Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin boost rescheduled King memorial dedication

About 6 p.m. on Aug. 25, in an office in Washington’s convention center, Harry E. Johnson Sr. gathered his board of directors and told them he was calling off the dedication of the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial three days hence.

An earthquake already had disrupted some dedication-week events. A hurricane was bearing down on the District. And a storm had just killed people at a similar outdoor event in Indiana.

Clearly, Johnson thought, God was sending a message.

On Sunday morning, Johnson, with the help of some illustrious friends, and perhaps the hand of Providence, will kick off a smaller but star-filled dedication that seemed unlikely in the hurricane’s wake in August.

President Obama and Vice President Biden will be on hand, along with members of the Cabinet. Singer Aretha Franklin canceled a performance elsewhere to be present and sing “Precious Lord,” one of King’s favorite gospel hymns.

And music star Stevie Wonder, telling Johnson the dedication needed to be memorable, rounded up performers such as James Taylor and Sheryl Crow to join him in the ceremonies, Johnson said.

There probably won’t be the 250,000 spectators that were expected in August, but organizers have set up 10,000 folding chairs in a field adjacent to the memorial.

They also have erected a performance stage and huge TV screens that will telecast the event.

The weather forecast is sublime — sunny and 70 — and organizers say there could be 50,000 people or more in attendance.

That’s 10 times what Johnson, president of the foundation that built the memorial, expected in the bleak days after he postponed the dedication.

That came early in the evening of Aug. 25, after an acrimonious news conference with reporters anxious for information, when Johnson got word from the National Weather Service that Hurricane Irene had veered toward Washington.

“We put out 27,500 chairs” and dozens of portable toilets, Johnson said in an interview Thursday. “What I was afraid of was a wind gust . . . picking up those chairs and throwing them around.”

This was “fresh off of the Indiana deal, where the storm toppled the stage, and actually some people were killed,” he said, referring to the Aug. 13 incident in which high winds blew down stage rigging at the Indiana State Fair and killed seven people.

“In my mind, it’s like, do you really want to put someone’s life at risk?” Johnson said. “That’s when I made the decision: Hey, let’s cancel it.”

It was a crucial call.

Obama was slated to speak at the dedication. There were “mayors coming in town. The King family was already here, of course. You had people coming in on buses from around the country. . . . Everybody’s waiting to hear what’s going to happen. From me.”

The dedication had been scheduled to coincide with the 48th anniversary of the day that King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in 1963.

“You had people 87, 88, 90 coming up because, ‘I was there for the March on Washington. I need to be back on that day,’ ” Johnson said.

He hated to disappoint them.

He summoned his board members, told them what he had planned and asked what they thought. He said almost everyone agreed with him. He then informed members of King’s family and made the public announcement.

But after all the work and the buildup, now what?

Phone ‘ringing off the hook’

The $120 million memorial, which features a 30-foot granite statue of King on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin, opened to the public Aug. 22. But it still needed to be dedicated.

First, a new date had to be selected. One idea was to have the dedication Sept. 24, to coincide with the meetings of the Congressional Black Caucus. But Johnson didn’t want to steal the spotlight from those events.

He also needed to know if and when Obama would be available.

When he got a call from the Interior Department last month saying that Secretary Ken Salazar and the president were both available Oct. 16, that “became our day,” he said.

Johnson said at that point he thought there would be a modest ceremony. The memorial was already open. “Let’s just do an hour program, have the president come say something and let’s leave,” he said.

But he was getting phone calls from the public: “Our phone’s ringing off the hook,” he said. “Members of the public. Every day. John Q. Public is calling, saying ‘Hey, when’s the next date? We want to be back.’ ”

Johnson was surprised but began thinking the event might be bigger than he thought: “I said, okay, maybe 5,000 people will come back.”

Then he began thinking about all the people in the Washington region who might attend. He told the National Park Service there could be as many as 50,000.

Next, there was the issue of performers. Franklin had been scheduled to be a headliner Aug. 28. Would she appear this time?

“She was committed from Day One,” Johnson said. “I called her manager and he said, ‘She’ll be there.’ ” Indeed, she canceled a scheduled concert in North Carolina.

How about Wonder, who had signed on as one of the celebrity co-chairmen of the Aug. 28 dedication? Would he appear this time?

Three weeks ago, the Grammy-award-winning musician called Johnson in his office in the National Building Museum.

“I’m coming, but . . . we need to get some other people,” Johnson said the performer told him. “Let me make some calls for you.”

Within two weeks, Taylor and Crow agreed to appear, Johnson said. Johnson said Thursday that Dave Matthews also was in the lineup, but the foundation said Saturday that Matthews is not expected to appear.

It was “all Stevie,” Johnson said, “Stevie saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to make something happen.’ ”

‘An event that’s special’

As the event grew, Johnson said he had to rethink other issues such as seating. “If it’s an hour program, you don’t need anything,” he said.

He mentioned to his wife that this time he did not plan on any public seating.

“Where’s my mother going to sit?” he said she asked.

Johnson realized it might be hard for some people to haul blankets and chairs to the site.

With the help of the the National Park Service, which has custody of the memorial, the chairs were acquired.

Spokesman Bill Line said the park service is also providing portable toilets, first-aid tents and cleanup services.

“The park service is helping us out a lot,” Johnson said. “They want this to be an event that’s special.”

He said the foundation is paying for other aspects of the dedication, with money raised through corporate sponsorships and some that was saved when the August events were canceled.

He said the foundation has raised $117 million of the $120 million cost of the memorial.

The dedication is free to the public — tickets are not required — and organizers have said people can bring picnic blankets and chairs.

Gates open at 6 a.m., and the performances are scheduled to begin at 8.

The VIP dedication program, moderated by Gwen Ifill of “PBS NewsHour,” is set to begin at 9 in the paved forecourt of the memorial. Dedication is set for 11.

Johnson said he has tried to roll with the all the problems.

“In life,” he said, “you deal the cards you’re dealt. . . . I’ve always believed since I was a little kid that good always overcomes evil and that things are going to be all right.”

“Hey,” he said, “things are all right.”

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