Meet John W. McCaskill – A Keeper of Martin Luther King’s Legacy

© Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post John W. McCaskill works as a National park Service park guide at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington.
© Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post John W. McCaskill works as a National park Service park guide at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington.

At his monument on the Mall, keepers of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy work hard to keep his story alive, imparting lessons to crowds, recalling his speeches, and acknowledging civil rights foot soldiers who arrive here, literally walking through the statue’s split in the “Mountain of Despair.” 

Here, National Park Service guide John W. McCaskill often greets civil rights icons visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. They are older now. Many in the crowds of tourists fail to recognize them or their sacrifices.

“I have seen so many people who were part of the struggle come through this ‘Mountain of Despair,’ ” McCaskill says, pointing to the walkway carved in the sculpture, which is called the “Stone of Hope” and draws its name from a line in King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech: “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

At the entrance to the memorial, two huge stones split apart, symbolizing the “Mountain of Despair.” A slice of the sculpture is pushed out several feet from the split, and from this slice, King’s image emerges.

“I’ve seen Dick Gregory, Dr. Dorothy Cotton, John Lewis, the Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian,” McCaskill said. “I go and honor them, and all of them at the end of the conversation, say, ‘Thank you for being here.’ And I say, ‘Uh-uh. You thanking me? No. Because if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t even be here.’ ”

McCaskill, 52, a D.C. native who has been a park guide since 2011, stands in the shadow of the monument as people mingle around him. A historian, he loves this post. No question is too small or too big. With three master’s degrees in history, he rattles off dates, quotes and context about King and civil rights leaders who worked in King’s inner circle.

McCaskill remembers the summer of 2013, when he looked across the memorial grounds and saw civil rights legend Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian, who that year had been awarded the Medal of Freedom for his participation in Freedom Rides and sit-ins, which helped usher in integration in this country.

“I saw him out the corner of my eye and it registered. I’m like, ‘Is that the Rev. C.T. Vivian?’ You know C.T. Vivian was on the steps of the municipal building when they were trying to register to vote, down in Birmingham,” McCaskill recalled.

“And Jim Clark,” the sheriff and segregationist who led the “Bloody Sunday” violence against civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, “was standing there, saying, ‘You can’t register.’ ”

Vivian demanded an explanation. In an exchange that was widely televised, Clark punched Vivian so hard that he broke his hand. “Blood is coming out his nose and mouth,” McCaskill said, “and this is what Vivian says on camera: ‘We are willing to be beaten for democracy.’ ”

McCaskill tears up, standing in the shadow of King’s monument. Around him, tourists are snapping selfies. Parents are explaining to their children King’s contributions to social justice. A group of protesters wave flags and shout about injustices in Syria, from which thousands of refugees have fled. One woman carries a sign that reads “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

McCaskill says the memorial is a place where hundreds come to reflect on justice and efforts for peace. The memorial also is a place, McCaskill said, where people come to express gratitude to civil rights workers.

McCaskill continues his story about the day he saw Vivian, who worked on King’s executive staff. “I go over to him and I extend my hand, and before I get to him, I drop to one knee. I thanked him about 20 times. I said, ‘Sir, you were willing to lay your life down for a generation you haven’t even met.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but I knew they were coming.’ ”

McCaskill stomps his feet with emotion. “So, yeah, it’s personal for me. I’m standing on his shoulders,” he said, “and others are standing on his shoulders and others who came before him.”

Whenever McCaskill has the opportunity, he retells that story. “It’s one thing to lay your life down for your family, but for those who haven’t been born yet? Where do you find a group of people like that?”

On Monday, as the country collectively celebrates King’s life more than 30 years after Congress voted in favor of making his birthday a national holiday, crowds swell at the memorial. Many began celebrating King’s birthday Friday, on the actual date of his birth.

CeLillianne Green, a poet, teacher and social justice activist who lives in Northeast Washington, visited the memorial Friday. She walked down the winding path and stopped where King’s image emerges from the giant stone.

“I prefer to come when it’s quiet and when you can actually feel the light from the words that are lit up,” said Green. “People are much more contemplative about why they are here. You can really connect with the spirit of Dr. King.”

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Source: The Washington Post | DeNeen L. Brown