Not too long ago, I wrote about the ongoing effort to build a memorial for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the mall in Washington D.C. Since that writing, quite a bit of progress has been made.
The Senate recently approved $10 million to begin groundbreaking for the memorial, the Walt Disney Co. has made a sizable donation and filmmaker George Lucas stepped to the plate with a personal check for $1 million, adding his name to the growing list of large individual donors that already includes Tommy Hilfiger and Bill and Donna Marriott.
Noticeably absent from the list of donors are names like Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Bob Johnson, Russell Simmons, Spike Lee, Sean Combs, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and others.
I am normally the first to support everyone's right to live life as they wish without fear of an admonition from other members of the "group." For instance, there is no earthly reason all Black folks should be required to vote for the same candidate, root for the same sports team or like the same kind of music. Still, I would be dishonest if I said the absence of so many prominent Black individuals on the role of financial supporters didn't give me (as Gwen McCrae sang), "a funky sensation." When Tommy Hilfiger and George Lucas are writing checks in an effort to establish a memorial for the Rev. King while Cosby and Winfrey stand on the sidelines and watch, something is askew.
I want to make it explicitly clear that I am not calling anyone out or questioning anyone's philanthropic spirit. The generosity of the Cosbys and Winfrey is unquestioned. Their charitable spirits have touched thousands across the country. And when all is said and done, it is their money. They worked hard for it and they are free to do with it what they please.
Yet, that funky sensation remains. Are there, in fact, causes that a person by nature of being Black (or any ethnic group for that matter) has a responsibility to support in the name of "the community"? If left up to me, all Black people in America would donate to sickle cell research, Black cultural institutions like The African American Museum and, of course, the building of the King memorial.
Yet, I find it a bit of a fascist notion that one person or group of people can decide how others should spend their money. Besides, ultimately, sickle cell, museums and the memorial are merely my personal interests — a reflection of my values and preferences rather than some moral or legal obligation to which all Black people should be bound. I may do better to seek out those that share my beliefs rather than those that share my race.
I suppose one can't have it both ways. Either we are going to embrace our individualism and the freedom to abandon the construct of race or we are going to remain in its grasp, always beholden to someone else's definition of our ethnic selves and, by extension, the collective ownership of our time and resources.
Remember that it was the Rev. King's call to move beyond race and embrace the substance of our characters that made him not simply a Black hero, but an American hero. His work uplifted all Americans and built bridges that transcended race. The Rev. King was a man all Americans should celebrate and any monument ought to rise above expectations built on artificial constructs and reflect the financial support of a cross section of Americans.
As of this writing, the foundation needs another $4 million for government matching funds to kick in. We have momentum and with the continued work of a lot of people of various races and with shared values, the King memorial will become a reality.
For more information on the King Memorial, go to www.buildthedream.org.
Joseph C. Phillips is an actor/writer based in Los Angeles.