The old fraternity’s tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t on the list of official events. It wasn’t open to the public. And it was scheduled for Friday morning, before the big salutes of Saturday and Sunday.
But with Hurricane Irene derailing almost everything else, the Alpha Phi Alpha ceremony became, by default, the sole dedication ritual at the towering new memorial to the fraternity’s most illustrious brother.
“We’re not disappointed,” said Robert Bedford, 50, an Alpha brother and a university administrator from Chicago, “because we are at least here today to be able to do some form of dedication. Otherwise, perhaps, it would be a total disappointment.”
Amid the dire weather warnings, he said, “we were determined to come, regardless.”
The Alpha tribute drew civil rights icons, as well as members of King’s family and several thousand black-and-gold-clad members of the country’s oldest Greek-letter fraternity for African Americans.
The tribute began with the men and their families assembling at the Tidal Basin, on folding chairs west of the memorial that were to be used at Sunday’s official dedication. (That event has been postponed until September or October.)
There were younger men with their children and old men with canes, hearing aids and wheelchairs.
Even as fraternity brothers and their families occupied the first 20 or 30 rows of seats, workers were removing the rear rows ahead of the approaching storm.
But the Alphas had their weather window, on a sultry summer morning, and were proud of the honor.
The ceremony was emceed by the fraternity’s general president, Herman “Skip” Mason Jr., who shared the stage with King’s daughter Bernice King; his son Martin Luther King III; former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young; and civil rights leaders such as the Revs. Jesse L. Jackson and Al Sharpton.
“We are standing on sacred ground,” Mason told the audience. “We are in a space where many of our ancestors stood, not knowing that generations later we would return to celebrate the unveiling of a memorial dedicated to a man who was a drum major for peace and justice.”
The dedication Sunday was planned for the 48th anniversary of the day King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, a few hundred yards to the north.
Indeed, the haunting words of that speech were sprinkled throughout the Friday morning event.
In his invocation, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president emeritus of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, asked God to “not let our spirits rest until we finish the task, until justice does roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
King’s daughter delivered a rousing address about her father, saying, “Daddy is standing here now as a constant reminder . . . to the nation that you must forever deliver on the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for oppressed and marginalized people for every generation.”
Sharpton, whose Saturday march for “jobs and justice” was postponed, spoke about the King memorial’s proximity to the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and the Washington Monument.
“Get ready, George Washington,” he said. “There’s a new neighbor on the Potomac. Get ready, Mr. Jefferson. There’s a new neighbor on the Potomac. Get ready, Mr. Lincoln. There’s a new neighbor, and we are all coming to help him move in. We brought our luggage. We brought our food. Guess who’s coming to dinner?”
The Alpha Phi Alpha brothers had come to town because King was a member and because the fraternity had been first to come up with the idea for a memorial.
Members headed for the memorial shortly after 7 a.m., boarding buses at the Mayflower Hotel. They wore black-and-gold-striped bow ties, gold blazers and black-and-gold ball caps, and they represented several generations.
“It’s a day that I was wondering would ever come,” said Luther Elliott, 71, of Colesville as he waited in the hotel lobby to head to the memorial. “I’m excited. We are hopeful that the intent of his life is carried on. We’ll see how it works out. These are difficult times.”
Jared Green, 31, a civil engineer from Somerset, N.J., was present with his wife, Camille, 31, a radiation oncologist, and their sons, Lukewinston, 4, and Jonathan, 2.
“It’s a proud moment,” Green said of the memorial. “It just feels right as far as the timing, as far as the magnitude, as far as the location and position.”
John T. Warren, 49, an Alpha from Tampa, said he grew up in Montgomery, Ala., the site of some of the civil rights movement’s bloodiest battles.
“My mother and my father called me and said make sure I take plenty of pictures, because they lived it,” he said during the ceremony.
“My father was thrown in jail with Dr. King,” he said. “It brought tears to my eyes last night. My mama said: ‘You know what, you gotta go stand for us. You gotta see it for us. Then, when you come home, I’ll see it in your eyes.’ It’s something.”
As the tribute concluded, hundreds of the brothers gathered at the base of the 30-foot-tall statue of King, locked hands and spontaneously broke into the fraternity’s hymn:
College days swiftly pass, imbued with mem’ries fond, and the recollection slowly fades away.
Our renowned A Phi A and dear fraternal bond, may they ever abide and with us stay.