Black Kings Matter
August 23rd marks the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition by UNESCO. To present him as "son of Martin Luther King Jr." is no longer necessary, but to know how ideas have evolved in the family might be a refreshing read
22 Aug 2023

As an American Baptist minister and activist, Dr. King was a highly-respected spokesman. The youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and leader in the American civil rights movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968.

Martin Luther King III, the first-born son of the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, has devoted his entire life to shepherding and building upon his parents’ legacy. With his wife Arndrea Waters King and young daughter Yolanda Renee King, they continue to dedicate their life’s work to social progress.

Here is the telephone exchange that Martin Luther King III (based in Atlanta, United States), and UN Today had a few days ago.

You have inherited not only a family name, but above all the constant defense of human rights, rights that are constantly being questioned and challenged. A large part of global society looks to your father, and therefore to you, as a beacon. How much did this affect you as a child?

I was sheltered from a lot of things as a child, so it certainly affected me. What I did know was that my father and his team, along with my mother, were working to make the world a better place for all of God’s children.

What I find disturbing today, as you alluded to, is the fact that a lot of the things that my father and mother did to open doors and the progress society, are now being rolled back – and that’s the biggest challenge, because I’m worried about my daughter and the rights that her generation has.

Today our daughter has less rights. She was born in 2008 and has fewer rights today than she did on the day she was born because of what the Supreme Court is doing about women’s rights. It looks like we are trying to go backwards instead of going forwards. I’m concerned about how we move society and humanity forward. We are doing a march to commemorate the 1963 march in Washington where my father gave his “I have a dream” speech. We are calling on people across the country. When we see hatred being legislated or engaged in, whether it’s hatred around Jews, Arabs or people of color, we have to come together, galvanize and really work to envision and realize the dream that my father shared in 1963, which is nowhere near complete.

So in terms of how it affects me, it affects me because I believe that every human being has a right not to be mistreated. We also see individuals who are members of the community. The LGBTQIA+ community is also being compromised, and their rights suppressed. This is not the dream and vision that Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King had. They had a dream in a vision to create the beloved community where everybody could achieve and fulfil their dream and not be mistreated but be treated with dignity and respect. So we have to create that climate now.

Martin Luther King Jr, Martin Luther King III, and Yolanda King

When do you think it was a switch that you made from being “the son of” to being yourself with your own values and your own career dreams?

I think when I got out of college, I realized that there was a body of work that I wanted to be involved in. My mother used to tell me “You don’t have to become a Minister; you don’t have to become a humanist, a civil rights leader. You don’t have to go to the University of Michigan where your father went, just be the best you can be and we’ll support you.”

I ended up going to college. I ended up getting involved as a human being in civil rights activism. When I was 14 or 15 around 1972, in one of my first major speeches, I realized I could do this kind of work all my life. But when I got out of college at 21, or probably around 23, I realized that I had a lot of work to do because my father’s dream and my mother’s vision hadn’t been realised. How are we going to create a world where people can live together without violence, without destroying personal property? How are we going to create a world where dignity and respect are automatic?

It doesn’t happen automatically. You have to create the climate for it to happen: that is more or less what I have been trying to do all my life and will continue to do. Especially the fact that my wife and I have a 15-year-old daughter who, as I said, has fewer rights now than when she was born, makes it unacceptable.

My father used to say: “Oppression is legislated” and it really is. It was legislated then and unfortunately it is being legislated now. So we have to work to really change the situation and create a different climate, a different nation, a better nation in the world for all of God’s children.

Arndrea Waters King, Martin Luther King III and Yolanda Renee King.

One of your father’s quotes was “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. One of yours says: “We all have a contribution to make. Get engaged. Get involved.” How do you encourage the new generations to get involved when they are exposed to politicians who are inconsistent between what they say and what they do?

What we have to do as a society, is figure out how to hold politicians to account for what they say and what they do. That is why it is important to protect, preserve and extend the franchise, because that is where we start the process. One of the most important steps we can take is that short step to the ballot box.

In democracies where we have the right to vote, we have to create the climate for people to want to go and vote. When we see today is a Supreme Court that are going backwards and has no ethical standards and no rules. For example, we have seen recently in newspaper articles in the New York Times and other publications that the Supreme Court are very friendly with the super-industrialists and wealthy people of our nation and these people pay for their travel, they pay for their children’s schooling, they get all kinds of things and they are supposed to be the most important legal people in our nation.

