The Man Behind The Memorial: Keeping King’s Legacy Alive

Story and Photos by Liza Montgomery Data News Weekly Contributor

At 30-feet tall from top to bottom, what else could be more powerful than the Martin Luther King Jr. stone monument carved into the Stone of Hope, in which Dr. King emerges from two large boulders commanding the attention of all who cross its path. The stone Dr. King appears to be pushing forward, symbolizes the slow and vigorous process in the achievement to end racial segregation and discrimination in the United States.
“The reason why we built it was so that people of color could see somebody that looks like them on the national mall.”

Those were the reflections of Harry E. Johnson, Sr. a decade later since the monument, one of only four dedicated to non-U.S. presidents, was completed. It is also the first monument in the nation’s capital dedicated to a man of color.

Johnson is the man largely responsible for finding the money to help preserve African American heritage through Washington’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Johnson is a 6-foot-2-inch friendly giant with broad shoulders. He has short gray hair and a thin salt and pepper mustache resting above his gentle, warm, and welcoming smile for the local New Orleans students who greeted him during a visit to the city.

He helped raise more than $100 million in private funding and assembled a team to take the MLK Memorial from design to completion, as well as, dedicating his career to numerous projects to inspire Black youth, and carry out the legacy of one of the most prominent activists of the Civil Rights Movement.

He described the purpose of the monument as “a place for people all over the world to come and see the vision of Dr. King, to see what Dr. King meant, to look at Dr. King as he looks across the Mall and graces the presence of himself on the National Mall,” Johnson said.

As the President and Chief Executive Officer of The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, and a Xavier University of Louisiana alumnus, Johnson brought The MLK Foundation to his alma mater on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022.

Johnson and his team hosted a Global Leadership Conference, where they provided high school students with the tools to be effective leaders in their community and enhance their unique skill sets to be global forces of positive social change.

“We created this Global Leadership Program to encourage young men and women to consider going into higher-education, college, technical school, or even junior college,” Johnson said.

Johnson continues to work in dedication to Dr. King’s life and the memorial’s foundational pillars of “democracy, justice, hope, and love.” He shares his vision of the MLK Foundation serving as the catalyst for encouraging students to pursue their education after high school, as well as be a welcoming environment for students to learn and grow as individuals.

“We teach them Leadership 101, how to be a better you, how to apply to college, how to take some of the life lessons of Dr. King and apply it in their everyday lives,” he said.

Johnson strives to teach high school students how they can be advocates for social justice and translate their skills to better serve their community and the world.

“We teach them you can be a better you to make your community better, and once you make your community better, you make your state better, and the nation better,” Johnson added.

During the conference students engaged with their peers, participated in interactive learning activities, and listened to presentations by guests from civic, business, entertainment, and sports backgrounds. Over the last decade, Johnson had made it his mission to make The Memorial Foundation a family foundation as one based in members of a supportive community that inspires individuals to fulfill their accomplishments, honoring the values of Dr. King.

“It’s like a family, we are a fellowship, but we try to teach them that it doesn’t stop here. We want students to follow through with their accomplishments, but also come back and help somebody else,” he said.

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