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.