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The Rolling Stone Interview: Martin Luther King III

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How does it feel to bear this famous name and pick up Rolling Stone and see Martin Luther King as a hero to an entire generation of Americans? Is that a burden?

Well, to some degree, one could say yes, it is a burden. But it seems to me that if we had a generation that believed that Martin Luther King was a hero, then they would try to espouse the principles he stood for. And our nation has moved away from those principles and toward a more selfish, self-serving kind of posture. But yes, there's tremendous respect and admiration today for him, and it's kind of mind boggling, especially when you're talking about twenty years.

Especially among younger people – younger than you.

That's right, people who were not actually able to see or hear him when he was alive. As a matter of fact, I have a number of friends who are twenty-four years old and younger, who did not directly experience the movement years. These are people who have tremendous respect for Martin Luther King Jr., even though they only know about him as a historical figure. So that's phenomenal.

Now, for me personally, it certainly makes me feel that I have to live up to a certain obligation, that I have a certain role in society. I see myself as hopefully being able to enhance the dream that Martin Luther King Jr. had. Although we say dreams never come true, the dream that he talked about can be a realistic dream. It obviously is not gonna happen today, this week, next week, next month or even five years from now. It may not even happen in my lifetime. It may be a hundred years. But it is a dream that can happen.

Define again for people what that dream is.
That dream essentially says that freedom and justice and equality can be real for all mankind, and that we will one day begin to judge people based on their merits and qualifications, not by their color. As a recent example, Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder made remarks about the black athlete's superiority in athletic ability; but then he came back and said that whites should maintain their positions as managers, because if they don't, then they will not have any positions. And it shouldn't be based on that. It should be based on the qualifications of the individual. Then we will be moving in the direction that Martin Luther King talked about.

Does that depress you when you hear about something like Jimmy the Greek's remarks?
It doesn't say that we're going backward. It says to me we still have some serious problems in America. Some of us, especially in the black community, thought that after we acquired citizenship in 1964, with the Civil Rights Bill, and the right to vote in 1965 and fair housing in 1968, that our battle was over. But it tells us that the battle is not over.

How do you explain the contradiction that so many people in the generation under forty admire your father head and shoulders above any other public figure, and yet, as you say, his values have not exactly been conspicuous in recent years?
I don't want to put blame on one particular administration, but I'm going to talk a little about the Reagan administration. Now, certainly, I happen to be a Democrat, so I'm biased. But I'll try to be objective anyway. The Fifties and Sixties were decades of action by masses of young people and students. Blacks and whites demonstrated together in the Sixties. Then in 1968, when the nation lost Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, it kind of took the activist energy out of the entire nation. If Robert Kennedy had become president, with the ideas that this man had, there's no telling where this nation would be today. The Seventies were more of a recovery decade, recovery from the upheavals and assassinations of the Sixties. And in the Eighties we became more complacent and began to focus on individual concerns.

My father used to say that life at its best is three-dimensional. Those three dimensions were length, breadth and height. The length of life is not how long you live but how you prepare yourself for your own personal objectives. If it means getting your doctorate degree, or if it means working every day establishing a savings account for you and your family – your own personal development, nothing else. The breadth of life is the outward reach to others, like we did with Ethiopia back in 1984. And the height of life is the continuous reach to God, developing your personal relationship with God and spreading the word.

Now, in this decade we got stuck in a length mode – personal development. You've got yours, I've got mine. Our schools teach us to be competitive. But the competition is not necessarily healthy. We're taught how to make a living for ourselves. We're not really taught how to live, how to live amongst each other.

And today's prevailing mentality of self-preservation and greed started maybe not under the Reagan administration, but certainly the Reagan administration gave it impetus. So many small companies have gone out of business over these last seven years, so many banks. Farmers can't even farm. How, in a world where 1.5 billion people go to bed hungry at night, is it possible that farmers cannot farm? Farmers are even paid not to farm. All kinds of things are going on.

You've hit on some anomalies in the way the economy works.

True. Usually what happens when a crisis occurs is that people turn to each other. In the Depression, people helped each other out as much as could be. But now people are not turning to each other. I mean, Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the highest level of love, the kind of love that seeks nothing in return, that is totally unconditional. It's not based on anything other than the fact that you know that your existence is tied to the existence of your brother or sister, be he black, white, native American, Hispanic, Asian, et cetera. We don't espouse those values, that kind of love, anymore. We may love everyone in our group sometimes, or in our family. But we really don't espouse the principle of unconditional love of Martin Luther King Jr.

I think one of the reasons why Martin Luther King Jr. is so respected is that he dealt with the ethical fiber of our nation. He was a true Christian. He acknowledged that this is a Judeo-Christian nation, actually a nation with not just Jews and Christians but other ethnic groups also. And he was able to transcend his own personal beliefs to incorporate the values of others. I've always felt that the ultimate truth can only be one truth. I believe that's what he was about.

Let's talk about your childhood. What was it like to be a little boy in the family with this famous man?

As a child I was never told or even thought that he was famous. My grandfather was a preacher; so were my great-grandfather, my uncle and my cousin. So to me Daddy was just doing the preacher's job – even though many times there were cameras around. As a child I really didn't tune in to what he was speaking about. So he was just a regular father to me – other than the fact that he was gone quite frequently. Generally, he'd go out for the day and come back late; we would see him early the next morning, and he'd be back on his way.

But when he spent time with us, it was quality. I can remember how his face would light up when he would see the four of us. When you're a parent, your children give you a kind of glowing feeling. And we were happy to see him. I'd be playing in the house somewhere, and someone would say, "Daddy's home." I might have a toy in my hand, and I'd just drop it and start running toward him. And then he would embrace us, and it was always interesting, because each of us would kiss him. And we had what you call "sugar spots": the two boys would get kissed on the cheek and Mother's, naturally, was on the lips. And the two girls – one was forehead and one was lips. So that was always fun just to watch. And we also rode bicycles. We swam – Daddy was an avid swimmer.

Where'd you swim?
There's a YMCA, which is down near what is now the King Center [the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change]. This was one of the ways he relaxed. He would get massages or sit in one of those steam baths where your head sticks out. He would just love to sit in there.

I remember on a couple of occasions we went to amusement parks. And then the other thing that I remember is the traveling. In the mid-Sixties – I can't remember the year exactly – we went to St. Augustine, Florida. Andrew Young said the only place that he was treated really badly and beaten was in St. Augustine, Florida. And so I went down with my father.

You would've been maybe six, seven years old?
Roughly. But I remember being afraid. I remember standing in front of the home where we stayed, in the middle of the day, and the policeman coming by us with his dog. And naturally, out of fear I grabbed my father's pants leg. You know, you're a kid and you see a big dog, well, you just naturally turn to your parent. So I turned, and he was able to give me the kind of love and concern that made me feel safe. Then later on we went to a rally. And the Klan was there, too, but not at the rally. As you went through the town, you would see them. It was nothing in those days to go through a small town and see the Klan dressed in their robes and hoods.

Was that scary?
The reason it was scary was I was an avid television fan, and I associated the sheets with the ghost mentality, with fear and ghosts.

And then I saw a lady who was beaten very badly by the Klan – a very attractive lady who had marched with us. Her nose was broken, so she had a lot of tape on her face. And that scared me for quite a long time. I dreamed about that experience for some time after we left. And I was told later that prior to our coming, they would take lye or acid and pour them into the swimming pools to keep blacks out. Just to stop integration.

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