Even as a teenager in Jim Crow-era Mississippi, where racism was common and racial divisions were “stark,” a young Edward Jackson Jr. told his mother in 1964 that he was ready to join the civil rights movement.
“(Dr. King) seemed to have the right message for the nation, even at the time,” Jackson said.
If Jackson was ready to go join the March on Washington, however, his mother wasn’t.
Three civil rights activists had just been killed in Mississippi, Jackson said, and his mother wouldn’t allow him to go, saying it wasn’t safe to travel through the South at night.
“She said to me, ‘Just continue to do well in your studies, and you’ll have an opportunity to make a contribution to what Dr. King is all about,’ ” Jackson said.
She was right, and he did. Dr. Edward Jackson Jr. became the executive architect of the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C.
At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jackson, 68, will serve as keynote speaker for the 33rd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration in the HUB Robeson Center’s Freeman Auditorium.
Jackson began work on the King Memorial in 1996, and Tuesday evening’s presentation, which is free and open to the public, will focus on the statue’s creation.
After searching for the “needle in the haystack” design in a stadium filled with ideas, he entered into the MLK memorial design competition; and taking criticism for things from the texture and color of the stone, Jackson, along with his team, completed the memorial in 2011.
Jackson said that when working on the project, the approved idea was that of a “living memorial.”
“It has to be one that can capture the man’s words, and capture those aspects of his message that are universal and timeless, so he can not only speak to today’s generations, but future generations as well,” Jackson said.
“And that’s what we attempted to do,” he added.
For Carlos Wiley, director of Penn State’s Paul Robeson Cultural Center and president of the Forum on Black Affairs at Penn State, the statue, sculpted by Lei Yixin, serves as a positive inspiration for society.
“It’s a strong image of a man who had conviction for doing what was right, and I think for people who may be intimidated or fearful of speaking up when they see something wrong happening, I think visiting the memorial would allow them to possibly draw on the strength that Dr. King had,” Wiley said.
Jackson said he plans to address the controversies surrounding the memorial and also talk about the process behind its creation and honoring Dr. King’s legacy.
Jeremy Adams, a doctoral candidate studying philosophy and African-American and diaspora studies at Penn State, said the statue additionally serves as a reminder of King’s values.
“I believe the work of Dr. Edward Jackson, as the executive architect on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, reminds us that King’s legacy is something we must protect and cherish as a nation for its critical engagement and deep understanding of the Democratic values America was founded upon,” Adams said via email.
This April 4 marks the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination. The civil rights activist spoke at Penn State’s Recreation Hall in 1965.
Jackson’s speech is part of Penn State’s weeklong celebration of the late civil rights leader called, “Deconstructing the Dream: At Whose Expense?”
Gabrielle Barone is a Penn State journalism student.