ROCKVILLE, Md. – A memorial honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. moved a step closer to construction Wednesday, as leaders of Congress sent a bill to President Clinton allowing it to be built in Washington.
Clinton is expected to sign the measure, included in a larger parks bill, said Kathy McKiernan, a White House spokeswoman.
The action caps a 12-year struggle for Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the largest and oldest black fraternity in the nation.
“It just wasn’t one of the priorities of Congress,” said George Sealey, chairman of the fraternity’s King memorial committee. “We felt if we hung with them long enough, we’d wear them out.”
Rep. Constance Morella, R-Bethesda, joined the battle five years ago, introducing the resolution to allow the memorial to be built in Washington.
“I have always felt Martin Luther King Jr. was one of my heroes,” Morella said. “This memorial is one that we have needed for a long time.”
The proposal passed the House unanimously Sept. 27 as a stand-alone measure. It passed the Senate Oct. 3 on a unanimous voice vote as part of a parks and public land use bill.
Morella was joined Wednesday by Sealey and Russ Campbell, president of the fraternity’s Montgomery County chapter, as she signed the bill. She asked the House speaker for the honor after she found out the speaker would be out of town.
“It lightens my heart to watch you sign that bill,” Campbell said.
Alpha Phi Alpha will raise the funds to pay for the memorial and will oversee its construction and design. Sealey said the memorial will cost anywhere from $1 million and $1.5 million.
“We expect full participation by our community,” Sealey said. “We’re receiving contributions already.”
He said he would like the memorial to be placed on the Mall, close to the Lincoln Memorial, but has also scouted areas on the Mall closer to the Capitol.
The decision on the memorial’s location will be made jointly by the Interior Department, Commission of Fine Arts and the National Park Service. They will consult with the fraternity.
The memorial’s design will be developed through a nationwide competition, he said. The competition will begin next year.
Sealey said he hopes a winner will be chosen in time for the fraternity’s 1997 national convention in Washington next summer. A team made up of eight to 10 prominent artists in the region will pick the design winner, he said.
“We hope to have one of [King’s] speeches or remarks connected to the memorial,” Sealey said. “We hope [the design] will convey the legacy of Martin Luther King.”
Construction could be completed by 1999, Sealey said.
The largest hurdle for congressional approval was a law that denied a federal memorial for any person who has been dead less than 25 years, Sealey said. King was murdered in 1968.
“We personally felt that [law] was a way to delay the bill,” Campbell said. “There are people in this country that don’t like this bill.”
Sealey said the fraternity has received a “fair share” of hate letters from a number of people around the nation.
“It’s always a small shock to get those things,” he said. -30-