Man in charge of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial readies for the spotlight


Harry E. Johnson Sr., 56, was appointed chief executive of the foundation that is building the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on the Mall in 2002. He has helped raise $114 million for the project. (Nikki Kahn/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Washington’s new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the first on the Mall honoring an African American, has been a quarter century and, so far, $114 million in the making. And Harry E. Johnson Sr., who memorized King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as a school boy, is the man largely responsible for finding the money.

Johnson, the chief executive of the foundation building the memorial, has helped pull in big money from the likes of Boeing, Ford, Coca Cola and Exxon Mobil.

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.

Early influences

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.

He grew up in St. Louis, where his mother was a hotel housekeeper and his father was an entrepreneur and later a police officer.

He attended Christian Brothers College High School in St. Louis and Xavier University in New Orleans, the nation’s only historically black Catholic college.

He was in the Army ROTC at both schools and has a law degree from Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law.

Although he now attends a Baptist church, he said he was shaped by his Catholic upbringing.

“I went to Catholic schools all my life, except for law school,” he said. “Growing up in that tradition was very beneficial to me. Teachers who influenced you. Teachers who wanted you to do better . . . Back in grade school we were learning the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in speech class.”

Ty Christian, 57, a high school classmate of Johnson’s who has been the foundation’s chief marketing strategist for the past seven years, recalls that they entered high school together in 1969 — and took a class trip to Washington — the year after King was assassinated.

“To have us come full circle, to in essence come back to D.C. and build a memorial together — it’s a very, very special connection,” he said.

Johnson said he grew up in the 1960s tuned in to public events and the turbulence of the times. “You watched the news, and . . . you knew what was going on around you.”

Much of it was bad. The war in Vietnam. Riots in the cities. But then there was King.

“Dr. King, hearing him speak, he’s trying to stop all the madness,” Johnson said. “He’s trying to say, ‘There’s a better way for us to deal with our differences.”

Johnson was 8 the year of the “I Have a Dream” speech, and a student at St. Barbara’s parochial school — at “Hamilton and Minerva,” he said, as if the corner was etched in his memory.

Father Maurice J. Nutt, a Catholic priest and close friend who grew up in the same neighborhood, calls Johnson “a man of deep faith and moral conviction.”

When Johnson finished college he came home and was dismayed to find that the parish had fallen on hard times, Nutt said. “He single-handedly galvanized all of his old grade school classmates to come back and help to rebuild the church,” the priest said.

Several members of the old parish have been invited to the memorial dedication. “Even years later, we love him and are very proud of him,” Nutt said.

Put in charge

Johnson was appointed chief executive of the Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation in 2002, after serving four years as president of Alpha Phi Alpha, the prestigious African American fraternity to which King belonged.

It was the fraternity that conceived and first lobbied Congress for the memorial, established the foundation and chipped in $4 million.

In the beginning, there was criticism of the project: the selection of a Chinese sculptor. The size of the main statue. The severity of the image. The accuracy of the depiction. And so on.

“The criticism, I never took to heart, because I knew better,” Johnson said. “I know that when people see it they’re going to say, ‘Oh, my God.’ And all the criticism that may have been out there will then soon dissipate.”

One day last month, Johnson met with a group of black Catholic clergy who were in town for a conference and were getting a preview tour of the memorial.

As he once persuaded classmates to help their old parish, it seemed he had done much the same here, but on a far grander scale.

Barbara Connor, 67, a member of a parish in Seattle, gazed up at the statue of King with a look of awe on her face.

“It’s breathtaking,” said Connor, who recalled demonstrating as a college student in Louisiana to integrate churches there.

“It just makes me emotional,” she said. “Just to see a monument to a man who was a giant. And he stands here as a giant.”

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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