Martin Luther King III was 10 years old when his father was assassinated while supporting protesting black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.
More than 50 years later, King has become an activist in his own right.
Now, as America faces a national reckoning on racism amid growing social unrest following the killing of George Floyd.
King reflected on his father’s legacy and what today’s protesters can do to bring about the kind of sweeping policy changes enacted after the marches of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s.
The pandemic helped create an ‘explosive’ set of circumstances for black Americans
Business Insider: This isn’t the first time a black person has been murdered by a police officer. Why do you think this one has elicited such a large reaction from the American public?
Martin Luther King III: When people lose their jobs — 40 million people are, for the first time in our country, seeking unemployment funding. With that large number of persons, there’s beyond — “frustration” is not the right word — I don’t even know how you define it. It’s a period that most of us have never seen. For many Americans, this is the first time that we’ve experienced a stoppage of work, a transition in our lives, feelings of not knowing how you’re going to eat next week or how you’re going to pay any of your bills.
Although the nation is attempting to move back to work, it’s just difficult to think about. How do we recover? So under all of that already taking place, you have several tragic murders of black men, and a black woman in Louisville, Kentucky — Breonna Taylor. There’s a saying that there is a straw that breaks the camel’s back, and I think that the fact of the matter is that because of technology people have seen these incidents and enough is enough.
Dr. King condemned riots, but called them ‘the language of the unheard’
Business Insider: How have these circumstances shaped how protests are playing out?
King: “People have the right to protest for rights” is what my father used to say. And that’s what people are protesting, the treatment of human beings, the inhumane treatment of human beings. That is what I think we’re seeing for the most part, and unfortunately some of it has manifested into violence and looting and burning.
The thing I will say for now is, it is so tragic that people would resort to looting and burning. But a building can be replaced. Clothing and those items can be replaced. How do you replace the life of a human being? You cannot.
A building could be restructured, can be redone. This should not happen. I’m not advocating for that or saying “Yes, this is the solution.” I’m just saying that, at least with buildings, we can rebuild. You can restructure, you can acquire new things. What you cannot bring back is human life.
Businesses should be more vocal — and use their resources to create tangible solutions
Business Insider: The sheer number of private companies that have posted messages on social media and have made statements about the unrest has been striking. What do you want to see from our business leaders in this moment?
King: I think business often is able to speak with a resounding voice and has tremendous influence. So if business came out and condemned what happened in Minnesota, and maybe some individuals have, some people have — but this should’ve happened quite a while back. I think that all of these issues are issues that we can resolve.
There’s nothing off the table, including racism. We have to have the ability to resolve them. We just have not focused on the will. When ability and will come together, there is almost nothing that cannot be achieved. There’s nothing on the table that there’s not a resolution to in this country that we call our home, in my personal point of view. But I would like business to be more vocal.
Economic inequality is at the heart of the crisis
Business Insider: What exactly would you like to be done differently going forward?
King: My father used to talk about the eradication of poverty, racism, and, he said, militarism — and I sort of modified it to “violence” — which he called “the triple evils.” My mom used them too. When our society is able to reduce and eradicate those triple evils, a lot of things will subside. We will have a much better, more just and humane society.
I think that my mother and father always believed that through nonviolent means we could build community, and somehow we’ve got to get focused back on building community. We’ve got to get through this particular crisis.
We’ve got to modify, maybe even the legal system, totally. When you think about the fact that we have a criminal-justice system that really is not just for black people, for brown people, for poor people — it works probably if you have some resources, but the vast majority of people who do not, it doesn’t work for.
Trump during the pandemic and the protests
Business Insider: How are you feeling about the leadership we’ve seen from the White House in the past few days?
King: The leadership of the White House has been inept. It was absolutely beyond insensitive to move peaceful demonstrators so the president can have a photo op at a church.
We have to find a way to cool America down, not just stoke America up by saying that we’ve got to have the military come into these communities. It’s almost like a bully — the language that bullies use.
This is not what a president should be using. There are times when, yes, the president has to be assertive and aggressive, but I know that, during this time, that’s not what’s needed. So I’m certainly greatly disappointed. It certainly does not feel right in terms of the right kind of leadership that we need at a moment like this is. I’m not even sure if it’s called leadership.
Voting is the strongest act of anti-racism
Business Insider: How can people be actively anti-racist and push this movement forward right now?
King: We must vote in larger numbers. So I think that — and I don’t mean just president — I’m talking about for local elected officials, whether it’s judges, whether it’s county commissioners, whether it’s state legislative seats, it’s board of education seats, and, of course, congresspersons and senators, along with the president.
So one of the greatest things that people can do is to be engaged in this process and cast their votes because voting matters. Look at the leadership the president provides. That should give you reason to understand why elections matter.
Forgiveness is the way forward
Business Insider: Given the unrest you experienced as a child, was there anything your father taught you that feels applicable now?
King: We’ve got to learn how to forgive. In our nation, we don’t know how to do that much. We harp and hold on to things. And when you’re angry and respond out of anger, you’re generally not going to have the best response.
I always hope that I am giving love whenever I go out into the world. Whatever my message is, I hope it comes through in the spirit of love and not in the spirit of antagonism and hate. Even if one doesn’t agree with me, I hope that they receive what I say in love.
Dad used to teach us that you can disagree without being disagreeable. That was his mantra.