There must be guidelines for them to have ethics. They don’t seem to have ethics and I think Americans see that. So one of the things we have to talk about is the need to expand the Supreme Court so that we have a more balanced court and a court that says “OK, if we can’t make rules for the people, we have to make rules for ourselves. We even have to make some rules for ourselves, but preferably at the ballot box like the Voting Rights Act, which was struck down by the US Supreme Court in 2013. We need a Federal Electoral Act to increase the number of people that vote.

Some media or some politicians have tried to say that they can cheat, that they can make provisions to make it harder to vote. We should make it easier to vote. We should be able to vote on the internet. We should be able to vote in a very simple, uncomplicated way and we can create the technology to protect our vote and that is something that people have to demand. So my main point is that it really is about people’s engagement and, frankly, we are seeing that engagement.

We’ve seen the engagement of young people over the last 15 or 20 years. After the death of the students in Parliament who died in a tragic shooting, their friends organised a meeting over 800,000 people in 2018 and actually got some initial legislation.

We see the growing feminist movement, where millions of women mobilized after the election of former President Trump. We see Black Lives Matter, which was actually organised after the killing of Trayvon Martin more than 10 years ago, and we have seen progress. All of these communities, need to come together and work on a strategy that leads to action.

The most important thing that we all have to do is to make sure that we maximise voter turnout during every election, whatever year it is. Probably this year there will be elections in 2023, but next year we will have a personal election and we need more and more people to participate. That’s how we start the process of creating change in our nation.

Martin Luther King III giving a speech as a human rights activist. He serves as an ambassador for global human rights, the movement for social change and civil rights by addressing critical issues such as poverty, injustice and violence.

Your daughter, Yolanda Renee King, is 15 years old. Could you tell me how she feels about the social inheritance she is receiving?

She is very passionate about a number of issues and always has been. When she was two or three years old, she wanted to know why people were living on the street and how we could reduce the homeless population. The solution would be to create opportunities for people not to be relegated or forced to live on the street and she said “I am going to do something about it when I am older.” So, she got involved when she was nine years old in the “March For Our Lives” in 2018, where she spoke about responsible gun legislation and creating a world without weapons. So she is creating her own platform. Neither I nor my wife put pressure on her. We’ve created a climate for her to want to get involved and make a difference.

Some journalists have asked her if she would like to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and she said, “I certainly admire and respect and love and appreciate everything my grandfather did, but I want to create my own steps to create a better world.” She is committed and determined to do so. In fact, she’s going to publish a book called “We Dream a World“, which is a children’s picture book coming out in January 2024, in which she talks about liberating the world – so she’s already doing her part.

You are a global ambassador for human rights. From a global perspective, what do you think is the most endangered human right today?

It’s hard to quantify, isn’t it? There are many things we must prioritize. One of the most threatened things for all of humanity is the climate and the right of workers to have a decent job with a decent wage. The advent of artificial intelligence that could replace humanity and modern day slavery are just two other prevalent issues.

I think all the priorities are interrelated and we have to create a strategic plan. For example, there are obviously the UN Sustainable Development Goals that have to be achieved. I don’t think we as a society are doing enough responsible work to implement them. I think some countries are doing something, but we as a global community need to engage at a much higher level if we want our planet and humanity to survive. Humanity is in trouble. Why is it in trouble? Because there is so much greed on the part of industrialists and corporate powers, because a lot of the things that are being done are being done because it is the right thing to do, and the motivation should not just be money. If it’s about money, you can make a lot of money and wipe out all of humanity and that’s the direction the world is going in.

It seems that some people defend that and go along with it, but then there are others who are working to change that paradigm. We have reached a critical point and we have to change this paradigm if we want to save humanity and if we want to save our children.

We used to live and talk about planning the next generation of politicians. For example, a good politician planned for the next election, the statesman planned for the next generation. We need more leadership. We must work diligently to create it throughout the world. And all of humanity must be willing to work together. For that, we need more than one campaign. We need to be able to put all this into practice. If we really acted with love and passion and respect and dignity and preservation of humanity, the whole world would be different, but that is not how we are acting at the moment.

