"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character." --Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Aug. 28, 1963
THE SON who bears the father's name, Martin Luther King III, was 5 that day and sitting in front of a television in Atlanta. He says now that he sensed history was being made but at the time he didn't know why.
"I grew up with it. I probably didn't know until later--I would see Daddy on television and they would refer back to the march. When I was smaller I used to think my father was talking about his four little children," said King yesterday. "But as I grew older, I understood the context he was talking about. Daddy was making that statement essentially to the nation. When he said 'my four little children,' he meant the children of the world, black children, children in America."
Martin Luther King III, 25, one of four children of Martin and Coretta King, is heir to his family's legacy through his name, his age and his work. All the King offspring are looked to for leadership: Martin and Yolanda, 27, work for the Atlanta-based King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and Yolanda formed a New York-based theater group with Malcolm X's daughter, Attallah Shabazz, 24. (All three were named among "50 Young Leaders of the Future" in the September issue of Ebony magazine.) The two youngest King children are Dexter, 22, a corrections officer in Atlanta and a student at Morehouse College, and Bernice, 20, a student at Spelman College.
But Martin Luther King III has the name. He is increasingly visible, joining the organizers of voter registration drives, speaking forcefully on domestic issues, especially at youth meetings. He is only months younger than his father was when the 26-year-old minister led the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott and was catapulted into national prominence.
King acknowledges the name and the responsibility.
"Our family situation is unique. If I go in and apply for a job, because I am Martin Luther King people are going to be awed at first, and they say, 'Yeah, let's see what we can do,' because they don't want any repercussions. But the average black child who comes out of Buttermilk Bottom, who may not have been trained adequately, because of his circumstances, that black child is going to be judged as just poor black trash. If a average white child comes in, he will get a superior job to that black child.
"That part of 'the dream' is not a reality. It has not become true. One day, hopefully, it will. This is such a racist, violent society. Poor black kids catch hell, literally."
And it's more than the name. King also has the full nose, burning yet playful brown eyes, the stocky build and the degree from Morehouse that his father and grandfather had. For the son, the shared vision and outrage is strongly articulated but its eloquence is still evolving.
"I hear those speeches and I think wow." He is standing now, tall and full, dressed somberly in gray and black, even to a wide black tie, and he spends five minutes reciting his father's speech on the shortcomings of great civilizations.
Yet the name. "People want to make it a burden, they want to make like you are carrying a cross, a big, heavy cross--'I know you are hurting,' " he says, laughing. "I have greater burdens, the burden of trying to decipher the difference between good and evil. That is much greater than having the name of one of the greatest persons in our society, if society says that. It's an honor. I am glad to have it or to be victimized by the circumstances, in a sense. If it is going to help people, that's what I should be about. Daddy was about that."
Since May, when he resigned from a hotel management job in Atlanta, King has been working to mobilize young people for today's 20th anniversary March on Washington. "It's swelling," he says of the national response. He will march and join his mother and family on the podium. "I have never talked about it in the sense of a celebration, as some have, because we are really not celebrating. The fact is we still need decent housing, health care, jobs and education."
His is the work of the bridge generation, the generation that experienced the last hours of segregation and has yet to witness full equality. "I make a special appeal to youth, essentially because in America the youth movement sometimes appears to be dead. It's not dead. Young people have historically always been involved in struggle. In the '60s the students decided they would not accept policies of eating at separate facilities, and started the sit-ins. Then it was the students in 1961 who started the Freedom Rides. Then it was young kids that even went to jail in Birmingham. So many young people between the ages of 18 and 30, my group, possess the highest rate of unemployment. Young people need to be in the forefront, especially young blacks, because we are the ones who are unemployed," says King.
"If Jesse Jackson or Andy Young or Hosea Williams or Dorothy Cotton or Dorothy Height, or Shirley Chisholm, any number of persons, if they never, Joe Lowery, if they never do anything else, Walter Fauntroy, that's fine. They were there in the days it was turbulent. It's us as young persons now who have a responsibility and a role. They were young at one time and they provided that vitality. We need to provide that."
While the rest of us saw King the moral leader, his son saw the father. King was born Oct. 23, 1957, when the demands on his father's time were escalating. "Daddy, of course, was always being carted away to jail. We used to get teased by the other kids--'Your father is a jailbird.' I didn't understand. But Mother did a tremendous job, sensitizing us, saying plain and simple: 'Daddy is going to jail to help people--all of God's children are not as fortunate as us. Because of that your Daddy has to help people, to go to jail to make this a better world.' After that I felt good. I didn't care what anybody said. It made us feel a sense of pride and dignity, but not arrogance." He laughs. "Well, I am still spoiled to a degree."
There were personal lows, like his rejection because of race by a private school in Atlanta when he applied for the first grade. But there was fun, like the refrigerator game. The King kids would sit on the icebox, get a kiss on their cheeks or forehead, areas their father called "sugar spots," and then jump into his arms. Sports included bike riding on the highway and the boys' accompanying their father to the Y for a swim, sauna and rubdown. King III also did some traveling with his father. "In 1964 in St. Augustine it was hostile; the Klan had their sheets, the cops brought their dogs. It really frightened me. I had never confronted a situation like that, and I hid behind Daddy," he recalls.
After college, he worked in the 1980 Carter reelection campaign, then for two years with the Dunfey Hotels, and has talked about elected office for himself. And though the family's patriarch, his grandfather, keeps telling him he can preach, King says he hasn't gotten "the call" to be a minister.
But the name is pushing him on to build his own philosophy. He quotes Victor Hugo. "Hugo said, 'Whenever there is darkness crimes will occur. But the guilty one is not merely he who commits the crime but he who provides the darkness.' Our problems funnel down, trickle down from the top."
And, of course, there is his father. "Daddy used to say that 'the ultimate test of a man is not where he stands on positions of comfort and convenience but where he stands on positions of challenge and controversy. So on some questions cowardice asks, 'Is a position safe?' Expediency asks, "Is a position politic?" Vanity asks, "Is the position popular?" But conscience asks, "Is the position right?" '
"So I would hope I would always make decisions based not on their safety, popularity or political implications, but whether it's right."