MLK III: Father’s Dream Still Unfulfilled

King's eldest son talked to The Root about the new generation's fight for equality and justice.

Martin Luther King III (Nikki Kahn/Getty Images)
Martin Luther King III (Nikki Kahn/Getty Images)

(The Root) — On Aug. 28, 2008, 45 years to the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, the slain leader’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, spoke at the Democratic National Convention and celebrated the ascendance of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. King said that his father would be “proud of Barack Obama … and proud of the America that will elect him.”

But the renowned human rights activist prophetically warned that his father’s dream was incomplete because of issues like endemic poverty and disparate equity in the American judicial system. King reiterated these sentiments last weekend during his address at a commemoration celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington: “The task is not done. The journey is not complete. We can and must do more.”

This, as his father first explained, is “the fierce urgency of now.”

Martin Luther King III is CEO of Realizing the Dream, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating poverty, building communities and fostering peace through nonviolence. He spoke to The Root ahead of President Obama’s speech today (Aug. 28), the actual 50th anniversary of his father’s seminal address.

King III talked passionately about the need to renew the Voting Rights Act, his concern about the disparate treatment of young black males in criminal justice, the symbolic significance and cultural legacy of the March on Washington and why the ghost of Trayvon Martin haunts the dream of his father.

The Root: Americans tend to romanticize your father’s “I Have a Dream” speech, especially the part where he envisions a world in which his sons and daughters will one day live in a world where “they are not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” As his son, where do you think the American democratic experiment stands in relation to his dream? How far have we come, and how far have we yet to go?

Martin Luther King III: There are many in our nation who thought that the civil rights movement was done. They saw the election of Barack Obama as a moment ushering in a postracial era in American history. But what happened? You’ve seen a backlash.

Leaders of the Republican Party have demonized the president as an outsider, as if he doesn’t belong in the Oval Office. The Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act, which undermines the very work my father gave his life for. And Trayvon Martin has met the same fate as Emmett Till — not just in death, but by virtue of an unfair verdict that aimed to render his life less valuable. This is enough to show that the dream is not yet fulfilled and the mission is ongoing.

TR: So what are the civil rights issues of our day? What is the future of the dream?

MLK III: The dream remains unfulfilled, but it is still very much alive. And the issues, sadly, have not changed. My dad spoke incessantly about the “Triple Evils.” These are poverty, racism and militarism. My father wrote, “There is nothing new about poverty,” but what is new is “that we have the resources to get rid of it.” It seems that fact remains lost on the international community, and our nation is failing to address issues of homelessness, unemployment and food insecurity. My father wanted to see a full-employment society, but income disparities are making us more separate and unequal.