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Billions for Toys, But Not Enough For Tribute

By Courtland Milloy
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page C01

In 1996, Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing construction of a memorial on the Mall in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. within seven years. The four-acre site is on the Tidal Basin, adjacent to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, in what is known as the "monumental core" of the Mall. No person of color has ever been honored there.

The project is the brainchild of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, the nation's oldest black fraternity, of which King was a member. The organization established the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Foundation to raise $100 million by the 2003 deadline. But nowhere near that amount was in the coffers by then, so Congress, as is customary, extended the deadline three years, until November 2006.

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So far, however, only about $35.5 million has been pledged for the cause.

Ed Jackson Jr., executive architect for the project, was optimistic when I spoke to him recently.

"Unlike some other memorials, which receive government moneys to get the fundraising ball rolling, we had to start from scratch with a grass-roots movement," he said. "We relied on nickels and dimes from our frat brothers and others until we could get recognition from corporate America that this is an ongoing project and they should be part of it."

General Motors stepped up to the plate with a $10 million pledge. Tommy Hilfiger gave $5 million. Toyota pledged $2.5 million. Just those three names account for nearly half of the pledges.

A request for donations as small as $5 can be found on the foundation's Web site -- www.buildthedream.org. You even get a "Build The Dream" wristband. If all African Americans gave $5, the monument to King would be done with millions to spare.

"Do you know what it takes to get that many people to donate $5?" Jackson asked me. "If it was everybody across America, it would be less than 50 cents. But galvanizing a people around the project because they know it's important would require a major public relations initiative, and that would require major money."

Going after the "big-pocketed people" first is far more cost-effective, he said. Jackson was being a realist, no doubt. But what about the dream?

There is a generation of African Americans who walked through the blood and fiery aftermath of King's assassination -- 37 years ago tomorrow -- into a better life, with more political clout and good-paying jobs than ever before.

In 2003, black households in America earned $656 billion, according to Target Market News's latest report on African American consumers. In that one year, African Americans spent $145.2 billion on housing, $56.5 billion on food and $23 billion on clothes. More than $14 billion went just for telephone services.

Talk about deep pockets.

Meanwhile, the King Memorial Foundation continues to scour the nation for cash. An interfaith fundraising campaign starts tomorrow in Detroit with Muslims, Jews, Catholics and Protestants coming together for a "day of giving." Similar events are scheduled for Los Angeles, New York and Washington.

A series of "dream dinners," featuring well-known politicians, athletes and entertainers, also is planned, with the goal of raising the total to at least $66 million so construction can begin next year.

"I've been with this from the very beginning, and yes, there have been growing pains," Jackson said. "But you continue to carry the ball, to be involved in the struggle, because you know that you have to come out victorious."

The task need not be so difficult. Just for the fun of it, African Americans spent $2.5 billion on alcoholic beverages; $3.5 billion on consumer electronics; and $2.3 billion on toys, games and pets. It's not that we are stingy: In 2003, black people gave $12.3 billion in charitable contributions and spent $7.9 billion on gifts for friends and loved ones.

But there is no vehicle for harnessing some of these dollars and targeting them for great national causes. (By the way, last on the list of expenditures was a paltry $326 million for books, which may be symptomatic, if not the cause, of our dysfunctional relationship with money.) One hundred million dollars to seize this historic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to honor King: so close; yet so far way.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com


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