A Dream Come True

How Tom Williams played a part in preserving MLK’s legacy

Published in 2007 Kentucky Super Lawyers — June 2007

Tom Williams couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

On vacation with his wife in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1997, Williams was eager to check out the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. The Williamses walked down the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial, hoping to take a commemorative photo at the monument to King.

Which was how they discovered that the monument didn’t exist. Despite searching high and low, Williams couldn’t find a single statue, marker or plaque memorializing one of the most important speeches in American history.

He was disappointed, but it wasn’t until a few months later, back home in Louisville, that Williams was inspired to do something about it. That year, his church celebrated the 40th anniversary of a Kentucky monk’s moment of spiritual enlightenment. It was then that Williams realized that the 40th anniversary of King’s speech was coming up in 2003. As the members of his church placed a marker on the spot where the monk had had his revelation, Williams resolved to get a marker placed at the spot where Dr. King had delivered his own revelation to America and the world.

As an employment attorney with Stoll Keenon Ogden, he had already handled many cases involving race issues. That experience gave him a strong sense of the historical significance of Dr. King’s speech and how to communicate that significance to other people. And his legal experience gave him a leg up on knowing how to handle the process.

“Just having a sense of who to contact was a big deal,” Williams says. “Plus, I write for a living to a large extent. And while I could have just dropped a note to my congresswoman, I wanted to tell the story of how the idea came to me and why I was so shocked there wasn’t anything. Knowing how the law works and being able to communicate in a way that’s compelling all played a part.”

When he sent that letter in 1998, it caught Congresswoman Anne Northrup so off-guard that she had to send some of her staff out to the Lincoln Memorial to make sure Williams was for real. “She was as surprised as I was that there wasn’t anything there,” he says.

Five years and one act of Congress later, Williams was back in Washington, D.C.,––this time to help dedicate the memorial. For the 40th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, Washington lawmakers brought together Coretta Scott King and other surviving members of the original March on Washington. And there Williams got to live out his own dream, meeting some of his heroes and delivering a speech from just beside the plaque that now marks Dr. King’s legacy.

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