Louisiana Man Led National MLK Memorial Project

by on December 8th, 2010
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From what started as a simple “you-know-we-should” conversation between three friends nearly 15 years ago has morphed into a 30-foot tall memorial on the National Mall for Dr. Martin Luther King that stands as the only memorial for a Black American. “We call it, ‘A King among Presidents’,” said Adrian Wallace of Lake Charles.

The former chemist and Hallmark store owner was part of the project team to bring the national memorial into existence. As general president for the national Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. , Wallace spent four years working on the memorial.

Only months before he became president, Congress had approved the building of a King monument of the National Mall. He knew then that his agenda for the Alphas had changed. Wallace travelled between Louisiana and Washington frequently to establish a foundation, build the project team, select a site, and begin the goal of raising $120 million for the King memorial.

Wallace is currently project director for SEED, an entrepreneurial enterprise center with the Mayor’s office in Lake Charles. He was recently honored by The Network Coalition in New Orleans for his work with the monument and his development leadership in the state. The Jozef Syndicate talked with him about his memorial experience.

Aside from establishing a project team and securing the design, what was your role and the role of the national office?

We had the stewardship of the project. During my tenure we set up a separate 501c3 to receive money: Washington DC National Monument Foundation to maintain the fiscal responsibility. We also engaged the King family in process. Alpha Phi Alpha continued to be the lead on this project to the end. We reached across the aisle -politically, ethnically, and socially. I had to be sure the infrastructure was in place to take the project to funders. We engaged Dr. Ed Jackson in working through project. Bob Parson was very helpful. We called on Harvey Gant from North Carolina to form joint task force. We had to carefully put into place the foundation and project team to handle operation. The Foundation took on the project and management. We populated board with corporate people like Marriott and members of Alpha Phi Alpha. John Carter appointed as project manager specific start and finite period. I was able to form the board and raising the first $15 million. We could not go to the public until we had demonstrated that, as an organization, we had put up money. We were all volunteers. Huey Perkins, from Southern University in Baton Rouge, was also involved.

What were some of the challenges? Memorials aren’t built very often on National Mall and we had to work with the Parks Commissioner. We were offered a number of sites but turned them down. One site they offered would have located Dr. King near the WWII memorial. With due diligence, we found that the WWII memorial would overshadow the King site if built there. We also knew we did not want the memorial of a man of peace in the middle of memorials designed for war. We faced some consternation for those decisions. We were persistent and insistent to pursue the current site. This took 15 months. We faced consternation among various segments. We were even told it wouldn’t be built…And it’s been accomplished.

Who came up with the concept of the “Stone of Hope” which is the massive granite that King emerges from and the “Mountain of Despair” which is behind King at the monument site? When we saw the entire presentation, everyone was very, very impressed. Everybody thought this was a powerful concept. I knew we wanted a certain amount of elegance and simplicity and that is what the monument has. We were very adamant that Dr. King needed a type of memorial that would give justice to not just him but to the MAN Movement and Message. It is the only memorial for and about and African American. This site is looking at Thomas Jefferson. We thought Dr. King should be in the middle of presidents.

Very little negative news coverage came out about this project and issues with funding, the King family, or any other riffs. How was this project so meticulously thought out and well executed?

Divine Providence said this was going to happen. It was time…I had several tag lines for the project, but we said many times that “failure was not an option”. We worked closely with that in mind.

The artist and sculptor of the monument was Master Lei Yixin. How diverse was the architectural team, designers, and experts? Did Blacks have a role at that level or were they limited to the imaginative, planning process? I remember being on the CBS Show and Bryant Gumbel asked about designer not being Black and we told him about the design entries we’d received from more than 40 countries. It told him, “In keeping with the King’s philosophy that we are all one people, the competition was color blind.” If you look at the various teams connected to the project, you will see everybody had a role to play.

What significance should people realize about the placement and size of the King monument in Washington DC?

We purposely chose the word memorial instead of monument because we wanted to this be expressive. We wanted it to be an experience. A memorial is something you experience… We knew how tall the statue of Dr. King would be but we didn’t say. The tallest monuments were 19 feet tall. Lincoln is 19feet. We built Dr. King 30 feet tall! He is the tallest.

This project was funded by everyday people. How did that go?

This was funded by the American people and corporations-even kids. Its very much a public. Congress was prohibit from making any significant contributions. Tommy Hilfiger was one of the very first supporters who got on board very early. Many people, including other Greek organizations, made significant contributions to this. We held dream dinners around the country to raise money. Once we showed we were fiscally sound, we started to see some companies and celebrities endorse the project.

What did this experience teach you about people, politics, and racism of today?

There were detractors who didn’t want it to be built. Had I settled for something less than what we come up with, we would have only seen a King statute in a garden . We believed that Dr. King and all that he meant in country and the world deserved more. The message is about the universality of brotherhood. Everybody deserves to have the same opportunity, and we can achieve anything.

After such a substantial accomplishment, what’s next for the national office?

The Alphas name will always be attached to this and rightfully so…The national office is now working on a book of its history.

Are we “done “now? Done with civil rights, done with immortalizing Kings legacy, done with the fight for freedom? Have we come full circle?

With the memorial, no our work is not done. If we are not vigilant, it is so easy to lose the gains we’ve received. We must be vigilant, and we must stand -as solidly as Dr. King is standing in the memorial-for what is right.


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