The Rolling Stone Interview: Martin Luther King III

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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.

This story is from the Apirl 7th, 1988 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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