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Senate Set to OK Grant for King Memorial

The Senate is close to approving $10 million for the proposed national memorial for the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., thanks to the work of two Senators whose stance on civil rights has occasionally been criticized.

Several weeks ago, officials from the foundation tasked with building a national memorial to King in Washington, D.C., met with Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) to ask the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee for help in securing funds to finally, after almost nine years of planning and fundraising, break ground on the project.

Byrd persuaded Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) to co-sponsor the proposal and on Monday night brought forward an amendment to the 2006 Interior appropriations bill to provide $10 million in federal funding for the planned $100 million monument to the slain civil rights leader. That amendment was adopted into the Interior appropriations bill Tuesday night, and could be voted on by the full Senate as early as this afternoon.

Byrd and Cochran offered their amendment a week after Byrd had been criticized in the national media for brushing over certain details of his involvement with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s in his new memoir, “Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields.”

Earlier this month, Cochran was taken to task by editorial boards in Mississippi for not co-sponsoring a Senate resolution that apologized to black Americans for Senate inaction on lynching in the past. Cochran explained that while he abhorred lynching he did not want to be seen as criticizing previous Senates.

But the timing of the recent outcry against the two Senators and their decision to push funding for the King memorial appears to be coincidental.

Byrd’s press secretary, Tom Gavin, said the Senator’s former ties to the KKK is “not a new story. That’s been out there for 60 years.”

Indeed Byrd, who once called his past links to the KKK “the albatross around my neck,” acknowledged Monday evening that while he did not always agree with King when he was younger, time has taught him that King’s vision was the right path for America.

“I certainly had my share of differences with Reverend King — a lot of them,” Byrd said in his floor statement Monday. “We were both products of our times, and both of us were doing what we believed was right. But time and the march of history afford a better understanding of Dr. King and his contributions toward making the United States a better, stronger, and greater nation.”

In their effort to gain federal dollars for the project over the past two years, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Foundation Project has been represented principally by lobbyists Trey Barnes of Public Policy Partners and Jarvis Stewart with Stewart Partners. Stewart said that the lobbyists first approached Byrd for help about a month and a half ago when the Interior appropriation request first came into play on Capitol Hill.

“We reached out to Sen. Byrd’s office obviously because he’s been a long-time supporter of civil rights issues and because of his position as ranking member of the Appropriations Committee,” Stewart said.

He called any attempt to read into the timing of Byrd and Cochran’s amendment “ridiculous.”

“This is not a black issue,” Stewart said. “Now when you look at the teachings of Dr. King and his writings, the memorial is really for all the world, the memorial will be for all Americans.

“There has been an effort to get as many House and Senate Members engaged on this project as possible,” he said. “Dr. King stood for equality for all races, he stood for peace for all of the world. … These guys have clearly shown their willingness to support those issues.”

Jenny Manley, a spokeswoman for Cochran, said the memorial “would be a fitting reminder of the courageous leadership of Dr. King to assure the protection of civil rights for all Americans.”

According to a foundation spokeswoman, Byrd and Cochran’s funding bill would equal the largest donation raised thus far — given by the General Motors Corporation — for the MLK memorial project. The appropriations authorization would bring the total amount of money raised for the memorial to $52 million, $13 million short of the $66 million needed to break ground on the monument.

While the terms of the original Congressional authorization required that all funds for the project be raised privately, the spokeswoman said that it is common practice for national memorial foundations to go back to Congress and ask for government funding.

Groundbreaking for the memorial is expected to take place by November 2006 and planners hope to complete the monument by 2008.

A design by the ROMA Group of San Francisco was selected in 2000 for The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. A half-moon landscape design would set off a “Stone of Hope” centerpiece. It will sit on a four-acre site along the Tidal Basin adjacent to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial and on a direct line between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.

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