It began as a grand dream, chatter around the dinner table between a pair of old fraternity brothers. Alfred Bailey and George Sealey reasoned that if presidents and Civil War heroes could be immortalized on the National Mall, why not a human rights giant renowned the world over such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?
Sure, they thought. Maybe one day.
Twenty-four years and $72 million later, that idea is close to becoming a reality. Ground was broken two months ago for the memorial that will rise on a four-acre site along the Tidal Basin, the first tribute on the Mall for an African-American leader. The project is scheduled to open in 2008.
Sealey and Bailey were determined from the start. The battle was for more than a civil rights legend; King was also their fraternity brother.
King, who would have turned 78 today, was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation's oldest black fraternity. From conception to architectural direction to fundraising, the Mall's salute to King will have the imprint of his college fraternity.
The organization has directly raised $2.3 million of the $100 million needed to complete the project, from sources that include college chapters donating the proceeds from campus dances and elaborate dinner fundraisers orchestrated by "Alpha Wives Clubs." Then there are the big corporate donations, some of which have come from companies where Alphas are senior executives, such as General Motors and Fannie Mae.
"I was very proud to strive to get something ... to recognize his contribution to society. Deep down, I had a whole lot of pride," said Bailey, 82. "And the fact that he was an Alpha made me want to do even more for him."
Founded at Cornell University in 1906, Alpha Phi Alpha's membership includes such notables as W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, Andrew Young and Paul Robeson. Based in Baltimore, the group has more than 700 chapters in the United States and abroad.
After their 1983 dinner conversation, Sealey and Bailey immediately seized on that huge network, starting first with their local Silver Spring alumni chapter. It was an easy sell. By early 1984, the chapter raised $1,000 for the project and delivered a presentation on the concept for a memorial at the Alpha's national convention, where it was wholeheartedly supported.
But in the years following, the effort languished. Sealey who died in 2000, would not live to see its completion. And early on, some members thought an undertaking of that magnitude was beyond their capability.
"I have to admit, I was a part of the many skeptics," said Darryl R. Matthews, president of Alpha Phi Alpha.
He noted that early on, the organization, then based in Chicago, concentrated on raising money to purchase new headquarters in Baltimore, which it did in 1991. "We had never done anything like this before."
Later, finding money would prove difficult. Fundraising stalled in 2001, when the King family demanded to receive a fee to use the slain civil rights leader's image in a campaign. Once the dispute became public, King's son, Dexter, issued a statement saying the family supported the memorial and did not seek a fee but was negotiating a "permissions agreement."
Along the way, Sealey and Bailey remained undaunted. Long before the big checks from Tommy Hilfiger and Procter & Gamble and before the "Dream Team" of celebrities such as actors Morgan Freeman and Harrison Ford lent support, Bailey and Sealey were spending long days lobbying members of Congress to approve a bill to make the project a reality.
In the early 1990s, the pair became such a fixture on the Hill, Bailey said jokingly, that "one session, they even gave us our own parking space," he said.
Bailey, a retired engineer and Tuskegee Airman who often ends telephone conversations by saying "over and out," persuaded lawmakers to support the memorial with his businesslike zeal.
"There was never any doubt in my mind," he said, sitting on the edge of the couch of his Silver Spring home. "We knew we were doing something great. And that was that."
While they worked on the politicians, Alpha Phi Alpha launched an extensive promotion campaign in its magazine, The Sphinx, and Matthews said he made sure every member of Congress and of President Bill Clinton's Cabinet was on the mailing list.
"There were no books on how to do this," said Matthews. "We were building this bicycle while we were riding."
Sealey and Bailey found allies in Maryland politicians -- former Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella and Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes -- who sponsored the bill authorizing the project. But it would take several Congresses for the measure to pass.
In moments of rejection, Bailey drew on his personal reflections of King. Bailey was at the Mall to hear King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. Working at the time as an engineer at Howard University, he remembered the thousands of people who -- spontaneously, it seemed -- locked arms as they approached the Lincoln Memorial.
"Like the thousands of others, I had never heard anything like that before," he said of King's speech. "The fact that he had the attention of the nation, it was really something. Your chest just swelled up. To see a man of his caliber could get the attention of the world, it just made you proud."
Bailey left the Mall with a mission.
"We just knew we had to go further," he said. "This could not stop with this one speech. We all carried dreams home."
By 1996, Congress passed the bill approving the memorial.
Alpha leadership called on the fraternity's best and brightest -- attorneys, engineers, construction experts and fundraising gurus -- to get going. They established a foundation (the director is an Alpha) and launched a bevy of fundraisers including $5 "Build the Dream" wristbands.
Ed Jackson Jr., the project's executive architect, launched a worldwide design competition, won by San Francisco firm ROMA Design Group.
The design is inspired by King's "I Have a Dream" speech, in which he said: "We will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." Visitors will walk through an opening cut through stone symbolizing the mountain of despair. Inside, the memorial will feature a stone of hope. The memorial will also feature a crescent-shaped wall with quotes by King touching on four themes: democracy, justice, hope and love for mankind.
"We wanted to capture the essence of Dr. King's message to the world," said Jackson.
Clayborne Carson, a history professor and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University, has helped identify fitting quotes for the memorial.
Carson called the Alpha's grass-roots effort one to be emulated.
"I'm always encouraged when I see that happening and always dismayed when I see the tendency to rely on just asking for money," he said. "Although a lot of money is coming from corporate donations, at least it's the Alpha's energy and enthusiasm that's bringing it together."
To this day, Bailey remains as engaged as in the early years. Jackson said Bailey calls him the first day of every month for a calendar of meetings and public hearings. He shows up at all of them.
Bailey even traveled to Italy with Jackson on a quest for the perfect granite from which to sculpt King's likeness.
"I have kept him as an integral part of my team because he has been and remains our moral compass," said Jackson. "If I ever have any doubts, I just look across the table, and if I see he's nodding, I know we're doing something right."
At last November's groundbreaking, Bailey stuck his shovel into the soil alongside presidents, celebrities and civil rights stalwarts. While the entire day was thrilling -- Bailey said meeting Clinton was among the highlights -- he is grateful for the enormous support from his fellow fraternity members, corporate donors, celebrities and members of Congress.
He continually reminds them: There is some $28 million more to raise and work to be done.