There are four tenets inscribed around the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Mall in Washington, DC, that distill his ideas and his legacy: democracy, justice, hope, and love. On this upcoming MLK Day, these words act as a reminder of what we aspire to become and how much further we have to go.
In honor of Dr. King’s values and legacy, Amazon and Amazon Web Services (AWS) are supporting the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Memorial Foundation through action and service. Leading up to the MLK Memorial Foundation's 10-year anniversary, AWS will support the Memorial Foundation's Social Justice Fellows Program by providing mentorship opportunities as well as free cloud and STEM training and certification to program participants. During Black History Month, Amazon will join the Foundation in an afternoon of service, including delivery of essential personal care items to DC Department of Human Services homeless shelters.
We spoke with one of the dreamers and builders who made the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a reality: Memorial Foundation President and CEO Harry E. Johnson, Sr.
Each part of the memorial is significant and symbolic. A wall of quotes represents Dr. King’s ideals of democracy, justice, hope, and love. As much as the quotes acknowledge the history of the civil rights struggle in the United States, they continue to serve as inspiration to others fighting for civil rights now. How do you interpret each through the lens and legacy of Dr. King?
Democracy: This country was built on the theme of democracy, that all men are created equal. Justice: This is the hope that there is justice for all of us, no matter what the circumstance or who you are. That as a society we believe in fair and full justice for everyone. Hope: The bottom line is that we hope for a better society. We hope for a better life, not just for ourselves, but for our kids and generations yet to come. That’s the hope that we feel. And then love: I mean, everything that you do should encompass the word “love,” L-O-V-E.
How do you find hope in the day-to-day? Are you hopeful?
There’s no question I’m hopeful. I’ve lived through the ‘60s. I lived through the assassination of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy. I lived through those turbulent times when we thought there was no hope. Hope is eternal. And as long as you have hope that things are going to get better, they have, and they will. I’ve seen it.
I have hope for the future generation. How did my hope really arise, and how do I feel about it? When I saw all those young men and women in the streets this past summer—that was hope. Young people in our country building a movement that demands social justice for everyone. That movement and those ideas spread around the world, they transcended oceans and boundaries. That was hope for me.
"Service is the price you pay for the 'rent' you owe in this life, the space that you occupy on this earth."
MLK Day is a day of service. Why a day of service? How does that capture the spirit of Dr. King?
Service is the price you pay for the “rent” you owe in this life, the space that you occupy on this earth. Service is something that’s required of all of us. You may not have money. You don’t need it to serve. You may not be a Congressman or Senator drafting legislation. You don’t need to be a politician to serve. You don’t need a college degree to serve. You have everything you need to serve. It’s a mindset and willingness to go and do something for somebody less fortunate. To do something for somebody else.
So what is that? It could be something as simple as taking a meal to someone who doesn’t have food. Next time you are in the drive-through, pay for the person behind you. Service can be giving away clothes to someone who needs clothes. It can be going and just talking with someone who is despondent, to listen to them, to give them encouragement and hear their story. It doesn’t take a miracle, and it doesn’t take anything big to do something for someone else. You just have to do it. Service is really the price that we do pay in order to survive and pay rent in this country. It is the rent that is due for what this country has done for us.
Sometimes it does take a little bit of courage to do what you describe. How do we, as individuals, muster that courage?
Sure it takes courage, but do it anyway. It will get easier, and that is the whole point. You just have to have the courage to do it and not be ashamed for doing it, because guess what? If you offended that person because you offered to give them $20, they’ll let you know. I think it does takes courage to step out and say, “You know what? This is what I'm going to do.” Whatever that act of service is, you have to do it.
I was in a drive-through line this past year. Some guy was in front of me. He paid for my meal. And then as we drove down the street, I blew past him. I asked, “Hey, why did you do that?” He said, “Man, I've been blessed today. I want to bless somebody else. Hell, I don't need anybody to buy me a meal, but it was the thought, what he said: “Hey, I've been blessed. I want to bless somebody else.”
"My mother taught us something when we were growing up, and it's still so relevant today. And that is, you're no better than anybody else, and nobody else is any better than you."
You believe that America’s true strength lies in its diversity and its talents. How should we, in our workplaces, our homes, and communities, flex that true strength? What can we all do every day, every week, and over our lifetimes to help sustain and grow that strength?
