Next year at this time, we will be able to examine the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. at his new Memorial, scheduled to open later this year. And, of course, the Lincoln Memorial is the traditional site to contemplate Dr. King; where you can stand where he did and see the same symbols of American democracy he did on August 28, 1963.
But this year, I thought I'd stray a little away from this single event, and show a little of impact Dr. King had in his many visits to our city. "Martin Luther King spoke here" is rapidly becoming the modern day equivalent of "George Washington slept here", so let's take a look at a few of those spots; some well know, others less so.
1. On December 6, 1956, the Washington Post and Times Herald, ran their usual "Events Today" column on page B3. Halfway down, under "meetings" was a small blurb that read "Rev. Martin Luther King of Montgomery, Ala to speak" at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church. Also meeting that night elsewhere in Washington would be the International Law Committee, Association of Attorneys, and the Washington Board of Trade. History does not record how their meetings turned out, but Rev. King delivered an address entitled "The Challenge of a New Age" to the meeting of the NAACP.
Fresh over a major victory in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King and his audience must have felt fairly pleased with themselves and the progress they had made so far, but I would be surprised if anyone in attendance could foresee that in half a century, the nation's first black President would be coming back to that same location to commemorate that event. Vermont Avenue Baptist is a not terribly far walk from the White House, near the corner of Vermont Avenue (duh!) and 12th ST NW.
2. For many reasons, I'd suggest working in a visit to the National Cathedral while in DC, not least of which is that it was the site of Rev. King's final Sunday sermon. When I give the tour there, I mention this and let it sink it. Almost like clockwork comes the question, "why did he choose to give his final sermon here?" Honestly, I get it all the time.
Obviously, neither Martin Luther King nor the nation had any idea that just four days later he would be assassinated in Memphis. And in fact, he spoke that Sunday about plans to organize the Poor People's Campaign and his plans to return to DC in a few weeks for a rally to further that cause. The sermon, Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, broadly defines the civil rights movement, tying in ending the War in Vietnam and combating poverty. Take a moment while in the Cathedral to look at the Canterbury Pulpit, from which Rev. King spoke.
3. The Lincoln Memorial has become synonymous with the Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, but it's not the only location in Washington that can lay claim to the speech. The Willard InterContinental Hotel, while perhaps not as posh as it is now, was nevertheless a conveniently located choice for Dr. King and others to stay while in DC for the March on Washington.
And, in fact, the organizers of the March had been so focused on the logistics, that the speeches had taken a back seat. It would be in the lobby of the Willard that Dr. King would work on the famous speech the day before he gave it, before retiring to his room to put the finishing touches on it. In honor of this, the square across the street from the hotel was renamed Freedom Plaza in 1980. A good place to kick off a visit to Washington, it features an inlaid map of the city, as well as quotes from King and many others.
Less impressively for all concerned, the Willard was also the location where the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover's direction, made recordings of Martin Luther King's affairs and sent them to, among others, his wife.
4. Looking back through the three decades since Dr. King's death, we can be proud of much of the progress we have made as a nation. We've largely eliminated the legal and political barriers that divided us, and great strides have been taken to reduce the cultural ones as well. But a vestigial remnant of those injustices remains here in our nation's capital.
It's an issue that Martin Luther King spoke strongly against, particularly on a whirlwind two days in August 1965. Linking the lack of home rule in Washington, DC with the inability of blacks to vote in the South, MArtin Luther King was an empassion advocate for Home Rule, a fight that continues today.
Arriving later than intended on morning of the 4th due to two bomb threats made against his flight from Philly, Dr. King kicked it off with a press conference at Adas Israel Synagogue in Cleveland Park, the site of his first address to a synagogue in the US a few years earlier. At the conference he called for "massive demonstrations, massive action, massive nonviolent direct action in order to call this issue to the conscience of the nation and the Federal Government that will ultimately decide it". In the next few days, he made a bevy of visits to rallies where he reiterated these points.
It's off the traditional tourist path, but one of these spots was the corner of 49th and Grant (now Nanny Helen Burroughs Ave) NE, just down the street from Sargent Memorial Presbyterian . You may very well never wander over there, but if you'd like to visit the area, the Greater Deanwood Heritage Trail discuss the event, as well other bits of history of this unique neighborhood.
I hope you enjoyed our small slice of Dr. King's story in DC. This is hardly an encyclopedic look at all of the places he experienced and touched while in Washington, so, by all means feel free to share others in the comments.