On the 20th 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
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 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.
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.
Did you know what it was all about then? That your father did something dangerous?
Yeah, that it was! But I didn't realize how dangerous because he was there. He had a way of making you feel like you were safe with him. I think that the spiritual quality that God endowed him with not only helped him to fear nothing but also to instill that feeling in others. You can't just tell someone, "Okay, we're gonna go up against these policemen, and they've got dogs and tear gas, and we're gonna be nonviolent." You've got to have some kind of special spiritual strength to instill that in another individual.
Took a lot of guts.
Yeah. Later on, as I grew older, I began to realize how courageous he was. One day at school one of the little kids said, "Your father's a jailbird," and I came home crying. And my mother explained to me why my father was going to jail. She said, "Daddy's going to jail to make this world a better place for all of God's children." Well, I went to school with a new kind of pride and determination. Now I remember watching the news and seeing Daddy on TV every night, but I didn't think that he was doing anything unusual because all my contemporaries were the children of the movement fathers – Andy Young, Hosea Williams, Dr. Ralph Abernathy.
That's what they all did for a living. Raise hell across the South.
[Laughing] Yeah. When Daddy went to jail, all of them would go. So I thought, "That's what all fathers are supposed to be doing."
When did you discover what the real cutting issue was – the reality of racial segregation? You grew up in a virtually all-black community in Atlanta, didn't you?
That's not totally true. I went to an integrated school, and we were the first children to integrate it.
Did you run into any racial problems?
There was one kid – the same one who said my father was a jailbird – who was a bully. He would say, "I hate niggers, I hate communists." He was just filled up with hatred. And so that's when I probably started beginning to understand, hey, something is not really right here and that some work has to be done. And then I began to realize some things Daddy was doing.
What did your father say to his kids about violence in your own lives? I mean, kids love to fight, kids like guns.
That's one of the things that was pretty interesting. He was not the disciplinarian in the family.
He was soft?
No. He was not there when we needed to be disciplined, in most cases. And he basically gave that responsibility to my mother.
[Laughing] There was one time he may have whipped us – this incident is really kind of funny. He was home sleeping on the couch in the living room. Apparently, he'd been up most of the night. I think it was a Sunday morning. Someone came up with a scheme to pour a cup of water in his ear. So we snuck in, and he was asleep, super tired, and one of us poured the water.
And naturally, when he felt the water, he jumped up, and he saw us all standing there. And we ran. And he ran after us, and I think he whipped us. I don't know if he whipped the girls. He never whipped the girls. But I do think that he whipped Dexter and me.
In our home we would sit down at breakfast, and Daddy would have us pray. And when he was not there, after 1968 when he died, it was continued for many years by Mother. A lot of times when there's been a death, families fall apart. But we became close to each other, and even as we grow older, we become closer and closer.
Go back to yourself. You're a politician, whereas your father and grandfather were preachers. What would your father say about that?
I don't know. We never talked about whether or not he wanted us to preach. Certainly my grandfather really wanted me to preach. When I speak sometimes, people say I'm really preaching. But I don't feel compelled at this time to preach. Not saying that I may not be called to the ministry at a later point. But I feel that through politics I'm able to do what I always wanted – to give something back to the community.
Today we have over 7000 black elected officials, and I'm glad to be amongst them. Even though it's still less than one or two percent of the total number, that's progress. I think Daddy would be happy about that. He might even be tickled.
Have you got a vision of yourself, of where you'd like to be five, ten years from now?
I would like to maybe run for a national office someday. And what that is, I don't know. Georgia only has one statewide elected official who is black, and he's a judge. We never had a black governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state or attorney general. That means that in this state there is still a lot of work. We've got to get some blacks elected statewide, and I would like to be one of those one day.
What would your father, a man who set such high moral standards for the society, have said about black politics today? What would he have demanded from people like yourself?
He'd probably say that some of us black politicians are not doing our job to get people to vote. He'd remind us that people died so we would have the right to vote, and that we ought to have ninety percent of our community turning out to vote, instead of the eighteen to twenty percent we sometimes get.
Are you optimistic about 1988 and the elections?
Yes and no. The candidates are saying a lot of good things, but I'm pessimistic that young people are not more enthusiastic.
What would Martin Luther King have thought about Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign?
He would probably be proud of the fact that a black American can seriously run for president of the United States. I think he would really be very proud. Whether he would be formally supporting him, I just don't know.
What would your father say now about where America is heading?
I think he'd tell us we're going to have to find a way to build up our economy again and put people back to work making things – or else the bottom's going to fall out. We've got a $3 trillion economy that is run on militaristic objectives, and we've got to change that. The nation that survives is the one with superior ideas, not with the largest bombs and guns.