One day in 1983, George Sealey and his wife, Pauline, were discussing the lack of memorials to African-Americans in Washington, a predominantly black city.
That conversation led Sealey, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and a Silver Spring resident, to invite a half-dozen fraternity brothers over the next year to gauge their opinion on a national memorial honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a fellow member of the nation's first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity founded by and for African-Americans.
On Monday, the fraternity's 94th anniversary, President Clinton and other dignitaries are expected to unveil a marker in Washington commemorating the future site of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, honoring the civil rights leader who led the 1963 March on Washington and was assassinated five years later in Memphis.
What began as a conversation between two people has evolved into a project that is expected to be completed in 2003 at a cost of between $50 million and $100 million. It will be the first memorial recognizing an individual African-American on the National Mall.
It will also be the second memorial dedicated to an individual who was not a U.S. president.
Unlike the scattered national opposition to having a federal holiday declared in honor of his birthday - and recent controversy over a proposed World War II monument on the mall - the proposed King monument has been relatively uncontested, officials said.
"After 16 years, I feel like I've been in a boat going through some pretty rough seas, but now I can see the shores," Sealey said. "I see that we're almost there."
After the board of directors for the Baltimore-based Alpha Phi Alpha had approved the King memorial, the Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation Inc. was formed. Adrian L. Wallace of Louisiana and John Carter of Atlanta were named president and vice president, respectively.
On Nov. 12, 1996, federal legislation was passed for the memorial. And on July 16, 1998, Clinton signed a Joint Congressional Resolution authorizing the memorial to be erected on the National Mall, where there are 14 monuments.
A design by ROMA Design Group of San Francisco, was selected in September from among more than 1900 competitors.
The King memorial, which will include water and stone, will be placed on a four-acre site across the Tidal Basin from the Jefferson Memorial and north of the memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt, in line of sight between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.
Corporate, public support
So far, about $1 million has been raised for the memorial, Carter said. Tommy Hilfiger Corp. has pledged $5 million for the project, and Bell South Corp. has provided significant in-kind contributions and also plans to contribute money, Carter said.
Federal money cannot be used for the memorial, but Carter and Sealey said they think people will support the project.
"I think absolutely it will be well received," said Carter, who pledged Alpha in 1967 during his sophomore year at Morris Brown College in Atlanta.
"People will want to see it. We don't think we'll have any problems with people recognizing what we're doing and the value of what we're doing," he said.
Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Maryland Republican, and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, are expected at the 10 a.m. dedication ceremony, along with about 500 other guests.
`For all Americans'
The Howard County Children's Chorus will sing the national anthem, and the Rev. Nathan Baxter of the National Cathedral, Rabbi Floyd Herman of Baltimore's Har Sinai Congregation and the Rev. Manuel Burdusi of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Baltimore will offer prayers to commemorate King, his message and the civil rights movement.
Carter said he thinks it's fitting that the first memorial on the National Mall to honor an African-American will honor King, who also is also the first - and only - African-American commemorated with a federal holiday.
He specified that although the idea originated with a brother of Alpha Phi Alpha - which counted W. E. B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Jesse Owens among its members - the memorial isn't "for" any specific group.
"This is not an Alpha Phi Alpha memorial," Carter said. "It is not an African-American memorial. This is a memorial for all Americans. Alpha is proud to be able to sponsor it, but it's gonna take all of America to build it. I think that's essential, because King's message is universal to people of all ages and all races."