The partial government shutdown still looms large in our region on this MLK Day. You may not be able to visit the portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the National Portrait Gallery today or learn more about the history of the civil rights movement at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but there are a few distinctly D.C. ways that people commemorate Dr. King’s legacy. We’ll find out what they are on today’s show.

Produced by Monna Kashfi


  • Mikaela Lefrak WAMU Arts and Culture Reporter; @mikafrak


  • 12:00:13

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast what it means to teach civil rights history. In a city famous for its museums and monuments, it's not hard to find tributes to Martin Luther King's life and legacy, but beyond the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the MLK Monument, both of which are affected by the government shutdown on this MLK Day, there are uniquely D.C. ways of reflecting on MLK's legacy. Joining us now with more on this is Mikaela Lefrak. She's WAMU's Arts and Culture Reporter. Mikaela, good to see you.

  • 12:00:46

    MIKAELA LEFRAKThanks for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:00:48

    NNAMDIEven though stuff is shutdown today, there's still a digital way to access the historical artifacts related to Martin Luther King at the Smithsonian. Tell us about that.

  • 12:00:58

    LEFRAKThat is right. This might sound a little dorky, but I promise you it's very cool. So as you said all of the Smithsonian museums are closed right now due to the federal government shutdown, that includes one of my favorites, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. But if you go online to their website, they have this amazing digital collection, and if you search for Martin Luther King, you'll find close to 200 items. And they have everything from photos from his entire life up until his funeral in 1968 to really amazing artifacts from the Civil Rights Movement. They have a bunch of different buttons from the March on Washington, which I just thought were fascinating in part just for the way they were designed.

  • 12:01:41

    NNAMDIAnd believe me, it will take you four days to find all of those things if you were actually walking through the museum itself.

  • 12:01:47

    LEFRAKExactly. And some of them aren't even on display, right? One of the things that I was particularly interested in when I was taking a look this morning was this image of an abstract painting by Sam Gilliam. He's a D.C. artist, one of my favorites, and he has this whole series on Martin Luther King called April 4th, which is, of course, the day that King was assassinated. And one of these photos of the painting just really struck me. I took a few minutes this morning to take a look at it and just reflect on King. And it's right there online.

  • 12:02:14

    NNAMDIMikaela, D.C. is also home to an annual MLK Day Parade that is kicking off in Anacostia even as we speak. I remember before the King Holiday was a holiday, we -- I was working at another radio station then and we carried live every year the demonstrations to make it a national holiday, because --

  • 12:02:35


  • 12:02:35

    NNAMDI--then Detroit, Michigan Congressman John Conyers had introduced a bill to make it a holiday. And Stevie Wonder came here every year and led this demonstration in the cold. We carried it live until it finally became a holiday. And so there's still a march that's taking place in Anacostia even as we speak. It's an event that's open to everyone for participation. It gets the entire neighborhood involved. Tell us about the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Parade.

  • 12:03:04

    LEFRAKSure. So as you said, this didn't become a federal holiday until the mid-1980s. But the MLK Day Parade in Anacostia started in 1979. So that's 40 years ago this year. And it's a great event. It starts on MLK Avenue southeast and Good Hope Road and ends at the Gateway Pavilion in Congress Heights. And after that there's a community and health fair. It's going to be freezing cold, but kudos to everyone, who makes it down there because it's always a great event.

  • 12:03:34

    LEFRAKAnd one of the best things about the event to me is that local businesses along the route open up their doors. And that's important today too, because you can actually go in and warm up, but it's a good time to go and get yourself familiar with places, local gems like We Act Radio, Cheers at the Big Chair, other places that are great to just grab a bite to eat and talk.

  • 12:03:54

    NNAMDIBridget in D.C. tweeted, Every year on this day, I re-read the letter from the "Birmingham Jail." It never loses its power. There's also a well-known mural of MLK in D.C. that is actually on the parade route. Is that correct?

  • 12:04:09

    LEFRAKThat is right. So on the side of Melon -- sorry. Mellon Convenience Store, it's at 2921 MLK Avenue southeast. It's a little convenience store. There's a black and white mural of King and a scene of the National Mall during the March on Washington in 1963. It's this great small, but really lovely mural painted by a D.C. artist about five years ago as part of the D.C. government's Mural D.C. Project. So if you're in the area for the parade or just walking around sometime soon, be sure to check that one out.

  • 12:04:41

    NNAMDIIt's not too late to go. Just make sure you bundle up, because the parade goes on until two o'clock this afternoon.

  • 12:04:46


  • 12:04:47

    NNAMDIIt starts at noon. It goes on until two o'clock. So you can still get over there to Anacostia and participate in it. For most people, Mikaela, when they think of Dr. King's association with D.C. the image that comes to mind is his delivery of his iconic "I have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963...

  • 12:05:05

    LEFRAKThat's right.

  • 12:05:06

    NNAMDI...which was really part of the March on Washington for jobs and freedom. But there's another famous D.C. landmark that has a connection to that speech. Tell us about that.

  • 12:05:15

    LEFRAKThat is right. I love this story. So the night before the March on Washington King reportedly sat in the lobby of the Willard Hotel. It's a beautiful historic hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue and it has this really ornate lobby. And he sat down there with a group of about a half dozen advisors making edits to his "I Have a Dream" speech.

