EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the latest in a series of reflections on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. ahead of the dedication of a new memorial to the civil-rights leader on the National Mall. Vincent Gray was elected to his first term as mayor of the District of Columbia in 2010. A native Washingtonian, he was the first African-American fraternity member at George Washington University. Following are edited excerpts from the interview.
Where were you and what were you doing on August 28, 1963?
I was at the Lincoln Memorial on that historic day and feeling the pride of a city hosting such an important gathering. At the time, I was a student in the Class of '64 at George Washington University in my native Washington, D.C.
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What memories do you have of King’s assassination?
I recall the sadness and anger that permeated the air after the tragic shooting. The same sentiments surrounded the rioting that boiled over in reaction to the senseless killing of Dr. King.
Has King—the man or the message—informed decisions in your career or personal life?
A pivotal moment in my college life was when I sought fraternity membership but was shut out because most of the campus fraternities wanted to remain all-white. But I remain grateful that I connected with Tau Epsilon Phi, whose membership included a group of Jewish students who were ready to break the color line.
Despite a clause in its national charter that barred black members, the TEP brothers offered me a spot. I became the university's first African-American fraternity member. I would go on to be elected to two terms as president of Tau Epsilon Phi.
I was an athlete, and sports also were segregated during my college years. But the college experience and the stage Dr. King set for people to fight injustice, segregation, and prejudice sparked me to be bold enough to fight my own wars against segregation.
Dr. King’s life of serving the underserved helped to guide me to work with vulnerable populations. As mayor of the District of Columbia, I am committed to making the disenfranchised residents of the District of Columbia full citizens of the United States of America.
Moreover, “One City” is the guiding principle of my administration. It’s an aspiration that means all people who live in the District should benefit from our thriving city, no matter what neighborhood they live in, their race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.
Is there a song that for you evokes King’s legacy, or the civil-rights movement?
The standard civil-rights song, We Shall Overcome, always comes to mind. But Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now, released by McFadden and Whitehead in 1979, might also characterize the fight for D.C. rights and statehood, as well as the modern-day efforts to realize Dr. King’s dream of equality and economic parity for all people.
Is King’s message relevant to any contemporary civil-rights or equality issues?
Dr. King’s message is extremely relevant to ending the unfair treatment of the District of Columbia. Frederick Douglass once said that "power concedes nothing without a struggle." And so in the District of Columbia, we struggle and demand autonomy and full democracy, while recognizing that the battle is not easy and will not be won overnight.
In 1965, in a speech in Lafayette Park across from the White House, Rev. King said Congress had been "derelict in their duties and sacred responsibility to make justice and freedom a reality for all citizens in the District of Columbia." As Dr. King also said, “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy."
Today, his words give us the impetus to make Congress more responsible in delivering full representation to the 600,000 D.C. residents who have no voting representative, pay more than $3.5 billion a year in federal taxes, send sons and daughters to fight in America’s wars, and are required to serve on federal juries—just like others who do enjoy voting rights.
It’s my obligation as the mayor to continue the fight for freedom and full democracy for D.C., as I believe Dr. King would were he alive today.
Interview conducted by Christopher Snow Hopkins