ATLANTA – Martin Luther King III sits in his living room on a recent Thursday afternoon, surrounded by lush decor and wearing a dark suit. Propped on a shelf behind him is an enlarged portrait of three generations of Kings: himself as a boy, his grandfather and his father, Martin Luther King Jr.
At 62, King III is now nearly a quarter-century older than his father was when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, gunned down on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 39.
King Jr.’s eldest son speaks with an eloquence and passion reminiscent of the civil rights icon, whose powerful speeches and sermons are synonymous with the nation’s nascent movement in the 1950s and ’60s. He talks of how his personal loss also was a profound one for the course of history.
“Had he lived, we would be in a dramatically different place,” King III said in an interview with USA TODAY at his home in Atlanta’s upscale Buckhead community. “We probably would have resolved racism.”
As the nation pauses Monday to honor King Jr.’s life and legacy, King III says his father’s work toward peace and equality remains unfinished. The country has yet to overcome voter suppression, disparities in housing and education, poverty, police brutality and many other injustices faced by people of color.
A poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in 2018 revealed that only 1 in 10 African Americans believed the United States had achieved all or most of the goals of the civil rights movement.
King III hopes the federal holiday sparks a renewed fight for justice.
“As our nation has become more divided, there is a resonance for a message to bring people together,” he said.
Here’s the history: How did Martin Luther King Jr. Day become a federal holiday?
Losing a hero
King Jr.’s death came amid many trailblazing and still controversial initiatives. A campaign demanding jobs, insurance and a fair minimum wage for the poor was ongoing. The Fair Housing Act was signed days after King Jr. died, but still ahead was the battle to end housing segregation and practices that prevented black families from getting home mortgages. King Jr.’s efforts to end police violence against black people was in full swing.
Civil rights leaders pressed on after his death, but the loss of his leadership was keenly felt and a setback for the movement.
King III was just 10 years old when his father was killed and didn’t understand the gravity of his father’s influence. He recalls frequent visitors at the family’s Atlanta home, and his mother, Coretta Scott King, talking of his father’s important work. But King III says he simply viewed his father as a loving playmate who rode bikes and played baseball with him and his siblings in the yard.
As he grew older though and saw the fight for civil rights march on, he became inspired to continue his father’s work.
“I began to understand that not only was there was a social justice agenda, there was a policy agenda,” King III said. “For every justice campaign there was a policy initiative associated with it.”
Taking on the legacy
King III went on to graduate from Morehouse College, following his father’s footsteps, and later served seven years on the Fulton County Commission in Georgia.
In 1997, he was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference— an organization his father co-founded in 1957 with the mission of fighting the disenfranchisement of black voters. It later expanded to address economic inequality.
King III held the SCLC post until 2004, leading marches, convening police brutality hearings and organizing gun buy-back programs.
Today, King III spends his days traveling to speak at schools and events, and volunteering for social justice groups in an effort to not only carry his father’s legacy but to inspire others to join the effort. He advocates for banks to help people of color become homeowners and for diversity training.
He has taken a stand against voter suppression and expressed frustration with the federal government’s new work requirement that will cause nearly 700,000 people to lose food stamps calling it “inhumane and insensitive.”
“My work has been raising the consciousness around these issues,” King III said. “The work is nowhere near complete.”
Federal holiday: What is open and closed on Martin Luther King Jr. Day?
Carrying on the dream
The new generation of activists, however, give King III hope his father’s dream of racial equality and peace can still be achieved.
He lauded groups such as Black Lives Matter for raising awareness and rallying against violence toward black people, and the high school students from Parkland, Florida, who are lobbying lawmakers for stricter gun control.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who worked closely with King Jr. and witnessed his assassination, said his friend would be disappointed by the nation’s wealth gap that has left a disproportionate number of black families at the bottom.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average wealth for white families is seven times higher than the average wealth for black families.
However, Jackson said the increasing diversity of the U.S. Congress and seeing black and white student athletes play on the same team are evidence King’s dream still lives.
“He would be proud of our capacity to fight back,” Jackson said. “We are much better off and we have more allies.”
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