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The Rolling Stone Interview: Martin Luther King III

On the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., his son talks about the civil-rights leader's life and death and the power of his dream

April 7, 1988
martin luther king jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Illustration by Paul Davis

He is thirty years old now and an elected politician. Martin Luther King III – "Marty" to his friends – is one of the seven commissioners of Fulton County, Georgia, which encompasses the city of Atlanta. Soft-spoken and self-effacing, Marty King clearly lacks, as he would be first to admit, the legendary dynamism and leadership of his father. But in his own quietly effective way, he could be moving toward playing a national political role someday.

Marty was born in Montgomery, Alabama, the second of four children and the first son of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. He grew up in Atlanta, near the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where his father and grandfather preached. He was graduated from Atlanta's Morehouse College – his father's alma mater – majoring in political science and history. For several years he worked on voter-registration campaigns, lobbied for legislation to make his father's birthday a national holiday and served on diplomatic missions to African and other third-world countries. A bachelor, he lives with his mother in the King family home, just down the street from the Ebenezer Church.

In 1986, Marty took the plunge into electoral politics and won. He now holds an inside position of political power – overseeing development and a $3.2 billion budget – whereas his father was the classic outside political man, agitating in the public arena for change. Marty believes his father would be proud of his political career and of the black progress it represents.

You were ten years old when your father died. In the Atlanta airport, I saw the big blowup picture of your family marching in the funeral. You have this determined but also shocked look. Can you talk about any of that?
Yeah. I would have to say that I was in a state of shock. It wasn't until then that I began to realize the impact of this one man's works. Every major entertainer of the day was there, from Marlon Brando to Charlton Heston to Sammy Davis to Sidney Poitier. Every major presidential candidate was there, too, including Richard Nixon and all the Kennedy family. And Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. Bill Cosby spent a lot of time with the children, as opposed to going to comfort my mother. He said he wanted to spend his time trying to help us deal with the crisis. And he did. I remember Bill telling us a formula to deal with the death. He made up three or four words, like a magic expression, and had us repeat it over and over.

So more than anything, I was trying to get a hold on what was happening. I remember on April 4th when we ran back to my mother's room. We had heard on the news in the kitchen that Daddy had been shot.

You and your sister?
I'd say Yolanda; Dexter may have been there, too. And Bernice. All four of us.

You were just there listening to the radio?
I guess it was 6:30, and we heard it on the local news and ran back to our mother's room, looking for a response – like "What's going on?" And at that time she was probably on the phone trying to get some information, because a number of persons had called to tell her what happened. And then she sat down with us and told us that Daddy had been shot and that we didn't know what the situation was but he was probably hurt very badly. And she was on her way to Memphis. In the meantime, on the way to the airport, she was told that he had died. And I don't know exactly when we learned about that. But later on she sat us down and told us, "When you see him, he won't be able to talk to you, to hug and kiss you, to respond to any of your needs. He will be in a state of rest. And when you see him, he will look like he is sleeping, except he won't be breathing; he's gone home to live with God."

Then she explained to us that God rewards his servants by bringing them home to live with him. And one day we will all go home to God and we will see him again. So after that I didn't feel I needed to ask questions like "Why?" I cried for any number of days.

We lived a very strange life after that time because for some months, maybe even a few years, we were assigned a number of security people. Every time we'd move, there was security. So that changed our lives – until James Earl Ray was captured, anyway. But all through that period I won't say I was confused. I was not bitter; I was hurt. I couldn't understand why a man who loves and tried to love so many could be brutally assassinated for no apparent reason. Because the love that he conveyed to us was certainly unique and special, but he also conveyed that to others.

Did you at a later time become bitter or angry?
No, I never did. I had two strong figures: My grandfather instilled our whole family with a philosophy. He would say, "I don't hate anybody, I'm every man's brother, I love everybody." And my mother reinforced it. Our family has always drawn on the power from above to comfort us in times of despair and stress. And so I never even considered hating.

I was told that Daddy was murdered by a white man. I could have adopted an attitude of hating whites. But then in 1974 my grandmother was killed by a black man, so I could have hated blacks too. [Alberta Williams King was shot to death as she played the organ at the Ebenezer Church.] I could be a bitter person, probably. But those things never were even thought about, because of the love that Daddy exuded and that we believed the world must exude.

