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Memphis activist who remembers Martin Luther King Jr.’s last days is still fighting
To mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault sits down with one of his closest friends, artist and activist Harry Belafonte, who remembers how they met and what made King so special, as well as why he says America is more racially divided than any other moment in his life.
And, finally, as we Mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination, special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault sat down with one of King's closest friends, artist and activist Harry Belafonte, in his home.
Charlayne began by asking Belafonte how he first met Dr. King some 65 years ago.
He was coming to New York to speak to the religious community, the ecumenical community at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
As a young black artist on the rise, I began to make a bit of noise on my own terms. I began to violate the codes of racial separation. I understood the evils of racism and rebelled from my youth. He was 24. I was 26.
And I listened to him. And I was just absolutely struck with the way in which he presented his case to the black community, condemning them for being not more engaged in the social destiny of black people.
That must have gone over big.
It went over very big.
That was very big.
What do you remember the most about him?
I didn't quite understand how a man just 24 years old, already with a Ph.D. from the university, and he to have put together this view of black life in a way that was most contentious and most rebellious against the system.
And when he said he wanted to meet with me, I said, "Yes, I would love to meet you."
Both of are sitting in the basement of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. He sat at the table after he had spoken to the religious leaders. And that was the beginning of our relationship. What he said took would take about 20 minutes took almost four hours.
What made him such a special person, you think?
Divine intervention, because I think that the course that he set for himself became most antagonist to many members of the black church, his father included.
Daddy King didn't like making all of this trouble with white folks.
Is that right?
And Martin, knowing that that would be somewhat challenging to his father, stepped up in there anyway, and he says, "I have got to do this."
He was very concerned that, in choosing him to be the leader of the movement, that he might be leading people into harm's way. He said: "I'm not cut out for this. I don't know what to do."
So he had his doubts?
Grave doubts as to his qualifications.
He was willing to be patient. He was willing to take on the responsibility, because he had a vision eventually for what he thought he might be able to achieve. He wasn't too sure about it. He was very much in conflict with what that might lead to.
And he also had a family at that time. Did he have conflicts there about being away from them so much?
He didn't understand how daunting all of this would become. He saw it really as something to which there would be a commitment for a year or two to straighten out this thing on riding on the bus and segregation laws, and that that could be dealt with in short order, if there was enough power behind his leadership.
But when we got into it, it turned out to be much more than that, because once he got into the idea of ending segregation, he then had to talk about poverty. He then had to talk out housing in the South.
And Dr. King went down and established a relationship with the garbage workers, but then found out that their plight was part of a much bigger canvas, and that he had to take on the plight of all poor people.
Black or white.
Or any color.
All caught up in the unjust economic system.
Now, in his "To the Mountaintop" speech, which, of course, was his last…
Martin Luther King Jr.:
And I have seen the promised land.
… he spoke then — that was 1968 — of how the nation was sick. He said trouble in the land, confusion all around.
And yet he remained hopeful, because he said at that time, only when it is dark enough can we see the stars.
What enabled him to stay hopeful, and you, too?
His moral — his moral sense of justice. He just really felt that what he was doing was morally correct.
What do you think he would be working on today?
Well, If Dr. King had lived, there would be no today as we know it.
His impact on universal order, his impact on the globe, his impact on the world has taken on such a humongous power, that he was shaping human history.
Because he said, we are all wrapped in a single garment of destiny.
Exactly, that there's no way out of this. You all can do what you want to do, but I'm going to have to wrestle with the fact that there ain't nothing you can do but deal with it.
So, what do you think it will take today to make his dream of the beloved community a reality?
Until white America begins or even decides to identify a moral course of history, I don't think anything is going to happen. I think America will self-destruct.
But the civil rights movement was black and white together.
That's not the case anymore?
That's the case, but it's not the fact.
The case is that we have to fix it. The fact is that it's not fixable if white folks don't decide to change their course of conduct.
The only thing left for black people to do is to burn it down. We have been lynched. We have been murdered.
And, if you look around, never before in my 91 years of history as an American have I ever seen the nation more racially divisive than it is at this very moment, including the days of the Ku Klux Klan and the segregation laws of the South.
But do you have any hope from the young people who have now, after the tragedy in Florida, who have taken to the streets and have taken to the capital, and are saying that they're going to continue? Do you get any hope for them?
Yes, I get great hope from them.
But I have always gotten great hope from young people. It's always young people who are in the forefront. Dr. King was 24, for God's sakes. That is a young person. He's not a kid. But all around him were these young men who were 18 and 19 and 20.
So it may be a moment of passing the baton? Are you ready for that?
Yes. We have been ready for it.
Well, Harry Belafonte, thank you for joining us.
Well, what are you going to do with the baton?
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