Martin Luther King III: Marches Still Necessary

Black leaders are calling for a march in Washington, D.C., insisting that the U.S. Department of Justice failed to aggressively prosecute recent hate crimes across the country. But some are wondering if collective action still works. Civil rights advocate Martin Luther King, III talks about the legacy of marching and whether it remains an effective strategy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

On the program today, we'll hear from Martin Luther King III on an upcoming march intended to push the Justice Department to action on hate crimes. And we'll hear about Argentina's president-elect - the first lady of Argentina moves into the top job, succeeding her husband. Also, the Mocha Moms team up with the guru of semi-homemade cooking.

But first, a number of African-American leaders announced plans for a march on the Department of Justice next month to protest what they see as a lack of attention to recent hate crimes. On this program, we've covered a number of mass gatherings. But some ask whether marches really accomplished anything anymore.

Martin Luther King III thinks so. He is the oldest son of Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and part of the coalition of leaders who have called for the November 16th march in Washington. He joins us from his office in Atlanta.

Welcome, Mr. King.

Mr. MARTIN LUTHER KING III (Human Rights Advocate; Chairman, CEO, Realizing the Dream): Thank you for the opportunity.

MARTIN: What do you think this march will accomplish? What the 10,000 or 20,000 people or so, who went to Jena, Louisiana, last month did not accomplish?

Mr. KING III: Well, I think, number one, the focus is on the Department of Justice and its inaction around the country. We are seeing a number of nooses that are appearing all over America. And when we look at one of the things that must be actually addressed is the statute as it relates to hate crimes. Because to many - particularly people of color - a noose represents the hate crime.

At the judicial committee a couple of weeks ago, we learned that the Justice Department chose not to prosecute those youngsters who, in fact, had hung the nooses in relationship to the Jena school. And they could have, but they chose not to. Although they said that they're - initially, they said there's no law on the books to address juveniles who do these kind of things, but if they had been adults, they could have prosecuted. Well, the reality is we found out after the hearings that they could have even prosecuted the juveniles. And something that serious certainly needs to be addressed.

The second thing is when you look at what is happening all over America, there are number of cases where only federal intervention, I think, will bring about change. And last Friday in Atlanta, because I believe there were demonstrations throughout - around the state of Georgia, Genarlow Wilson was released, and was slated to be in jail for 10 years. But because Dr. Joseph Lowery and others in Atlanta, as well as Reverend Sharpton came to Atlanta and others, activists who marched, the Supreme Court finally ruled that Genarlow Wilson would be released from jail.

It shows that when public pressure is exerted, that policymakers ultimately will do the right thing in relationship to justice. An appeal was made for justice, and at the local level or state court, this young man could have been in jail for 10 years, but because the Supreme Court intervened and because of the public saying we want to see justice - and not just justice for any one ethnic group, justice for all. Because we always are feeling for justice for all that the reality is, unfortunately, the justice system is skewed, and often people of color do not receive appropriate justice in this country.

MARTIN: Mr. King, hold on a second. You know, you talked about the Genarlow Wilson case, you also talked about the whole situation with Jena and the nooses and so forth. The Department of Justice says that they do take these crimes seriously, but that they're following the law. And the prosecutor in the Genarlow Wilson case said essentially the same thing, that the law is the law and that if you have an issue with the law as it's written, then the legislative bodies are the people to whom you should direct your attention, not these law enforcement entities who are, in fact, carrying out the law. What do you say to that?

Mr. KING III: I think that this Justice Department has been dormant, at a minimum, and absent, as a general rule. Because when we look at the modern civil rights movement under the leadership of my father and the team that he developed, it was at the federal level that we were able to appeal to bring about justice, whether it was in relationship to voting rights - just a number of issues. If it had not been for the federal intervention, we would not have some of the justice that we have today. And what we're saying is this federal Department of Justice really just has been absent. And that's what this demonstration is about. It's asking the Feds to be more engaged and more involved when we feel that they have been asleep at the wheel or else just non-existent.

MARTIN: I want to go back to theā€¦

Mr. KING III: I think that's universal. That's universally - and there are probably some more specific cases that we could actually look at. For example, just the other day in Florida, it appears - number one, a young man was killed. They said it was because he had sickle cell. He was in a juvenile facility or one of those facilities where a certain kind of activity had to be done, and they even have it on tape, where the officers appear to be excessive with this young man. And all of them, it appears, were acquitted. So there should be some federal intervention so that some level of justice can be done.

MARTIN: You're talking about a young man who died in the boot camp - 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson. He died in January at the hands of boot camp employees. A Florida court found in favor of the seven drill instructors and a nurse who were involved in the case. They said he didn't die from suffocation. I think that's what you're talking about, am I correct?

