The logos of 89 companies and foundations are displayed on the project’s Web site, and million-dollar contributors will be listed on a donor wall.
But he has worked just as tirelessly to get small checks from average Americans across the country.
He has also squired VIPs around the site, stood for interviews, shaken hands and clapped backs. For almost a decade, before the first dirt was turned, he has pushed, and pitched, all in an effort to sell the memorial.
“When you’re starting off and you go to corporations or individuals [to] say, ‘Hey, we really need your help to build a memorial’ ” Johnson said. The response sometimes was “ ‘Yeah, right, come back later.’ Those are times where you go, ‘All right, nobody really believes this is going to happen.’ ”
“Or when you have to convince them that . . . Dr. King really deserves a spot on the Mall,” he said. “When you have to convince people, it’s kind of disheartening. You shouldn’t have to convince people to do this.”
But corporate convincing is now an integral part of memorial building.
Donors played a large role in the World War II Memorial, which opened to the public in 2004, said Kirk Savage, professor and chair of history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh. Washington’s Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial has a granite plaque listing its major donors, too, he added.
“In the old days the idea was to have
. . .
the public subscription campaign,” Savage said.
“The focus there was to get a lot of people making donations to make it look like the monument had a kind of upswelling of popular support,” he said.
“That kind of idea . . . has withered away,” he said. “You’re never going to get enough money that way. So going to these big corporate donors is just what everybody else does.”
Johnson, a 56-year-old attorney, has done so with a preacher’s zeal and his salesman’s smile.
He still needs $6 million to reach the project’s goal of $120 million, but he is confident he can raise it. “Early on, when we were at $10 million, I had concerns,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t have concerns at $114 million. It’s going to come.”
He has weathered all the initial complaints — that the selected sculptor was not American, that the King statue looked totalitarian. And, more recently, he has accepted the praise of admirers.
Come Monday morning at 11 a.m., Johnson is hoping all the shmoozing, urging and asking that goes into the creation of the modern public monument will pay off when the towering new memorial on the Tidal Basin opens to the public.
Johnson is a bulky man — a 6-foot-2-inch former high school wrestler. He has short, graying hair and a thin, salt-and-pepper mustache, and he is always exquisitely dressed. For the recent VIP event, he wore a medium blue pin-striped suit, light blue shirt with monogrammed cuffs, cuff links and an orange tie.