The March on Washington: 50th Anniversary – Martin Luther King III & Rev. Bernice A. King

Two of Dr. King’s three surviving children talk about the legacy of their activist father.

Martin Luther King III is the eldest son and oldest living child of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. He graduated from his father’s alma mater, Morehouse College, and went on to establish a reputation as an ardent community activist with a special interest in programs that support young people. He's initiated several programs throughout the years, including Hoops for Health, and established the nonprofit Realizing the Dream. King served on the Fulton County, GA Board of Commissioners, is former president-CEO of The King Center in Atlanta and was elected the fourth president of the SCLC, an organization his father founded.

The youngest daughter of Dr. and Mrs. King, Bernice A. King is the couple's only child to take up the ministry as a profession. She began her oratorical journey when she spoke in her mother's stead at the U.N. at age 17 and went on to earn a J.D. and Master of Divinity. She delivered her first sermon at Ebenezer Baptist, the church of her father and grandfather, and is known as a motivating speaker. King served as a law clerk in the Fulton County Juvenile Court system and is a member of Georgia's state bar. She also founded the nonprofit Be A King, to re-brand and re-image generations of people, and is CEO of The King Center.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: We turn now to a conversation with Dr. King’s youngest daughter, Reverend Bernice A. King, who was born just a few months before the March on Washington and just 19 days before her father was arrested in Birmingham, where of course he wrote that famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Today, along with her responsibilities as a minister, she is also the CEO of the King Center in Atlanta. Like her brother, she has been in Washington for all the events surrounding the anniversary of the March and joins us tonight from Washington. Reverend King, good to have you on this program.

Rev. Bernice King: Thank you. Glad to be here, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me ask what your thoughts are. I asked Dr. Carson the same question a moment ago. Give me your sense of how you have felt throughout all these celebrations for the last couple of weeks honoring this March, and in particular, your father.

Bernice King: Well, I think in the first place I’ve had a lot of mixed emotions. You always want the person back with you, so in that vein it’s been kind of a sad moment for me. But it’s also a very exciting moment, because it speaks to the magnitude of the contribution that he and so many others made to our nation and world that we’re here 50 years later looking back and talking about that time period that was very treacherous for so many people.

And able to celebrate the progress, but at the same time recognize that we have so much work to do in terms of creating the beloved community that he spoke about.

Tavis: What thoughts have you had about in particular your mother and your sister not being around for this anniversary?

Bernice King: Well, I can speak probably more specifically about – well, both of them, actually. I mean, my sister, first and foremost, my father talked about his four little children.

Tavis: Right.

Bernice King: And here we are 50 years later and there are only three of us left. So that void is very much felt. Then in terms of my mother, God, I tell people all the time that the Martin Luther King Jr. of 1968 who was one of the most hated men in America is different than the Martin Luther King Jr. today who is one of the most loved men in the world.

I attribute that to my mother’s tireless, consistent, day-to-day efforts to keep his legacy and his work alive, and perhaps we wouldn’t even be celebrating this anniversary, because she really was the one in 1983 who called a coalition together to begin the anniversary celebrations of the March on Washington.

So that was ’83 and thereafter, subsequently every five years there was an anniversary remembrance. So I think about her, because hey, we’re here in many respects because she started it – and wanted us to know we cannot forget the tremendous contributions. And not just the contributions – we cannot forget that there’s so much unfinished work that we must do. Particularly when you look at poverty, as I know you have been addressing in America, it’s something that we have not addressed at all. That was the crux of where he was before he was assassinated.

Tavis: Since you mentioned the unfinished agenda, the work that has yet to be done, I know that the King Center, which you now lead, organized the ringing of bells in this country and around the world, for that matter, earlier today.

Give me some sense of what you think your mission is now at the head of the center that bears your father’s name, that your mother founded and established, to continue that agenda.

Bernice King: Well to me, we’re in a state of urgency and emergency. When you think about what’s happening in Syria, in Turkey, in Egypt, when you think about what’s happening in inner city communities, Chicago, Baltimore, even in the District of Columbia, Atlanta, there’s an urgency to really elevate our nation to the place where nonviolence is something that we all consider an important virtue that we must embrace to preserve the sanctity of life and the integrity of our democracy.

So my mission is to continue to sow those seeds and teach the next generation, because usually we don’t see transition and we won’t see a change in the trajectory unless we impact the next generation. So that’s where my focus has been and will continue to be.

