50 years later, MLK memorial visitors reflect on past, future civil rights fight

On the 50th anniversary of his assassination, visitors to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial are reflecting on the state of his fight for equality and civil rights.

EDITOR’S NOTE: You can find more coverage on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and its aftermath at WTOP’s D.C. Uprising: Voices from the 1968 Riots.

WASHINGTON — On the 50th anniversary of his assassination, few visitors to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial would describe his expression captured in granite as “satisfied.”

“He’s looking out over us, into the future, kind of gazing past us,” said Gail Dixon, during her first visit to the memorial, dedicated in 2011, overlooking the Tidal Basin. “He’s not looking down on us, but he’s looking out, like the work is still out there to be done.”

From Columbus, Ohio, Dixon was a young girl when King was shot and killed April 4, 1968. She said she has tried to paint a picture for her teenage daughter about the hope that King elicited for blacks, whites, and people of all colors.

“It was a time where things are possible. And you realize that change is possible and needed, and you can’t just talk about it, or pray about it, you have to do it,” Dixon said.

Her daughter, CharAnna said King’s message resonated with her.

“Change is possible — we have to put the work behind it, and he had to sacrifice his life for it, but change is possible,” CharAnna Dixon said. “That’s what helps me believe that we can move forward.”

Gazing at the statue of King, standing with arms crossed, looking toward the Jefferson Memorial, many visitors remarked on King’s bravery and magnetism, during the 1960s fight for civil rights.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Dawn Caldwell, of North Carolina. “Just reading all of his quotes — it’s just really inspiring,”

Caldwell said she was most impressed by King’s ability to mobilize people of different backgrounds to strive for a common goal.

“I think that’s what’s missing, is that we don’t have someone like that,” she said, while looking at the memorial with her husband and teenage son. “We have a lot of different people, but I don’t think we have anyone that is as powerful, or as eloquent and learned as he.”

“Barack Obama had the eloquence and background, but as far as one person mobilizing — maybe it’s not going to be one person, maybe it’s going to be multiple people who do that,” Caldwell said.

With modern-day contentiousness and political gridlock and grandstanding, I asked if Caldwell and her husband, Medula, of North Carolina, believed that peace is still achievable.

“I really don’t think we’ve ever had it — peace,” said Medula. “It almost seems like a futile effort.”

His wife continued his train of thought.

“It’s hard for man to have peace — I think there will always be struggles,” said Dawn. “It’s sad, because people obviously die from that.”

Despite her uncertainty about the possibility of enduring peace, Dawn Caldwell said she wonders whether King’s vision will ever be attained.

“Will we ever achieve it? We can hope we can get closer,” she said.

Most of the visitors agreed continuing the fight for equality and justice that King sought was the best way to honor his legacy

“He was a young man,” said Jeanne Wickliffe, visiting the memorial with the Dixons. “Had he lived, you can start imagining, with his great mind, what he could have accomplished or led others to accomplish.

Yet Gail Dixon said the divisive climate of 2018 will make achieving King’s goals difficult.

“Not until we start talking to each other again, and listening to each other, and not shouting at each other,” said Dixon. “You have to listen to each other and be willing to hear ideas that you may not be comfortable with, and still be able to talk to people.”

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