  • 12:05:38

    LEFRAKOne advisor reportedly said that he should avoid the phrase, "I have a dream," because King had already used it in other speeches around that time. And this advisor was like, "You know, it's getting a little trite -- it's kind of cliché. I don't know if it's going to, you know, keep catching on and resonating with people." King went back up to his room to finish the speech alone. He apparently went to sleep around 4 a.m. that morning and as history has shown us he did keep that phrase in and for the better. It's one of the most famous speeches from his life.

  • 12:06:12

    NNAMDIBecause while a lot of his Civil Rights colleagues had heard the speech, the nation hadn't heard the speech.

  • 12:06:17


  • 12:06:18

    NNAMDIThe nation's capital had not been exposed to the speech. So when the speech was made here, a lot of people like, ooh, that is an absolutely wonderful speech that I had never heard before.

  • 12:06:27

    LEFRAKExactly. And one thing I just recently learned was that the -- so he gave the speech, the "I have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And there about 250,000 people there, but they almost didn't hear it because the sound system was messed up. And somebody had to come on at the last minute and was fussing with it and luckily fixed it. But that would have really dampened the power of it if only the first three rows could have heard him.

  • 12:06:53

    NNAMDIThat's true. Here's Charles in Arlington, Virginia. Charles, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:06:57

    CHARLESHi, Kojo. I just wanted to tell you that I spent my morning on Martin Luther King Day I was one of four supervisors. We were supervising about 25 volunteers bagging oatmeal for the (word?) Food Assistance Center for distribution -- I mean, ultimate distribution to people who come in for food (unintelligible).

  • 12:07:21

    NNAMDIIndeed, thank you very much. A lot of people are doing similar kinds of things today. I read a piece by Emil Harrison City Paper, where he said the 19th Street Baptist Church pantry ran out of food and had to close and restock again, because with the government shutdown so many more people are participating. It's become a nation tradition to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King on MLK Day with a day of service. And the D.C. region has really embraced volunteerism on MLK Day with dozens of annual volunteer events that take place every year on this day. But this year, the government shutdown as I just mentioned has had a ripple effect on these events as well. Tell us about that.

  • 12:07:58

    LEFRAKThat's right. And, you know, MLK Day, it's very very cold out this year, but people routinely, you know, brave the cold and the wind to go and make this a day of service. But this year it's pretty tough, because of places that usually bring in a big group of volunteers, you know, parks that organize clean-ups, they're having to turn people away, because the National Park Service isn't operating at full capacity.

  • 12:08:24

    LEFRAKAnd, you know, one example. My colleague Jacob Fenston reported on recently the Rock Creek Conservancy usually hosts -- last year they hosted 600 people to come in and clean up the areas around Rock Creek Park in the city. Remove invasive species, do trash clean up. Last year they picked up 300 bags of trash. This year they've had to move all the volunteer events out of the park to adjoining areas. So they're still going to be able to do some great work. They can pick up trash before it flows down into the park.

  • 12:08:52

    LEFRAKBut, you know, they weren't able to bring in people who could monitor the park's biology. And, you know, of course, a lot of parks like the Anacostia Park, the bathrooms are closed. So not a great time to be hosting a lot of people too, but, yeah, the nature of these MLK Day of service events have really really changed this year.

  • 12:09:12

    NNAMDIEven though the MLK Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial are managed by the National Park Service, which has been shuttered by the shutdown, people can technically still as Mikaela said earlier, people can still access these monuments today. I find the Lincoln Memorial to be a great place for reflection for me.

  • 12:09:28

    NNAMDII find the MLK Memorial something that causes me to think -- to reflect less and to think more about what the future holds, because when I see that memorial I realize what's been accomplished in the past. And when I look today at the Black Lives Matter Movements and others like I wonder and try to figure out what's likely to happen in the future. How would they affect you?

  • 12:09:49

    LEFRAKThat's interesting to think about, because when I, you know, when you stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, you're of course looking out onto the rest of the National Mall onto the Washington Monument and then beyond that on Congress and, you know, that's for some people not the most hopeful direction to look right now, but --

  • 12:10:05

    NNAMDIThese days.

  • 12:10:06

    LEFRAKExactly. And, you know, the Lincoln Memorial just in the past few days has been the sight of some pretty significant protests. The Women's March was in that area too, which was interesting for me to reflect on, because when you think back on the March on Washington, you know, it was a platform for a lot of speakers, who hadn't had their voices heard previously, but, of course, of the 10 people who spoke then none of them were women. And, you know, a lot has changed in the 50 or so years since them.

  • 12:10:39

    LEFRAKThe MLK Memorial for me is most powerful, because of the quotations from Dr. King.

  • 12:10:43

    NNAMDIYes, a lot of quotations.

  • 12:10:45

    LEFRAKOne of my favorites I wrote down, because I wanted to give it a little extra love on the radio today. So King said this, "We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscious."

  • 12:11:01

    NNAMDIFascinating quote.

  • 12:11:02


  • 12:11:03

    NNAMDIOn the MLK Memorial. Well, that's some of the stuff you can do today, but you probably do stuff on your own also. Mikaela Lefrak is WAMU's Arts and Culture Reporter. Thank you for joining us. Let's play ping pong again soon.

  • 12:11:16

    LEFRAKLet's do it. I'll beat you this time.

  • 12:11:18

    NNAMDIOkay, good. (laugh) We're going to take a short break. When we come back, what it means to teach Civil Rights history. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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