Mr. KING III: That's correct. That is correct.

MARTIN: I wanted to go back to this question of these - the nooses, which were the initial incident that sparked kind of - all attention in Jena, Louisiana. And as I think many people know now, this particular tree where the white kids hung out and some of the black kids wanted to sit there and subsequently found these nooses hung in the tree, and there've been other nooses in cities around the country.

And some people argue that this whole business is a lot of sick jokes probably being perpetuated by adolescents and copycats. And that by bringing so much attention to it, leaders like you and Reverend Al Sharpton are really giving it - these people more power than they deserve. In essence, you're saying that they have the ability to get to you - to get to black people by utilizing this symbol. And others would argue that the better thing to do is ignore it. What do you say to that?

Mr. KING III: Well, I don't think you can ignore something that represents so much of a heinous crime that was perpetrated on people of color. Just in the state of Louisiana, where over 300 persons were lynched, it - to me, it's preposterous to even be debating whether or not we should speak on this issue. I think the problem is there are no consequences. I think that if there was a consequence, people would think about what they are doing. They may think it's a joke, but it's to any - it should not be a laughing matter to anyone. And if it is, we've got to do a better job of educating people.

For example, if you are to put swastika somewhere, those who would do that are prosecuted and should be. That is - I mean, these are the kind of things that I just - I just don't think we have the luxury of joking and playing about. We have to let the public know this is very serious business. This is painful to people. And while you certainly have freedoms in this country, you should not have the kind of freedom that perpetuates some kind of harm on someone else. I mean, that's, you know, in a sense, we fought to get the Confederate flags removed around our nation. And we're still fighting that.

I think that it's appropriate to have the Confederate flag perhaps in a museum, but it is not a unifying symbol. And so we fought to have that removed. Now, that doesn't mean that individuals can't have Confederate flags on their property. They have the right to do that. But again, it represents something that is not unifying.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KING III: A noose certainly can't represent anything other than something negative, and we should not allow that in our culture.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm talking with Martin Luther King III about plans for another march in Washington to oppose racial injustice. One of the seminal events in the civil rights movement in this country was the Montgomery bus boycott, which started in December of 1955. Of course, your father was central to that effort. It lasted for a year.

Radio One host Warren Ballentine is also calling for a spending boycott in the African-American community on November 2nd to draw awareness to racial injustices as well. What do you think of that strategy? There are those who argue that that is more significant than public demonstration. What do you think?

Mr. KING: Well, I think that we have to work on several fronts, and I certainly commend Warren Ballentine for calling for this day of blackout. And certainly, that is one of the ways that we can begin to say we're not going to continue to support a system that is not supporting us. But I would think that anyone can join in that effort. It's not just relegated to black folks.

MARTIN: There is some talk that the younger generation - the hip-hop generation, if you want to call it that - is less interested in marching than the earlier generation was. They don't see the significance of it. What would be your message to them?

Mr. KING: Well, number one, I would say that many of the things that we're fighting for directly affects them. You know, those of us who are older - 40 and older, by and large, we have established ourselves. And as a result, most of what's happening in terms of the criminal justice system is focused on young people. So for that reason, whether it's Genarlow Wilson, whether it is the Jena Six, whether it is the young man in Florida who was killed - I mean, it's young people who are impacted by these policies. And I would beg to differ.

When we were in Jena, there were, some would say 25,000, some would say there was as many as 60,000. Over 50 percent of that crowd was young people who represent the hip-hop generation. So I don't know that I agree that young people don't want to be engaged. I think we have to constantly set the parameters and state the facts. And young people want to do - I think there is more of an activist spirit growing at this particular time than I've ever seen in a long time.

And when we see, as we saw in Atlanta, when - on last Friday, when Genarlow Wilson was freed, we see that because of people who went to Douglasville and marched, that is one of the things that helped set the tone for the Supreme Court to ultimately rule four to three that this young man would be free.

And when we went to Jena, in fact, if we think about it, a week later, Mychal Bell was out of jail. Although, unfortunately, he's back in jail now, he was out of jail a week later after that demonstration. So what it says is when we do march, when we do get engaged, when we do become active, change can occur.

MARTIN: Martin Luther King III is a civil rights activist. He is the CEO of Realizing the Dream. He joined us from his office in Atlanta, Georgia. Mr. King, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. KING: Thank you for the opportunity.

MARTIN: And we've reached out to the Justice Department. We hope to bring you a conversation about the department's philosophy toward prosecuting hate crimes in the coming days.

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