Unfortunately, I never met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but, fortunately, I did meet Uncle M.L., the name he was referred to by his parents, siblings, other family and friends as he was growing up to become Dr. King.
During his lifetime, I was too young to understand or be aware of the societal injustices that were surrounding me, and certainly too young to comprehend his great dream for America or his nonviolent philosophy as an instruction manual on how to live one's life.
My memories are of a guy I used to play with, a man whom I would notice with curiosity during the hours of family time at the annual Thanksgiving dinner, who would slip away to another room to get a quick nap. It would be years before I could appreciate how the mantle of his leadership and the weight of his work and travel schedule created the conditions where he desperately needed those quick naps.
I do have a very vague memory or two of him in the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist, our family church, but my memories are overwhelmingly of a playful, comical man. Just as in his work as a man of the cloth and as a human and civil rights leader, Uncle M.L., during his family and friends time, was determined to bring joy, relief and laughter to those surrounding him.
Aside from remembering playing with him, I vividly remember the fun effect he had on others. After his assassination, as I grew and learned of his work, I recognized the compassion I saw at home in his work.
As I grew to comprehend his philosophy and meet Dr King, I realized that one of the true regrets that I have in life is that I was not old enough for us to have worked together, just as we had played together. As the newly elected president/
CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the most successful human rights organization in American history, I now follow in his footsteps as the second generation of King leadership.
But I can only imagine how the multitude of citizens black and white, male/female and the old and the young, whose names are not held up in the bright lights, who enabled him to be the great Dr. King, must feel. I can only imagine how they must feel having been a part of a revolution that changed not only our country but also the world. There is a sense of pride when I think about the fact that a guy I share DNA with, a guy who precedes me by only one generation and a guy I actually knew, has a monument built in his honor in the A-list section on the National Mall in the nation's capital.
I know my fellow African Americans have a sense of pride knowing that a person that looks like them has a place alongside some of our greatest presidents. But, for me, the proudest thing — and I think it would be the proudest thing for Uncle M.L. — is the impact this will have on American society.
In the immediate term, the focus will probably center on the fact that this is the first time a monument has been built to honor an African American. In the long term, the true point of pride for me is that this will be the first monument on the mall given for peace and nonviolence.
This in no way is a criticism of or negative reflection on the other existing monuments; they all deserve to be there, just like the monument to Uncle M.L. But the monument to Uncle M.L. will provide future generations an example of a citizen leader who led, fought and won a war without ever having fired a shot. Future generations will see an army of black and white, male and female and old and young who met the violence of attack dogs, water hoses, bombings, gunfire and lynchings. With the nonviolence of passive resistance, peace and love for one's fellow human being, future generations will know it is possible to meet violence with nonviolence and win. They will know that conflicts can be resolved without the use of weapons, that rights don't have to be achieved at the point of a gun.
This monument will be a gathering place for people of all hues, any ethnicity and any religious orientation or no religious orientation. This monument will be both a reminder and an example to people around the world, demonstrating how to change the negative aspects of their societies, while preserving the best, and, most importantly, preserving life and the infrastructure needed to maintain it.
The national holiday commemorating Uncle M.L.'s life has become much more than a day of hero worship of a man; it has become a day where millions of Americans perform acts of service to others. In fact, it's the only holiday on the American calendar whose official designation states that is not a day for play but a day of service to others.
In the same way, because of what Uncle M.L. did as a citizen leader, the principles he fought and stood for, this monument will follow that tradition and become more than a memorial to the man. It will become an inspirational nonviolent path to a more caring, a more peaceful and a more just society.
As one who shares DNA with a guy whom I personally consider the greatest leader of the 20th century, it's not the brick and mortar on the mall that gives me the greatest sense of pride but the lesson that it conveys change through nonviolence.
Congratulations, Uncle M.L., on a life well lived.
Isaac Newton Farris Jr., nephew of Martin Luther King Jr, currently serves as president/CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial in Washington, D.C., was postponed from August because of bad weather and is now scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 16.
Photo: ISAAC NEWTON FARRIS JR.