Q&A with Martin Luther King III

Daily Universe reporter Gabrielle Shiozawa interviews Martin Luther King III on Monday. King is visiting the BYU campus this week preceding his forum address Tuesday. (Abby Gunderson/Alan Neves)

Human rights advocate Martin Luther King III is visiting the BYU campus this week preceding his forum address tomorrow

King is the oldest son of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The Daily Universe asked King about his message to BYU, opinion on current social movements and the responsibility of carrying his father’s legacy. King shared insights on his parents’ influence and offered better ways for Americans to work through conflicts.

Q: What is your message about tomorrow?

A: The message is one my father and mother advocated that talks about embracing love and using nonviolence to bring about change within our society, and really hopefully inspiring young people to become the best they can to make contributions in our nation and world.

Q: If there is one thing that you could have the students and faculty of the school take away from your message tomorrow, what would it be? 

A: What I’ve learned from my experiences in life is we have to find ways to break down barriers that exist. I’m working on a mission with my wife and our organization and many other organizations to eradicate the triple evils that my father talked about, which are poverty, racism and violence within our society. So I would hope students would want to be engaged to help us address those triple evils. I think our society can become so much better. There’s so much work to be done but I also know that it only takes a few good women and men to bring about change.

Q: If your father were alive today, what do you think he would say about the state of our nation?

A: On the one hand he would be greatly disappointed in where we are and some things that have not moved far enough, certainly around issues of racism and poverty. But he’d be grateful and extraordinarily proud of the young people that are involved in bringing about change in our society. I think he’d be proud of the women’s movement and some of the activism that Black Lives Matter has been involved in, but also just extremely proud of young people leading. He’d be proud of Greta Thunberg trying to get us to focus on the climate and saving our planet. He’d be proud of the young girl in Michigan, young Miss Flint, who is talking about preserving the water in that community and water around the nation. He’d be proud of the positive things he sees young people doing to change our planet.

Q: Along that same line, we’ve seen a range of racially based political movements over the past few years, and I want to know what you think their efficacy is in comparison to the Civil Rights Movement.

A: You know, my mom used to say, “Freedom is never permanently given, but every generation must earn its keep.” During the modern Civil Rights Movement my dad was one of the leaders of, we had a lot of civil disobedience and nonviolent engagement. I think a lot of the civil disobedience we have now is very similar, though I hope we move to a level in society where we don’t have to get to that level of engagement, where we can just talk through issues. When you talk about nonviolence there are six steps. This is what my dad and mom and their team used throughout their leadership:

  1. The first step is information-gathering. Before you can resolve any conflict, you have to get all the information.
  2. The second step is education. This is actually talking through the problem.
  3. The third step is personal commitment. Unless people are personally committed to working on a solution, it’s not going to happen.
  4. The fourth step is negotiation. Most conflicts can be solved in those first four steps. 
  5. The fifth step is direct action, which could be civil disobedience.
  6. The sixth step is reconciliation, where you bring the community back together.

I think today we don’t always use those six steps. We get a little information and go right to civil disobedience. We’re not sitting down and talking. I think it would be helpful to do that. My dad and mom and their team did that. That would be one of the differences I see today: We get information, we move quickly and we go right to action because we are a society microwave: We want things to happen very quickly, and unfortunately it just takes a little time sometimes.

Martin Luther King III smiles during an interview with The Daily Universe on Monday. King is visiting the BYU campus this week preceding his forum address Tuesday. (Abby Gunderson/Alan Neves)

Q: You wrote recently on Twitter, “My father gave us the ballot in 1965. Decades later, his work is being undone.” In what ways is Dr. King’s work of voting rights being undone and what should Americans know about this issue?

A: On August 28 this year, which was the 58th anniversary of the March on Washington where Dad delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, we did over a hundred demonstrations in 41 states because after the election last year and in January, 400 pieces of legislation were proposed to really restrict the rights of people to vote, particularly in the Black and brown community and student community and for seniors, making it harder for people to vote as opposed to making it easier. Our objective was to say the federal government must be involved in expanding voting rights. I think everyone who is a citizen should be allowed to vote. You can’t make people nor should you, but hopefully people would want to vote and do their civic duty. But if you make barriers to prevent people from voting, which is what some of this legislation has done, in 18 states there is now legislation that makes it harder to vote, so our objective in line with my father and mother is to get federal intervention so no one’s right is encumbered and everyone is able to vote. I think people need to understand that is what is happening in some states and in our country. The senate is now looking at a bill to prevent rights, but we have to keep working on that until voting rights are protected for all people. 

Q: I understand your father passed away when you were only 10 years old. I was wondering how continuing this legacy of your father and carrying his torch has helped you feel closer to him. 

A: This is a work I’ve been involved in most of my life. I can’t even remember when I was not involved in what we today call “social justice,” which is when one sees something that is wrong, you try to provide a solution to make that which is wrong become correct. So I was greatly inspired, obviously, by my father, but I was 10 years old. It was my mother who carried the torch by creating the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which became the permanent living memorial done in honor of my father and his work. People come to visit the King Center in Atlanta and are hopefully inspired to go back to their communities and continue that work. I was inspired by both of my parents. My mom used to tell me, and I’m thankful she liberated me in a sense, “You know, you don’t have to go to Morehouse College where your father went, you don’t have to become a minister, you don’t have to become a civil rights leader.” Well, I did end up going to Morehouse College and becoming involved in civil rights. Her telling me, “Just be your best self and I will support you” was liberating. I have always felt very compassionate about being involved in doing something to make our community and our nation and our world better for all of God’s children. It’s a huge mission but I’m not alone. I understand you accomplish objectives by bringing people together, and that’s what I hope I’m always involved in.

(Abby Gunderson)
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