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Memphis documentary maker captures King Memorial memories

A week ago, I boarded an airplane headed to Washington, D.C. For the second time in six weeks, I was off to see the historic official dedication of the Dr. Martin Luther King statue on the National Mall.
 MLK memorial
Placing the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall was a project of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, with Houston attorney and former fraternity president Harry E. Johnson Sr. the main man. (Photos by George Tillman Jr.)

by George Tillman Jr.
Special to the Tri-State Defender

A week ago, I boarded an airplane headed to Washington, D.C. For the second time in six weeks, I was off to see the historic official dedication of the Dr. Martin Luther King statue on the National Mall.

While wind and rain associated with a hurricane forced the delay of the Aug. 28 dedication event, the postponement actually set me up to get a much better “seat” and vantage point from which to record history. During my earlier trip, I’d had a chance encounter with Harry Johnson, President of MLK Foundation Memorial, capturing him on video as he spoke to a crowd touring the memorial site. That encounter opened the door for me to attend the second-scheduled dedication as a fuller-fledged member of the press corps.

 Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III
A march preceding the dedication of the King Memorial in Washington was spearheaded by the Rev. Al Sharpton (far left) and featured Dr. King’s son, Martin Luther King III.

Local photographer Andrew “Rome” Withers sports a T-shirt that announced Memphis’ presence at the dedication.

The Rev. Jessie Jackson at last Saturday’s march.

People came from myriad states and several foreign countries to attend the dedication.

Arriving at Reagan National Airport last Thursday (Oct. 13) was the beginning of a three-day journey that changed me forever. Riding in a taxi that my brother owns, I had him rush me to the location where the Rev. Al Sharpton (of the National Action Network) would be spearheading a march against unemployment and poverty and for human rights in America on Saturday (Oct. 15). I wanted to get a feel.

 My brother parked in front of the Historic Willard Hotel. As my feet touched the pavement, I became more keenly aware that tents lined the streets and that cardboard boxes were the beds for many sleeping on the street. The voices of the people echoed from signs, some protesting against corporate America. War Veterans were soaking up the attention of news reporters, as sirens, motorcycles and whistles filled the air around my head.  

A chance of a lifetime was facing me: the President’s Motorcade. What felt like the wrong place became my right place at the right time. I was poised to get the best photos for thousands waiting in Memphis who were not able to witness this historic occasion and to grab footage to complete my documentary, “Road to the Promise Land,” the unsung stories of the invisible witnesses in the plight of change in America.

My moment of opportunity ended as quickly as it began as the President’s motorcade made a quick right onto the next street.

Friday, Oct. 14

My schedule called for a day of strategic planning. I met with my team to go over the plan of getting information and photos back to Memphis.

Credentials? Check.

Coordinate with Memphis contacts? Check.

All systems go.

Saturday, Oct. 15

I hit the floor with one mission in mind – get the best photos and footage. Loading into the taxi, we headed to Rev. Sharpton’s march. We arrived to find a mass people. Police and security officers were plentiful. Buses bore license plates that proved visitors had poured in from states throughout the union.

The streets were blocked and my only path was a walk around the reflection pool past the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. From there, I could see people standing around the bottom of MLK Monument. I was guided in the direction of the scheduled march by a police officer. The crowd was so thick I begin to feel that there could not actually be a march.

Encamped in a roped-off area, I spotted Sharpton, the Rev. Jessie Jackson, Dr. King’s children and the U.S. Secretary of Labor coming up the street, arm in arm. My moment was right before me. I took a chance, stepped from behind the ropes and with the eye of my camera captured a moment in time.  

The crowd went wild as Sharpton and company passed. I was tossed to the ground, the rope that was meant to hold the crowd back becoming my lifeline. Holding on with one hand, balancing my camera with the other, capturing each moment, I was carried two miles down the street.

Tired and beat from the encounter with the crowd, I needed to rest. My rest morphed into a chance encounter with Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, an elderly man who needed my help. Overwhelmed by the crowd, he held on tightly to my hand. As he began to tell me his story and his connection to Dr. King, I filmed him with the camera in my other hand. He wanted to make his way to his seat on stage and I guided him and then caught up with a friend.

About a football field away, I located the Rev. Jesse Jackson, surrounded by bodyguards. Desperate to get his opinion on the issues of poverty and unemployment, my stride turned into a jog.

Later, another day under our belts, my team and I headed back to our pick up location.

Back home at my sister’s kitchen table, we began gathering and organizing the day’s footage and picture downloads for our reports back to Memphis. The day was long and hard, with tomorrow promising even greater possibilities.

 I needed to get my rest.

Sunday, Oct. 16

Monument dedication day and the press report time was 6 a.m. I hit the floor at 4 a.m. Arriving at my destination at 5:30 a.m., I was greeted by a young lady who noticed my “Fisk forever” lapel pin and volunteered that she was a 2000 graduate of Fisk University.

 “Right on,” I said.

As the sun made its way above the horizon, the press crew was directed to seats and given strict directions on the do’s and don’ts. The celebration was about to begin. Civil rights activists and entertainers took the stage with each expressing what Dr. King’s life and legacy meant to her or him.  

The entrance of R&B icon Aretha Franklin brought a hush, with the crowd seemingly holding a collective breath, waiting for first note of “Precious Lord.” Her voice was mesmerizing.

Mega-music man Steve Wonder put the groove back in the crowd with “Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King.” Heads swayed.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the moment, I never forgot my purpose.

Monday, Oct. 17

I met with Mr. Johnson.

Assessment? The final footage for the “Road to the Promise” is complete.  

A blessing delayed was truly not denied.

(None of this would have been possible without my team: my brother, Joseph Tillman (and this taxi services), Cheryl Cole, Judy Gibson, John Shaw and Terry Duke. And hugs and kisses to my sister, Judy Gibson. Thanks for the kitchen table).

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