The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s name has been on a lot of politicians’ and pundits’ lips this June, the most tumultuous month yet in what may be the nation’s most tumultuous year since 1968: the year Dr. King was assassinated.
The month brought the sort of mass uprising over racial injustice rarely seen since the civil rights movement that Dr. King helped lead. Some critics have singled out rare instances of violence in an effort to present the current protests, which began after the police killing of George Floyd, as betrayals of the nonviolent model Dr. King promoted, though Dr. King was not seen as such a model during his lifetime.
In truth, very few people who are still alive can personally attest to what Dr. King believed or would have believed. The Times recently spoke with one of them: Martin Luther King III, Dr. King’s oldest son. Mr. King, 62, is a human-rights activist and former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and works with nonprofits that promote civil rights both in the United States and abroad.
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
A lot of people recently have claimed to know what your father “would have said” or “would have thought” about the protests. What do you think he would have said?
I have to qualify it by saying that I think had my father lived, much of what we are engaged in right now would have been resolved, because he wanted to eradicate from our nation and world what he defined as the triple evils: the evils of poverty, racism and militarism, or violence.
I don’t mean racism would have been abolished by society, although there will be a day when that comes, but I believe we would have made much, much greater progress.
If he were to just arrive today as if he had been gone for a number of years, I think he would be greatly disappointed in the America that he left, that he knew and believed had so much to offer the world, because he would know that we are much better than the behavior we are exhibiting. Because he showed us what we could become within his life.
I think, though, he would be very pleased that in his era, you had demonstrations that were largely Black but often whites joined, and in this era, it seems like there are many cities where there are very few Blacks and the overwhelming majority of those demonstrations are white. You’ve got these massive demonstrations all over the world, and whites are leading many of them, saying that Black Lives Matter.
As it relates to this one specific incident, he often said that riots are the language of the unheard. He empathized with those who rioted, although he never condoned violence.
Over a 90-day period, starting in Georgia on Feb. 23, you had the death of Ahmaud Arbery, three people chasing this man and killing him predicated on them assuming, at least by their words, that he was a thief. You had Breonna Taylor, who was in her home and there was a no-knock order — they just came in and killed an innocent woman. We’re now becoming aware of another two questionable deaths that occurred when people were saying “I can’t breathe.”
And then of course, the difference with George Floyd, we saw 8 minutes and 46 seconds of a police officer on his neck, and the whole world saw that over and over and over again. To see how inhumane a police officer who’s supposed to protect and serve was — all of the nation and the world saw that. Something went off that we’ve just never experienced before.
I think generally there are far more people of good will than people of evil will, or people who harbor racist views. It’s just that, oftentimes, good people have been silent.
Some people have used the small minority of protesters who have engaged in looting or violence to try to discredit the larger movement. How do you respond to that?
That is the rhetoric of the president, and by and large the Republican playbook line is, “law and order, we’ve got to do something about these lawless people,” and yet not taking any fault for the fact that — and this does not justify, necessarily — but people did not create the condition that caused this to happen.
The institutions created the problem. We have an institutional racism problem in this country, and we’ve been in denial. We’ve been living in a fantasy land.
Particularly after President Obama was elected, everybody assumed — other than those in the Black community — that racism was toast. We elected a Black president, which was phenomenal, but what ended up happening was that those views that existed became magnified. And it made it easy for a candidate like Trump to galvanize all that energy, and it emerged in a lot of residual racism that just has never been resolved.
When you add the economic issues that existed in the nation then and now, now even worse — all of that contributes to what might be, I don’t like to use this term, but maybe it was a perfect storm. Because in storms, all kinds of things can happen.
There is a tendency to sanitize social movements in retrospect, to make them seem less confrontational and controversial than they were. Do you see parallels between how your father was regarded during his lifetime and how Black Lives Matter is regarded today?
There’s always going to be a group that attempts to demonize that which is being done, and for their own purposes — not because it’s right, good or just, but just because they want to foster a different position. Dad totally used the method of nonviolence, and he was consistently criticized. If you go back and look at polling data at the time he was killed, he was a marked person.
I think the difference today is, because of what we saw in the murder of George Floyd, the overwhelming majority of Americans saw this as unjust and are understanding now that Black Lives Matter isn’t saying that other lives don’t matter. When Black people are consistently killed, even children like Tamir Rice — I mean, a kid — what is the world coming to? This is what happens over and over and over to Black people.
I don’t know if we as a nation have had on blinders and all of a sudden the veil was lifted, or if the incidents were not always fully captured on video and there were always some questions.
The thing with this incident is that he was not able to move, so there was no need to use excessive force, and people see that. There’s no question about this man. He was asking for help over and over and over again. He called for his mom. Everyone can empathize with what happened and see the wrongness in what happened, and now maybe realize that this is a problem that has been going on for a while.
I hope that ultimately, maybe the president will come around to something constructive. I think it’s very sad that his first reaction was to bring a magnificent amount of force to a situation that is already volatile — in other words, pouring gasoline on a fire. That’s what he chooses to do, as opposed to bringing a group of people to the table, religious leaders for instance, and he and them saying: “We’re asking people to be calm and give us a moment. We’re going to work this out to really make America what it ought to be.”
I think that we as a society, particularly those of faith, we have to pray for change, we have to work for change and we have to be the change. For if love has not yet won, then the battle is not yet over.
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