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After Hurricane Irene, Questions Remain on Revised Date for Official MLK Ceremony

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By Charles D. Ellison, Special to the NNPA from The Philadelphia Tribune –

It was one of the most highly anticipated and sure to be star-studded events of the summer. An edgy public, already sweaty and parched from hot, humid, record-breaking heat and the endless drudgery of a Capitol Hill gone mad, seemed eager to usher in the official launch of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

The latest marble and granite addition to Washington’s heralded line-up of monuments appeared on schedule. The performance stage was set-up and visitors were streaming in, the first wave of what organizers estimated would be 250,000 people.

But, Irene had other plans.

Regardless of the event, or the intentions and the stature of the public figure memorialized, Mother Nature always dictates the final terms. By the Thursday ahead of the first gatherings and red carpets, it was abundantly clear that Hurricane Irene’s Category 2 force winds would be felt as far up the East Coast as Vermont. Forecast models showed the swirling monster of rain and wind hitting Washington, D.C., and suddenly organizers were faced with the prospect of a postponed event.

Initially, that prospect became political and controversial, even though it was standard operating procedure prior to a natural disaster. Memorial foundation CEO Harry Johnson was strangely defiant as weather reports predicted the inevitable.

“We’re going forth with our program,” was Johnson’s position that Thursday, even as Amtrak was canceling service south of D.C. “We will bring you back tomorrow to talk about if, in fact, we’ll have any change, but today we’re still confident that we’re moving forward with the dedication of the Martin Luther King Memorial.”

It became a caustic back-and-forth with Washington’s press corps, with fresh images of an Indiana State Fair stage collapse that killed five only weeks before in the background. At one point, Johnson was walking away, ignoring repeated questions and attempts for some sense of disaster planning surrounding the event. People from afar had already landed, making their way to the memorial and with plans for a weekend of festivities.

Johnson welcomed them in “… come rain or shine,” stubbornly holding up the faith that perhaps Irene would change course.

But, it was a strange week in D.C. A 5.9 magnitude earthquake shook up the nation’s capital and had forced a rearrangement of key events. The gala kick-off that Wednesday was moved from the National Building Museum to the city’s convention center, along with a weekend interfaith service moved from a quake-damaged National Cathedral to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

“I’m not sure if it’s just bad luck, or Dr. King himself doesn’t like his memorial,” dryly joked one visitor to the memorial, who asked not to be identified.

Johnson had been managing quite a bit of controversy as the final product was unveiled. Some critics were still hot over the use of Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin and Chinese granite. Others, like the Daily Beast’s Black Gopnik, were calling the memorial too small at 29 feet and too “white,” with the face of King looking too “pale and freckled.” The Washington Post’s Courtland Milloy wrote that it looked far too much like "Han Solo frozen in carbonite from the movie ‘Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,’” and that the King statue was “… a tad pouty.”

Now, with the event indefinitely postponed, questions linger about when it will finally happen. The uncertainty adds to unsettling reports that the memorial foundation still hasn’t met its fundraising goals.

“We haven’t made any final decisions, yet,” said Johnson in a brief interview with the Philadelphia Tribune. “We still have to consult with the White House and National Park Service.”

Johnson seemed confident that a final decision would be announced within the next week or two. On rumors that the event would be integrated into the upcoming Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference in late September, Johnson was non-committal.

“That’s a date that’s been put out there,” added Johnson. “It’s still too early to determine.”

As for fundraising, Johnson seemed pleased that the gap was closing — having dropped from what was once a $6 million deficit to a current figure of $4 million.

But, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation spokesperson Muriel Cooper, while enthusiastic, seemed unsure about how a King Memorial event would fit into the CBCF’s program. While it might seem like a natural fit given the typically massive audience draw of the ALC each year, memorial organizers will need to meticulously plan the event around some major headliners that same weekend.

“I too have heard that date being thrown out there,” said Cooper, confirming that CBCF and memorial organizers have met. “But, it would depend on what date they choose or when they do it.” Cooper raised concerns over scheduling conflicts with events such as the Saturday Prayer Breakfast and the Phoenix Awards Dinner.

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