This week, the Martin Luther King Memorial officially opened on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Many corporations, civic groups and private citizens contributed to the completion of this historic monument, but this was a personal achievement for one particular group: Dr. King’s Fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha.
The current general president of Alpha Phi Alpha, Herman “Skip” Mason, Jr. was initiated into the organization at Morris Brown college on April 4, 1982—the fourteenth anniversary of the death of Dr. King. Reverend Mason is an accomplished historian, having worked for the Atlanta Fulton Public Library as the Black Studies Librarian, and for the U.S. Department of Interior interpreting the historical significance of the King family with the King Center Library and Archives. He is also the National Archivist for Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and Morris Brown College.
In an exclusive interview with NewsOne, Mason recalls Dr. King’s membership in the Fraternity and the crucial role Alpha brothers played in getting his monument created in Washington, D.C.:
This project didn’t just pop up a few years ago. This has been 28 years of sheer determination, maneuvering Washington politics and getting a bill passed through Congress.
Initially there was some reluctance because they felt the project was too big. They had to get Congress to pass a bill in order to get a monument built. We were able to get support from Congresswoman Connie Morella and Senator John Warner In Virginia. In 1996, the President signed the bill into law and granted the Fraternity the opportunity to move forward. Moving forward meant choosing the site on the Mall in D.C., which was the last site on The Mall designated for public use. There has never been a sculpture of an African-American man on The Mall, period. So there was some resistance to that and that it was associated with the Fraternity. Some folks don’t really understand what fraternities do and how we do. But Dr. King’s Civil Rights work is Alpha’s work. It was the principle that the Fraternity was founded on.
Martin Luther King. Jr attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. During his tenure, Morehouse had all of the fraternities on campus, but King never showed an interest in fraternities while there. During that time he was maturing and wrestling with his call to ministry. His grades were not the very best but he did fairly well. Most of his mentors were Omegas [members of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity] like Dr. Benjamin Mays.
He graduated in ’48, went to Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania and ended up in Boston [to begin Doctoral studies at Boston University]. He met some Alphas and met other young men desirous of being in the fraternity and entered the pledge club. On June 2, 1952 he was initiated into the Fraternity through Sigma Chapter. How blessed we are that of all the fraternities, and they’re all good organizations, that King chose Alpha Phi Alpha. His only living line brother will be with us this weekend and share some insight into MLK as a pledge.
Dr. King had a rich history in the fraternity. He was an active brother. He graduated from B.U. and Sigma Chapter and joined Alpha Upsilon chapter in Montgomery, Alabama. He was a sought after speaker and his network was widened because of his membership in Alpha. A large network of preachers, bishops and others would invite him to speak at many Alpha programs.
Alphas were with him from the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. The General President at the time, Frank L. Stanley Jr., came down and presented him with a check for $1000 and stayed with him at the court house during his trial. He really saw the true spirit of fraternity in a way that supported him.
In 1956 he gave the keynote address at the closing banquet of the 50th Anniversary. He received the Alpha Award of Merit and that was the highest award you can give a brother.
When he moved to Atlanta he associated with the Eta Lambda chapter and spoke at their programs, as much as he could. Given the weight of the world on his shoulders he never forgot about Alpha, and we never forgot about him.
Fast Forward…the Fraternity looked for a way to celebrate his life. We supported the bill to make his birthday a National Holiday and on the 25th anniversary of the March on Washington in 1983 brothers decided that we needed to build something. They planted a seed that took 28 years to germinate. This weekend we’ll see the fruits of their vision and their labor, and the hundreds of thousands of brothers who gave to that memorial to give it foundation. Brothers purchased bricks, commemorative bricks which are keepsakes now. We had fundraising efforts going on across the country. When I was president of Eta Lambda chapter we raised $50,000 and presented a check at the national convention in Detroit.
While corporate giants came in and embraced it, had it not been for Alpha’s titutlar foundation heads and leadership getting it to a point of respectability, creating a foundation [we might not have it].
We realized that the memorial was not just an Alpha memorial because Dr. King belonged to the world. It takes a whole lot of people to raise $120MM.
[Alpha Phi Alpha Founder] Henry Arthur Callis always remarked that our “task is endless.” No one better than Martin Luther King, Jr exemplifies our mission statement of developing leaders. In Alpha we can say we had a hand in adding to what he already had as a leader. Doing Alpha work doesn’t mean you have to wear a t-shirt and be visible. It is work for the world and the nation.
This monument is not just a statue of Dr. King. It says that we are an integral part of this land, the fabric of this country. We put this human being on The Mall to represent the downtrodden and the least of these.
Jerry L.Barrow is the Senior Editor of TheUrbanDaily.com, a NewsOne.com contributor, and the Corresponding Secretary, Alpha Gamma Lambda Chapter, of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.