Only 10 years old when an assassin’s bullet ended his father’s life, Martin Luther King III has endured both the burden and joy of bearing the name of one of the world’s most revered and committed leaders to peace, justice and equality.
But in a recent conversation with Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes just days before the King holiday, he said he views the journey he’s taken in continuing his father’s mission not as a burden but as a calling which he has come to accept with great humility.
“It’s interesting how many people ask my opinion on what my father would say about the current state of affairs in America,” he said in response to a question posed by Barnes.
“Despite being his son, I would not presume to be able to speak for Dad. Still, I think that if we refer to his writings — his sermons, his speeches and his essays — we can come closer to understanding his position on many of the world’s most significant and still prevalent evils: poverty, racism, militarism and violence.”
“For example, why does America profit from such an enormous amount of trade dollars yet have so many of its citizens struggling under the weight of poverty? My father clearly objected to this example of injustice and remained committed to bringing about its end until his death,” said King III, the oldest son and oldest living child of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King.
“I can confidently say that had he lived, America would have followed a totally different trajectory — even up to our most recent presidential election,” he said.
King, 59 and a longtime Atlanta resident, has become an American human rights advocate and community activist, in many ways following in his father’s footsteps.
His visit to the District on Monday, Jan. 9 occurred after he accepted an invitation from Jimmy Kemp, president of the Jack Kemp Foundation. King III referred to the Kemps and Kings as “longtime family friends.”
Kemp, under the auspices of the foundation named in honor of his father, and in partnership with several event sponsors including D.C. Councilwoman Anita Bonds, held the Martin Luther King Jr. “Hidden Champions Award Luncheon” at the R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center in Southeast.
Other Southeast citizens who participated in the afternoon’s festivities included native son and newly-sworn-in Ward 8 Councilman Trayon White and Ronald Moten, a well-regarded Ward 8 activist whose focus includes those inequities that Black youth and returning citizens continue to face.
King gave opening remarks at the luncheon, also presenting awards to six area residents who once lived in public housing or similar impoverished communities before beating overwhelming odds — eventually returning to their childhood neighborhoods where they have led by example in empowering others and investing in their futures.
Rolark Barnes then led the discussion toward our country’s future and the impact that President-elect Donald Trump will have on America and the world.
“My father challenged this country’s presidents throughout his life including Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. I know he would want us to do the same today. Trump has vowed to work for positive changes that will benefit the Black community. We must hold his feet to the fire,” King III said, making reference to Trump’s campaign challenge to Blacks when he said, after asking for the Black vote, “What do you have to lose?”
“I have my own concerns about some of Trump’s choices for those who will join him in leading our country including his choice for the Department of Justice,” he said. “The president sets the tone — that’s for certain. But remember [the Bible tells us] that God is just waiting for a few good men to do a lot of great things, helping us to overcome future conflicts and crises.”
King III said his father’s ability to organize the disenfranchised would benefit the Black community today adding that even the elders must master the technology associated with current forms of social media.
Rolark Barnes then asked him what it feels like to know that people from around the world observe the King Holiday as well as honoring Dr. King in other ways.
“During a trip to Eastern Europe, I saw my father’s name, my name. It was the name of a street on which the town hall of a Bosnian city was located — a city in which not one Black person lived. That was amazing in itself. But it made me remember something my mother would often say to us [King and his siblings]. That Dad’s name was recognized and respected around the world and that we needed to see it to really believe it, to feel it and to understand the significance of his work and message for so many.” King III said.
King III, who like his father, became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., has worn a plethora of hats after completing his degree from Morehouse College — the same institution of higher learning where his father, grandfather and great-grandfather matriculated.
He’s served as an elected official, representing the citizens of Fulton County as their county commissioner, lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization founded by his father, as its fourth president and in 2006 founded a nonprofit group dedicated to eliminating poverty, “Realizing the Dream,” which has since been absorbed into the King Center under King III who formerly served as the Center’s president.
More recently he resurrected the Drum Major Foundation which his father co-founded in the early ’60s and is now referred to as the Drum Major Institute. He travels the globe as its leading spokesperson initiating projects that promote peace.
“We’ve traveled to Israel as well as several African nations where political unrest has impacted their elections and the daily lives of their citizens — Zambia, Kenya and soon Zimbabwe are just a few of the countries where we’ve offered our assistance,” he said.
“And in the U.S., we recently traveled to 40 impoverished communities, reaching out to Native Americans in the Dakotas, rural whites in Appalachia and folks living on Skid Row in New York City. Many of these American citizens all face similar problems with intense poverty being their number one challenge. I’m convinced that when [good] will and ability meet, then we’re able to achieve even the loftiest of results.”
But for all of his travels, his awards and his opportunities to represent his father, the eldest living child of Dr. King says becoming a father has been his most treasured experience.
“My daughter [Yolanda Renee King] has been my greatest responsibility and life’s work — she’s my whole life and she is truly a daddy’s girl,” he said with exuberance and joy. “Sometimes she even travels with me and she loves it. I have to admit I do too.”
Rolark Barnes, who continues to spearhead a parade and peace walk honoring Dr. King each year in the Southeast community where her father first founded The Washington Informer and where she and her family reside, asked King III if marches served as the best way to celebrate his father’s life.
“As I said earlier, while parades and festivals are fine, I would prefer that people observe my father’s birth and his contributions to society in other ways too,” King III said.
“Since President Reagan signed the legislation in 1984 making his birthday a national holiday, and since the country first began to observe the day of his birth in 1986, we’ve still seen many ‘isms’ remain unaddressed,” he said. “Women are still paid less than their male counterparts. Racism and sexism continue to divide our nation. Until these and other hurdles to equality, including militarism, poverty and violence are adequately addressed and eliminated, I believe the King Holiday should first be a day where we not only remember how far we’ve come but consider taking a fresh start in achieving our goals.”
“Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of my father’s death and it will actually fall on his birthday, Jan. 15. We already have a group that’s making plans for that landmark day. It will serve as a tremendous opportunity to evaluate where we are as a nation. But more than that, I’m hoping it will serve as a time where we can look to the future, making sure that America continues to evolve into the kind of country that will allow the next generation, my daughter included, to dream big and then see those dreams come true.”