Tavis: Speaking of the next generation, what do you make of the fact that on the streets across this country, oftentimes in inner cities that bear your father’s name, there’s more violence that occurs – I’ve often thought about when I see a news report here in L.A. or someplace else, or some violent activity, some shooting that took place on King Boulevard or on King Drive or on King Way that happens in L.A. and around the country, I think about the absolute disconnect.

So much has been talked about over the last couple of weeks, but not a whole lot has been said about what was at the epicenter of your father’s work because of his love – this notion of nonviolence.

Talk to me about nonviolence in 2013 and whether or not that ideal has just gone by the wayside.

Bernice King: It may be gone by the wayside for some people, but for me it’s very real. I think if we don’t embrace it we’re going to be in serious trouble. The great disconnect is because there are too many of us who have forsaken the legacy of the movement and not understood sufficiently what brought about all of those changes in our systems and our policies was the philosophy of nonviolence.

If we’re going to see those kind of changes, then we’re going to have to continue that. But more importantly, we have to find a way to really go into our schools, into our communities, and even through our churches, we’ve got to find a way to translate this into the language of the next generation so that they feel connected and understand its place.

So what I did last year, in fact, we started a camp called the Nonviolence Opportunity Watch. It was inspired as a result of what happened to Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman being on Neighborhood Watch.

So I said hey, why don’t we connect young people to the notion of being on a nonviolence opportunity watch, so that they watch for opportunities to employ nonviolence.

So we teach them and we train them in Daddy’s principles and steps of nonviolence, not just in the sense of a neighborhood incident, but how they communicate with one another, how they work through their differences. How they dialogue, how they engage, how they resolve different issues personally as well as socially.

So I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to figure out how to translate this message to the next generation.

Tavis: I want to save a few minutes to talk to your brother, Martin III, here in just a second. Let me ask you just for a quick word – again, something that I did not hear enough of in all these celebrations.

You mentioned earlier the “beloved community.” I don’t want to color this question deliberately, but I don’t want to close without asking you, given your calling, to just say a brief word about love.

Bernice King: Well, for me, when you speak about love, obviously we’re talking about unconditional love. It’s the ability to see in another person their spirit. It’s the ability to understand that we have a lot in common in our humanity, and in spite of what defines us differently, even our perspectives and ideologies, et cetera.

That I have the capacity to love you in spite of. I don’t let my emotions get in the way. I live from another space and another place in my being that understands that connectedness.

Tavis: Reverend Bernice A. King, the youngest of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King’s children, now the head of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, founded by her mother in honor of her father. The work continues. Reverend King, good to have you on. Thank you for your time tonight, I appreciate it.

Bernice King: Thank you. I appreciate it, Tavis.

Tavis: Coming up next, a conversation with her brother, Martin Luther King III. Stay with us, we’ll talk to him in just a moment.

Martin Luther King III is the eldest of Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King’s four children. He was not yet six when his father delivered the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, but despite being only a small boy that day is front and center in his memory.

He is the author recently of a new book for young people called, “My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” For the last few days he’s been participating, as you can imagine, in nonstop activities surrounding the anniversary of the March and was, in fact, one of the organizers of this past weekend’s March on Washington this past Saturday.

Joins us tonight from Washington, taking a break from signing books with his baby daughter Yolanda Renee King. Martin King, good to have you on this program. Thanks for your time as always, sir.

Martin Luther King III: Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity.

Tavis: Before I get to your father and the legacy and the March and the ongoing movement, tell me about the text and what made you do it and what the message is for young readers.

Martin King: The fact is that there are a lot of books written under philosophy about the theology, the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., but I was uniquely situated as one of those four little children to write about him as my daddy and the life lessons that I learned, some of the life lessons that I learned from Daddy.

That’s what the book is about. There’s a lesson, for example, in there where we found – someone gave us toy guns one time for Christmas, and back in that day we could incinerate our own trash. So Dexter and I took those guns, put them in the incinerator, and burned them up because we didn’t believe in guns in our home.

Tavis: Powerful story. I wish that were the case today in Chicago and in Atlanta and L.A. and around the country.

Martin King: Yes.

Tavis: But I digress on that particular point. Since you raise the point of your obviously being one of the four children that Dr. King referenced when he said that he wanted his children to one day live in a nation where they’d not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, do you feel all the time judged by the content of your character and not the color of your skin? That was his wish for you, his dream for you.