I think it’s very simple. My mother taught us something when we were growing up, and it’s still so relevant today. And that is, you’re no better than anybody else, and nobody else is any better than you. And so, when we talk about diversity, and when we talk about this great country—this country is becoming more and more diverse. I happen to live permanently in Houston, Texas, the most diverse city in the country at this time. And here in Houston, you see all people getting together, eating, enjoying food, enjoying each other, enjoying life. It takes all of us to make up this great country, no matter what your sexual persuasion is, no matter what your religious background is, no matter what your skin tone or nationality is, we all are the same people. We all want the same things.
What do we want? We want a better life for ourselves. No question about that. If you’re married with family, you want a better life for your kids. And then number three, you want a better country that understands the needs of those less fortunate. Because we should always keep in mind that, but for the grace of God, there I go as well. We all deserve to enjoy this country and the grace of a good life.
How do you see that strength through diversity manifesting itself? And what signals should we be looking for in our workplaces and communities that we’re kind of doing it right?
I think what you look for in your workplace starts with, is there equal opportunity? Look around your workplace. If the only friend that you’ve got at work is somebody that looks like you, then you don’t have true diversity. And you have to have a diverse workplace not just to understand your co-workers’ pain, but to recognize their talent. Diversity means a better company, and a better outcome for the business at the end of the day. True diversity—at home, in our churches, but especially in our workplaces—means that we all understand that people ought to get along so that the company excels in everything that it does.
"Each generation takes Dr. King's dream a step further, saying, you know what? We get the dream. Let's make a reality of changing this world."
You first heard Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, in grade school, in North St. Louis. That’s almost six decades ago. What did “I Have a Dream” mean to you then when you first heard that speech and those words, and how has that changed for you over time?
When I was a kid you were stuck with three TV channels, unless it was Saturday morning and you could watch cartoons. Other than that, it was the evening news with Walter Cronkite or whomever. And a lot of the talk about what was going on in the world at that time had to do with segregation. A lot of it had to do with how Blacks were treated versus whites.
Growing up in St. Louis, we didn’t have white-only signs or notices that Black people couldn’t sit here. What we had was, you knew doggone well that there were certain things you couldn’t do and certain neighborhoods you couldn’t go into. And so that’s how the speech kind of affected us: that, hey, everybody can have a dream, and I can dream of a better life for me, without any of those boundaries.
I think that speech is something that kids and young men and women still listen to in order to see what Dr. King’s dream was all about. And the youth of today, if you look back on the past year, they are saying, “Hey, look, Dr. King may have been talking about a dream, but we want to see the dream put into action.”
Things change with different generations. We’re not going to go back and deal with what I did as a kid in the ‘60s. We’re going to deal with the new. What’s our next steps? What new things are we going to change? The generation of sitting in the back of the bus is long gone. So each generation takes the dream of Dr. King a step further, saying, you know what? We get the dream. Let’s make a reality of changing this world.
I mean, you all probably laugh at those of us who are over 50, when we used to look at the Jetsons and see them talking to the computer on a TV and all that. We never dreamed of that actually happening. We never dreamed of having a cell phone. Those are things that happened because of the changes in society. Those are things that happened because there are opportunities around the globe for all of us, and they’re not just set aside for one particular person or people.
Is that your dream for our society, that we all have that opportunity?
Without question. My mother used to teach us, nobody owes you anything. And that’s very true. Nobody owes you anything but a chance. Take a chance on me. They owe you opportunity, an opportunity to take a chance. You owe society the opportunity to do better for yourself than what somebody else did for you. That’s my dream.
My dream is that an abundance of faith, hope, and love goes out to everyone. That we live in a society where nobody is hurting, nobody is made to feel like less of a person because of who they are, because of the color of their skin, their religious background—anything. We all are equal. That’s my dream.
The Amazon Books team curated a list of titles for those interested in learning more about Dr. King.
Let the Trumpet Sound by Stephen Oates
The Sword and the Shield by Peniel E. Joseph
Bearing the Cross by David Garrow
The Heavens Might Crack by Jason Sokol
Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Life by Marshall Frady
The Plot to Kill King by William F. Pepper Esq.
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years by Taylor Branch
Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr.
Nine Days by Paul Kendrick
Kennedy and King by Steven Levingston
Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Last Interview: and Other Conversations by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Coretta by Coretta Scott King
The Promise and the Dream by David Margolick
The Seminarian by Patrick Parr
A Time to Break Silence by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. by Valerie Bodden
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Clayborne Carson
The Speech by Gary Younge
Where Do We Go from Here by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.: A King Family Tribute by Angela Farris Watkins
Martin Luther King, Jr. by Sande Smith