Martin Luther King III, Martin Luther King Jr, Coretta Scott King, Bernice King and Yolanda King.

You have given me a great link to the next question. In one of your letters published on your website you mention “Together, we can rise above the noise and find common sense solutions to even the world’s hardest problems”. With societies facing such different realities, aren’t the words “together” and “common sense” the opposite of finding common solutions?

On reflection, I would modify my statement and say: The aim is to create a win-win situation. That is, not everyone will get everything they want. We can create more win-win situations than lose-lose situations. And that really is the goal. Because yes, I think common sense would dictate certain responses. But as you say, democracy is supposed to work with different kinds of social visions and different kinds of governments.

We have to find a way to work out what is best for everybody. Any government will do it, if people aren’t willing then you can’t do it, there’s no solution. You have to be willing to come to the table and recognise that you can win some things, but there are areas where you have to compromise.

You have to find a way to create that climate where people are willing to say “OK, I’m going to come to the table and I’m willing to compromise in certain areas.”

The fact is that you always have to have a dialogue to get things done. You may have 15 areas where you disagree and there’s only one or two that you agree on. But with the one or two that you agree on, you have to work together to form an agreement, then maybe you can go back to the others and try again.

It’s a complex and complicated set of circumstances. They are not easy tasks, but again, I think if people are willing, there’s always a chance. But the goal is to get people to be willing, to be willing to sit down, to be willing to talk, to be willing to compromise, because none of us are going to get everything we want.

The ethnic mixes created by the natural union of two people or by the influence of immigration (forced or not) are gradually making the colour of a person less important than origin, language and other cultural aspects. Does it not seem to you that the black “stamp” (and all the prejudices still associated with it) will soon be a thing of the past?

Let’s put it this way: What is happening in the United States is that the European population, which has historically been in the majority, is changing dramatically. Increasingly the black and brown community is calling it ‘the browning of America’, and within a few years, communities that have defined themselves as minorities will be the majority of the population. This is starting to cause a lot of concern among people, concern that these people might be on top. They shouldn’t be worried about it but they are and that’s why you see a lot of backlash, trying to change, trying to put rules in place that will oppress people and not uplift them.

I feel sorry for America. In the end, people are going to have to cut back because you can’t, it’s not like you can put the genie back in the bottle. This is a problem. How you deal with it may be a different debate, but it’s certainly happening and it’s certainly going to make the issue of race less important. It is incredibly important now, but when you have a majority black and brown population, I think you also have the integration of communities. Children eventually mix with all kinds of people. There is nothing you can do about that, frankly – you can set standards, but those standards are going to change.

Martin Luther King III speaks at the 2020 March on Washington

Do you believe that the United Nations provides a fair and expeditious platform for action to pursue human rights claims?

I want to say this very carefully. The UN is obviously controlled by the Security Council. So if you are on the Security Council, you have a voice and maybe things can happen quickly. I think the challenge is that the Security Council is controlled by the permanent members, which means that their people, which includes the United States and a number of others who are permanently. It often seems that all of a sudden one nation can put something forward so that progress isn’t made.

I don’t know how that fits into the democratic process because normally in a democracy, the majority rules. I don’t remember exactly how many members there are in the Security Council, but I think there is an inherent challenge. As I say, one of the rules is that only one nation can block claims.

This is an inherent problem. If everybody agrees, it can be great and it can happen, but if somebody has the ability to veto it, that’s a problem, that’s where the challenges lie. When talking about equity expeditions, I would like that to be the case, but I’m not sure it is at the moment.

‘Never accepted what we’re going through’: MLK III reflects on father’s legacy

If you had to pass a message to the United Nations civil servants, what that would be?

My most important message is to the staff members. They do an excellent job every day, all over the world, and the world needs every one of them to keep doing their part to figure out how we can achieve the goal of creating a better world for all of God’s children.

They’re there to really serve the people, to serve the community and the world. A lot of them do a great job and I applaud what they do, but I think we need to work to do it at even higher levels, do it more efficiently and expeditiously.

The world needs civil servants. The world doesn’t work on its own, it works because there are people out there every day going out there, making a difference, opening doors. Whether it’s in the food services, health services or the civil servants that make things work. That is why we need the commitment of the officials all the time, as they do an amazing job of serving the community.

* Julián Ginzo is a member of the Editorial Board of UN Today.
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