Whatever else its record, the lame-duck session of Congress took at least one fine, public-spirited action: shortly before it adjourned, Congress passed a resolution establishing a memorial in the Capitol to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., making him the first black to be represented among the statues honoring the leaders of our national past.
This historic breakthrough memorializing a heroic black leader must not be permitted, as so many other "firsts" have been, to become an isolated case of tokenism. It does not detract from the stature of Dr. King to suggest that the civil rights revolution of our generation was not the work of one man but of thousands, likely hundreds of thousands, led by a most remarkable trio--King, A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins.
Few times in history have three great contemporary leaders so perfectly complemented each other. Randolph--fearless, selfless and determined--was a master at extracting concessions from a reluctant white establishment. As a young lawyer in the Office for Emergency Management in 1941, I saw Randolph scare the living daylights out of this city by threatening a march on Washington if a fair employment practices executive order were not prepared by the administration and signed by President Roosevelt. The Depression was receding and factories were starting to hum again to provide supplies for our allies and to prepare our own armed forces for the inevitable conflict with Hitler. But at these new and expanding factories few blacks were being hired.
Randolph not only pressured President Roosevelt into agreeing to sign a fair employment practices executive order once it was prepared, but he forced the authors of the order to rewrite it several times to make it stronger and stronger. Randolph started the white glacier moving ever so slowly toward a fairer society for minorities, and he kept driving toward that goal all the days of his life.
King's eloquence gave expression not only to the aspirations of blacks, but also appealed to the moral force latent within the white community. His voice taught black people to hope and white people to care. His courageous nonviolent campaigns all over the South made him a true champion of a better America. He never rested in the struggle, and in the end he gave his life for the more equitable society he sought.
Roy Wilkins, longtime leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was the great organizer of the civil rights movement. He built the strongest black organization in American history and forged a coalition of men and women of all colors that overcame in Congress and in the courts. His unselfish devotion to the cause of equality united the strength of Randolph and the eloquence of King with his own genius for organizing the grass roots of the nation. The legal revolution contained in the 1964, '65 and '68 civil rights laws gave concrete expression to the complementary work and ideals of these three moral giants and the legions they led.
With the exception of former vice presidents, only persons already deceased are memorialized with statues in the Capitol. So the name of Clarence Mitchell, the indefatigable lobbyist for the NAACP, who has been properly called the "101st senator," cannot be added to this threesome. But statues of King, Randolph and Wilkins standing side by side in the Capitol would properly honor all those in the great struggle for freedom in our time, a struggle heralding equality and dignity not only for blacks but also for women and for the other minorities of the nation.
King, Randolph and Wilkins turned a nation of discrimination and segregation into one where such actions are discredited and unlawful. Some of what they did is today under attack, and much of what they did requires a full-employment economy to make it wholly meaningful.
Our greatest tribute to them, of course, will be the implementation and continuation of their work so that the legal equality they built can one day become equality in fact. Statues of all three in the Capitol will be a constant reminder of how much they accomplished and how much farther we still have to go.