representatives, on Sept. 28, 1996, passed Joint Resolution 70, authorizing Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. to establish a memorial in Washington, D.C. honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On July 16, 1998, Clinton, as president, signed a Joint Congressional Resolution authorizing the building of the memorial and participated in its November 2006 ceremonial groundbreaking.
“Miami is the perfect city to host this event, as three-quarters of the people here are from somewhere else,” said Alberto Ibargüen, the Knight Foundation’s president and CEO. “The diversity is fantastic.”
There was a time when black people were not allowed to drink from water fountains or swim at the beaches, Ibargüen said at the Jan. 8 dinner, “but Martin Luther King was an agent of change, and in 12 days, the first African-American president will be sworn into office.”
Ibargüen described King as an “extraordinary man who inspired us to do better than we could imagine. I believe he would be pleased to be here and remind us that we have a lot more to do.”
Clinton said that people all over the world, not just here in America, need to share in King’s vision.
BEYOND THE BLACK-WHITE DIVIDE
“Every American has a personal interest in his success as America has gone beyond the black-white divide,” Clinton said, adding that during his recent visit to the White House, for the first time since 1981, all the living presidents got together.
“Three of the five owe our seats to Martin Luther King: [President-elect Barack] Obama, [Jimmy] Carter and me,’’ said
Clinton, not mentioning President George W. Bush or Bush’s father, former President George Herbert Walker Bush, who were at the White House meeting. “When Barack Obama takes office, everyone who knew and or supported Dr. King should be proud.”
Despite the support that the audience showed to Clinton at the dinner, and Clinton’s show of support to Obama in recent months, he was widely criticized by African-American leaders after equating Obama’s victory in South Carolina last
January 2008 to the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s unsuccessful presidential bid in 1988, a parallel that many took as an attempt to impede Obama’s success in the campaign.
Clinton also, as a guest on Larry King Live, criticized Obama’s position on the war and stated, “Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”
Clinton apologized publically for both statements.
Johnson told The Associated Press that Clinton’s relationship with the black community has never faltered, brushing off what was said during the campaign as, “just politics. President Clinton has been a friend to the civil rights movement and to the disenfranchised. The bottom line, President Clinton is the one that signed this bill into law allowing us to build the memorial.”
REMEMBERING DR. KING
Miami-Dade School Board Chairman Solomon Stinson described the event as “fantastic.”
An Alpha Phi Alpha member, Stinson met King as a young man. “It was during the time when he was involved in the
Montgomery Bus Boycott. That was in 1955 and ‘56. Many of us, throughout those times, tried to emulate his personality.
Even then, we knew great things would come of such a man.
Stinson continued: “We met again at Alabama State College. He was there to deliver a speech. And even then, his presence was something special.”
Stinson added that “as far as I’m concerned, we can’t get the memorial up fast enough.”
Father J. Kenneth Major, a priest at Episcopal Church of Incarnation in Liberty City, said he also met Dr. King.
“It was when he spoke at North Carolina University in Raleigh. I participated in the March on Washington, and was moved by his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. In hearing it today, I feel the same,” Major said.
Major described Dr. King as “our leader, our Moses. A great man.”
The Episcopal Church of Incarnation’s congregation has raised $30,000 for the memorial project, Major said.
BUILDING THE DREAM
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Audrey M. Edmondson, said at the dinner, “I feel that we are all here to build a dream.
When I think of where we are today, with Obama and Dr. King, I’m on cloud nine.”
Deryl McKissack, president and CEO of McKissack & McKissack, the oldest minority-owned architecture and engineering firm in the United States, said preparations for the company’s contract to build the memorial “took a lot of time, and was certainly worth it.’’
“We spent a lot of time learning the ropes,” she said, “and I was elated when it came through.”
She said that throughout her career, she has never enjoyed any project as much as this one.
“Yes, it will be a challenge,’’ she said. “We are building with materials that are stellar and high grade, as there is zero tolerance for error on a monument that has to stand the test of time.”
Photo by Mitchell Zachs/MagicalPhotos.com. Former President Bill Clinton, second from left, receives the Humanitarian Award from the Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Foundation on Jan. 8. Also pictured are Rod Gillum, left, chairman of the Memorial Foundation; Harry E. Johnson Sr., second from right, president and CEO of the Memorial Foundation; and Alberto Ibargüen, right, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.