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MLK Memorial: One Fraternity's Brainchild

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. Thousands of people were hoping to attend the dedication this weekend of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial on the National Mall. Well, the ceremony has been postponed because of Hurricane Irene.

Among those who traveled to the capital were members of Alpha Phi Alpha, the African-American fraternity that played a key role in the memorial's creation and neither an earthquake earlier this week nor the coming hurricane could keep them from turning out to pay tribute to Dr. King and to celebrate a hard earned victory.

NPR's Alex Kellogg has the story.

ALEX KELLOGG: The memorial to Dr. King was a long time coming and no one knows that better than the Alphas, who pushed for it for decades, long before it had the support it does today.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is my main man, hell no.

KELLOGG: Greg Mitchell and his fraternity brothers are just some of the thousands of Alphas who descended on the nation's capital this week to catch up with old friends and celebrate a milestone in the fraternity's 105 year history.

GREG MITCHELL: It makes me feel good that I'm a little part of it.

KELLOGG: Mitchell has been a member of Alpha Phi Alpha for over 30 years. He headed the Theta Mu Lamda alumni chapter in the suburbs south of Chicago.

Like many Alphas, Mitchell caught up with friends at a jazz mixer Thursday night. Many there said they consider their role in bringing the memorial into being the fraternity's greatest accomplishment ever.

The memorial opened to the public this week. Mitchell's chapter was one of 19 recognized this week for raising more than $50,000 for the memorial.

MITCHELL: When I came in this morning to register, to see all the people here was really something.

KELLOGG: Something that men like Mitchell will not soon forget. The Alphas are the oldest black fraternity in the U.S. Dr. King joined the fraternity as a young man. He later delivered the keynote speech at the fraternity's 50th anniversary banquet in 1956.

Mitchell's chapter raised more than $170,000 for the memorial, but if you count the corporate donations that they helped solicit, that figure jumps past $2.5 million.

J.T. WHITE: We did this for the nation and the world.

KELLOGG: J.T. White is the man that helped raise most of the money for the suburban Chicago chapter.

WHITE: Alpha Phi Alpha brothers are the real names that are the stars tonight.

KELLOGG: Like many successful Alphas, White used his corporate contacts to help solicit donations. He is a retired executive at Kraft.

This morning, thousands of Alphas joined Mitchell and White at the fraternity's special dedication ceremony. The even proceeded even as the capitol braces for tumultuous weather this weekend.

An earthquake caused many federal buildings and national monuments to close earlier this week. And now, Hurricane Irene will push back the main event until the fall. White said this morning that the bad weather was a huge disappointment.

WHITE: Just really disappointed for the bigger, bigger gala for the foundation and the world, but what do you do?

KELLOGG: Still, for many Alphas, this weekend was a chance to celebrate themselves. The memorial to Dr. King is the first for an African-American and the first for a non-president on the National Mall.

The effort to bring it into being gained traction in 1986 after King's birthday was designated a national holiday. Twenty-five years later, here it is. Alex Kellogg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Kellogg is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk who covers diversity-related issues and how these act as social, political and economic forces shaping our country. One focus for Kellogg in this newly created position is on the convergence of ethnicity, race, politics, media and government.