Martin King: Yeah, but I would like to say sure, I probably am judged as an older person by the content, for the most part, or many times, of my character, but the reality is Dad was talking about the vast majority of people of color, and it’s very clear that we judge people first by the color of their skin, not by the content of their character.

That is certainly what happened as it relates to Trayvon Martin. He was profiled by George Zimmerman as someone who was trying to break in the community and tragically lost his life.

So we still have not gotten there. Yes, we’ve made great strides, but we’ve got a long way to go before we’re able to judge all people by the content of their character first and color becomes irrelevant.

Tavis: We just spoke to your baby sister Bernice a few minutes ago, and I asked her how she was dealing with these celebrations absent her precious mother, Coretta Scott King and her precious sister Yolanda.

You referenced Yolanda in your remarks at the March this past Saturday. Your daughter is named Yolanda Renee after your sister Yolanda, who’s no longer with us.

But what do you make of the fact that 50 years later your father is being heralded, is being regarded in the way that he is? Because as I’ve said to other guests this week, you know full well that when he died he was persona non grata. He was -

Martin King: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: He wasn’t the beloved Martin.

Martin King: No, no.

Tavis: He could never have imagined that there’d be a statute in his honor in Washington.

Martin King: No, of course not.

Tavis: What do you make of that, 50 years later?

Martin King: What I make of it is that whenever our heroes and sheroes are no longer physically able to speak, we are able to lift them up. But people forget about – even in the “I Have a Dream” speech, we don’t talk about the promissory, the check that was sent to the bank and came back marked “insufficient funds.”

That check that never has had sufficient funds, and even today that check is still revolving around our nation. When you look at the fact that an African American communities, particularly between those who are 18 and 30, unemployment rates start at as low as 18 to 20 percent in some communities and go up as high as 40 percent. That’s a remedy for disaster.

We have abandoned our young people in our society, and if we don’t address that our society will not continue to survive. We can’t continue to have 1 percent of the population consuming 40-plus percent of the wealth.

There has to be – Dad called it a redistribution, and that’s probably what got him killed, actually.

Tavis: Yeah.

Martin King: Because people didn’t understand what that meant, redistributing wealth and resources so that more people could participate in the process. He talked about a full employment economy, something that economists say you’ve got to have so much unemployment for the economy to work. Well, why?

Seems like to me (laughter) I don’t, I never did understand it, because the more folks you have working, the more people will be able to pay taxes. The more taxes, the more goods and services that can be provided for the people.

But we have all these notions that seem to be quite contradictory, and so I think what I am able to know unequivocally is that Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream is not realized, and if anyone believes it is, they are badly mistaken. It does not mean that progress has not been made, but we’ve got a long way before we can realize that dream earlier.

I’ve heard people talk about this week that the eradication of poverty is what he wanted to see. The eradication of racism and finally militarism and violence. Militarism at epidemic levels. Dad would be concerned about the fact that we are using drones to get enemies, but we’re killing innocent people.

There’s got to be a better way to address that than that. He’d be very concerned about the fact that in Chicago, as you already alluded, Atlanta or in Washington, every night some young Black person is being killed by a gun.

He’d be concerned that our Congress won’t even allow assault weapons to be banned. What do you need an assault weapon for? Even if you were hunting, it’s not even fair to the animals.

Come on. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and I’m hopeful, and I think that a Coalition of Conscience, new Coalition of Conscience, perhaps can be developed out of what we’ve experienced today, what the president said – the presidents, again. Not just the president, but the presidents, as well as others who have been here for this experience. Today was a commemoration, but Saturday we did a continuation. The struggle is not over. We don’t have a person to lose. America can and must do better. We must become a better society.

Tavis: I know your mom and dad and for that matter your grandparents too are smiling down on you and your wife and baby Yolanda and the rest of your family and all the work that you are doing to keep this legacy alive.

The new text from Martin Luther King III is called “My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” something you might want to get for your precious ones at home. Martin, again, I love you, always have a great time talking to you, and thank you for putting us on the list.

I know everybody and their mama wanted to talk to you this week. I know you’ve made all the rounds, but thank you for putting us on the list, and I’m delighted to have had you on the program.

Martin King: Thank you for helping to keep the dream alive and what you do every day. We appreciate and love you as well.

Tavis: Thank you, Martin. That’s our show for tonight. From Los Angeles, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: August 30, 2013 at 12:51 am