A monumental vision

The King memorial will be the first tribute on the Mall to African-American leader

January 15, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

It began as a grand dream, chatter around the dinner table between a pair of old fraternity brothers. Alfred Bailey and George Sealey reasoned that if presidents and Civil War heroes could be immortalized on the National Mall, why not a human rights giant renowned the world over such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?

Sure, they thought. Maybe one day.

Twenty-four years and $72 million later, that idea is close to becoming a reality. Ground was broken two months ago for the memorial that will rise on a four-acre site along the Tidal Basin, the first tribute on the Mall for an African-American leader. The project is scheduled to open in 2008.

Sealey and Bailey were determined from the start. The battle was for more than a civil rights legend; King was also their fraternity brother.

King, who would have turned 78 today, was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation's oldest black fraternity. From conception to architectural direction to fundraising, the Mall's salute to King will have the imprint of his college fraternity.

The organization has directly raised $2.3 million of the $100 million needed to complete the project, from sources that include college chapters donating the proceeds from campus dances and elaborate dinner fundraisers orchestrated by "Alpha Wives Clubs." Then there are the big corporate donations, some of which have come from companies where Alphas are senior executives, such as General Motors and Fannie Mae.

"I was very proud to strive to get something ... to recognize his contribution to society. Deep down, I had a whole lot of pride," said Bailey, 82. "And the fact that he was an Alpha made me want to do even more for him."

Founded at Cornell University in 1906, Alpha Phi Alpha's membership includes such notables as W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, Andrew Young and Paul Robeson. Based in Baltimore, the group has more than 700 chapters in the United States and abroad.

After their 1983 dinner conversation, Sealey and Bailey immediately seized on that huge network, starting first with their local Silver Spring alumni chapter. It was an easy sell. By early 1984, the chapter raised $1,000 for the project and delivered a presentation on the concept for a memorial at the Alpha's national convention, where it was wholeheartedly supported.

But in the years following, the effort languished. Sealey who died in 2000, would not live to see its completion. And early on, some members thought an undertaking of that magnitude was beyond their capability.

"I have to admit, I was a part of the many skeptics," said Darryl R. Matthews, president of Alpha Phi Alpha.

He noted that early on, the organization, then based in Chicago, concentrated on raising money to purchase new headquarters in Baltimore, which it did in 1991. "We had never done anything like this before."

Later, finding money would prove difficult. Fundraising stalled in 2001, when the King family demanded to receive a fee to use the slain civil rights leader's image in a campaign. Once the dispute became public, King's son, Dexter, issued a statement saying the family supported the memorial and did not seek a fee but was negotiating a "permissions agreement."

Along the way, Sealey and Bailey remained undaunted. Long before the big checks from Tommy Hilfiger and Procter & Gamble and before the "Dream Team" of celebrities such as actors Morgan Freeman and Harrison Ford lent support, Bailey and Sealey were spending long days lobbying members of Congress to approve a bill to make the project a reality.

In the early 1990s, the pair became such a fixture on the Hill, Bailey said jokingly, that "one session, they even gave us our own parking space," he said.

Bailey, a retired engineer and Tuskegee Airman who often ends telephone conversations by saying "over and out," persuaded lawmakers to support the memorial with his businesslike zeal.

"There was never any doubt in my mind," he said, sitting on the edge of the couch of his Silver Spring home. "We knew we were doing something great. And that was that."

While they worked on the politicians, Alpha Phi Alpha launched an extensive promotion campaign in its magazine, The Sphinx, and Matthews said he made sure every member of Congress and of President Bill Clinton's Cabinet was on the mailing list.

"There were no books on how to do this," said Matthews. "We were building this bicycle while we were riding."

Sealey and Bailey found allies in Maryland politicians -- former Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella and Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes -- who sponsored the bill authorizing the project. But it would take several Congresses for the measure to pass.

In moments of rejection, Bailey drew on his personal reflections of King. Bailey was at the Mall to hear King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. Working at the time as an engineer at Howard University, he remembered the thousands of people who -- spontaneously, it seemed -- locked arms as they approached the Lincoln Memorial.

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