I'm totally against the death penalty – which, if anyone has a right to support, I do – because I do not see it as a deterrent to crime. I don't know what you do with people when they're crazy, like a Manson, or like Marcus Wayne Chenault Jr. [currently on death row in Georgia], who killed my grandmother – he's crazy, the boy is insane. But I can't condone the death penalty.

Did you ever figure out why James Earl Ray – or whoever was really behind it – killed your father? I mean, James Earl Ray was not alone in hating your father.

First thing, Martin Luther King Jr. was not killed by James Earl Ray. I mean logically. And it's kind of sad in my opinion. You're talking about removing one of the top leaders in the nation at that time. You wouldn't take an alcoholic and get him to do that. You would hire the top-notch person. So Ray was used, in my opinion, as a scapegoat.

Hopefully one day, whoever the real killer or killers were, they will be brought to justice. And if not, I think that in time good will triumph over evil – and they will get their just due. And it may not be them per se -- it may be their families, and that's unfortunate. But you cannot treat someone wrong and not have it come back to you in some way, form or fashion.

Anyway, in 1966, Daddy had started to attack Lyndon Johnson on the war in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson was a good man. Even though he was a Southern conservative, Lyndon Johnson passed more civil-rights legislation than any other president in history. Johnson really knew how to maneuver politically. He got the Civil Rights Bill passed, signed it, then the Voting Rights Act and then other legislation.

And then Daddy comes out in 1966 and attacks his stance on the war. Well, that made people feel like he was not grateful for what Lyndon Johnson had done. But that's not really what the major issue was, because everything is over economics. When Daddy talked about Vietnam, he didn't just talk about it from a moral standpoint; he talked about it from an economic standpoint. It was interesting that in Vietnam we were able to design bombs to bomb villages yet our bombs never bombed any of the poppy fields. So he was getting on to an economic issue, a corrupt economic issue. And that's when people started saying, "Well, hmmm, he's talking about turf."

In late 1967 he called for a poor people's campaign, and he talked about redistributing the wealth and resources of this land. That's what he was killed about: redistributing the wealth and resources. And if anybody could've organized the masses to say, "We want this wealth redistributed," he could have. So the powers that be said, "Well, he's got to be removed." That's my understanding of what happened.

On his economic ideas, I believe he was saying, "Teach a man to fish, and he's fed for a lifetime." We gotta teach people how to provide food, clothing and shelter for themselves. What that means is that the wealth has gotta be redistributed to some degree. It's absurd, he said, to have so many millionaires in America who've got so much and at the same time to have so many poor.

So there needs to be some balance – that's what he was saying. And he had the ability to unify masses of people – not just black people but white people too. He started to bring in whites in 1965, and white ministers started supporting the civil-rights effort. When they started seeing his leadership of the masses – the moral leadership, the spiritual leadership he could provide as a preacher – they said, "This guy is dangerous."

But you're not saying Lyndon Johnson killed your father.
Oh, no, no, no! Johnson was not, by any means, a force of evil. I'm saying that one thing that started his downfall was that he went against Lyndon.

I just didn't want to leave that hanging unresolved.
But that started things rolling. Leadership was attacking him – black leadership, white leadership. They'd say, "Lyndon Johnson has been good to us, why are you going after him?" And he said, "I'm not attacking Lyndon Johnson. I have to deal with this because it's a moral issue. War is wrong. I can't be a minister if I'm gonna let us fight a war that is unjust."

But that's not what you asked. Going back to who killed him, I don't know. It could've been the Mafia, it could've been a number of forces. Anyone who felt threatened that their wealth could be . . .

Diluted?
Diluted in their ability to make profits. That's what he was talking about. The theory should be that the more people you have working, the more tax money you have; the more tax money you have, the more of a surplus you have; the more of a surplus you have, the better goods and services you may be able to provide for people. But we've had nine-percent, sometimes fifteen-percent unemployment in parts of our country. Everything that was at one time manufactured here is now manufactured in other nations. We went, in just these last seven years, from being the greatest lending nation to the greatest debtor nation.

Something is wrong, and I'm not saying that it's exclusively the Reagan administration's fault. I think part of it is the administration. It has us living in false concepts. We're living on credit. Most of us have tremendous credit lines, because America tells you that you can have it all – all day long. I mean, I buy stuff every week that I don't need, because I'm programmed.

I think that if Martin Luther King Jr. had lived, he probably would've been able to move us in a direction of reorganizing some of the wealth so that the super-rich wouldn't make as much. This is bad for the whole.

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