Martin Luther King's Son Recalls April 4, 1968 Today marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader's eldest son, Martin Luther King III, discusses receiving news of his father's death, and how the civil rights leader's memory should be preserved.
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Martin Luther King's Son Recalls April 4, 1968

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Martin Luther King's Son Recalls April 4, 1968

Martin Luther King's Son Recalls April 4, 1968

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I'm Cheryl Corley, in for Michele Martin, and this is Tell Me More, from NPR News.

Forty years ago today the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed by an assassin's bullet. Throughout this program, we are remembering the impact of his life and his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to further the fight against racial injustice and poverty, and to lead a march on behalf of striking sanitation workers. Martin Luther King III was a child when his father's life was taken. Along with his late mother, Coretta Scott King, and siblings, he continued to fight for civil rights. Recently on the editorial pages of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, King called for the next president to create a cabinet post for a poverty czar. Martin Luther King, III, joins us from Atlanta, welcome.

Mr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, III (Human Rights Advocate): Thank you. I am certainly honored to have the opportunity.

CORLEY: Well, Mr. King, the nation mourned when your father died, but for you and your family it was a much more personal affair. And we pause on this day to pay tribute to your father and his work and the really awful tragedy that occurred 40 years ago. Can you share with us how you commemorate this day?

Mr. KING: In most years what we have done as a family is to lay a wreath at the crypt of our father and have prayer, and sometimes we attend programs in the evening. This day, of course, we will be involved in a march of free commitment and later a ceremony at the actual spot where prayer will take place and additional remarks will be delivered. It is the first time that my family has been to Memphis on the actual anniversary. We have been to Memphis many times at different occasions, but this will be the first time that we've gone back on the actual anniversary date. But much comes to mind at this particular time and on this date because 40 years ago my father was focused on the poor peoples' campaign, to talk about a guaranteed annual income for all people, focusing largely on poor people. He was working to eradicate the triple evils of poverty, racism, and militarism. Now 40 years later, we are at the same level. Thirty-seven million people in poverty, about twelve million of those being children. Forty-seven million people with no health insurance, and it just seems very tragic that we have not moved further as a nation.

CORLEY: I want to ask you a little bit more about that in just a moment. But if I could take you back to the actual day of your father's death. We have been asking people all week to tell us about April 4th, 1968. Where they were and how they learned of the news. If you don't mind can you please tell us what you recall about that day? You were very young...

Mr. KING: Yes, I was 10 years old on April 4th, 1968, and members of my family, my siblings I should say, and I were watching the evening news, and we saw it flashed across the screen that our father had been shot. At that time he had not died. Of course, none of this would we had known as children, we just knew that something terrible had happened. And at that time we ran back to speak to our mother to get some information or consolation. She, of course, was preparing herself to go to Memphis to be by his side, had received calls from Ambassador Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson, encouraging her to come to Memphis as quickly as possible. And so she was preparing to leave.

I don't remember if she talked to us then, but at some point we had a conversation and at that point she shared that our father had gone home to live with God and that God rewards his servants. Those who serve him well, sometimes he brings them home early with him. And one day, we would re-unite with him, but when we saw him he would not be able to talk to us, he would not be able to embrace us, but he would appear as if he were sleeping. That was part of her description.

I am sure there was far more dialogue than that but that's in essence what she explained. I can't tell you whether it was the actual day of April 4th, I really believe it was a day later, because she went off to the airport and when she arrived at the airport she found out that he had passed, and she chose to come back home and get us situated, and then the next day went to Memphis and a plane was provided by the Kennedy family to fly the number of persons who went, and our father's remains back to Atlanta.

CORLEY: That must have been an extremely difficult time for your family.

Mr. KING: Well, it perhaps would have been the most difficult time. Certainly that I can ever remember, because at the tender age of ten years old you, a lot of things go through your mind and when you've been raised in a home of love and for your loved one to be taken away from you through violence, a lot of emotions go through your mind, so yes that was clearly the most tragic and traumatic time of our lives. My Mom and Dad attempted to prepare us as best they could for an occasion like this, but I am sure they didn't expect this to happen when we were such youngsters.

CORLEY: You're listening to Tell Me More, and we're speaking with Martin Luther King, III. Well you have closely followed in your father's footsteps, from attending Morehouse College to being president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I was wondering if you felt like it was really your work to continue that way.

Mr. KING: Well, it is certainly work that I embraced. What I cannot answer is, if I had not been exposed to this tradition, would I still be involved in the work? But because I was, I was blessed to be exposed to the work that my father and mother dedicated their lives toward. I feel that I have an obligation because, certainly to him or her that much is given, of him or her, is much required.

CORLEY: Well, your op-ed piece in which you call for this cabinet level position to deal with eradicating poverty. What specifically would you like for that person to do?

Mr. KING: Well, the specific thing is, number one, is for a presidential candidate to first commit that he or she is committed to doing it. Secondly, when one of those individuals, of the three that are running, becomes president, that they actually execute with authority and a budget to convene all of the different parties, business leaders, religious leaders, community leaders and elected officials in the various communities to structure how to reduce poverty in America. Some of it means business investment, but some of it means community investment, some of it means government funding. There's a huge task that can be done, but the first thing we have to do is acknowledge there is a problem and designate someone whose responsibility it is to build a consensus. But at this particular point, it is very clear that no one has thus far established that inertest, in my judgment.

CORLEY: Mr. King, how do you get people to pay attention on the ground level again?

Mr. KING: Well, I think Americans have demonstrated many times that there is an interest in making a difference. They just don't exactly know how. And what I mean by that is when the tsunami occurred, and it was in the media every day, for that period of time people rolled up their sleeves. People gave money. Some people just left our nation and went to those parts of the world to assist. When Katrina occurred, something similar happened. As soon as it moved from the front pages of the newspapers, then people, of course, ultimately went back to what they were doing prior to.

My point is that if we have a cabinet-level position, designee, who is bringing attention to the issue, who is bringing that coalition together, that is focused - their only focus is to create ways to eradicate and reduce poverty in America, I think people will get behind this effort. And certainly, as I said, with 36 million who are already at that level, and those numbers growing, I just think that the consciousness of the nation must be aroused a little bit, and all of us must roll up our sleeves. Now, let me - I might add that every January, during the King holiday - this particular January over a half-a-million people were engaged in acts of community service. But it was relegated to one day.

If we had 25-50 million people engaging in acts of service throughout the year, I believe that we could reduce poverty. We could increase our education system. We could ultimately find a way to address the health care crisis. And I really don't believe there's anything that we could not do if there were more of us engaged and given a specific task. And while I may not have that full-scale plan, that's part of what the cabinet-level person who would be appointed - that's part of their responsibility, to design that particular plan.

I think it already exists. Certainly there are academicians who've written on the subject matter and who are experts. And yet, we just have chosen not to embrace that information. But a poverty-type cabinet position would be able to bring that all together and ultimately bring about the change that I think needs to occur in - at our nation of America.

CORLEY: Martin Luther King, III, is the second child of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. He is the head of the nonprofit group "Realizing the Dream, Inc.," and he joined us from Atlanta. Thank you so much.

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