(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.
As for racism, there have been positive strides in the right direction, but children are still not judged by the content of their character. Instead they are profiled for the color of their skin. You need look no further than Trayvon Martin and the disheartening verdict in the Zimmerman trial to know that racism is still the thorn in America's side.
TR: And what of militarism and violence?
MLK III: Well, this is difficult to say, because though my father would be extremely proud of President Obama, on both principled and symbolic grounds, I believe he would also challenge the president on things like the drones program, which has unleashed seemingly unfettered violence on communities in Africa and the Middle East. I am grateful to have a president, unlike George W. Bush, who is not quick to wage war. President Obama is thoughtful, methodical, patient and wise. But the military-industrial complex that exists around him is dangerous and unyielding of power. This is an issue that belongs in the public debate.
TR: What initiatives are you currently working on or engaged in to inspire the next generation of civil rights leaders? Are you encouraged by young voices and those who were vocal at the March on Washington anniversary, many of whom were not yet even born or conceived in 1963? And what is your message to them?
MLK III: My organization, Realizing the Dream, is partnering with the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network to address the most pressing issue facing us: voting suppression. Because this is not about voter-ID laws; this is about voter-suppression laws. To that end, we are going on the road to states like Texas and North Carolina to challenge new voter-suppression efforts that sprung up in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.
This is the most important civil rights issue of our day — just as it was 50 years ago. Because without the right to vote, we wouldn't have Barack Obama. Without the right to vote, we wouldn't be able to challenge "Stand your ground" laws. Without the right to vote, we'd have no ability to effectively address misguided policies like stop and frisk.
And as for the next generation, I am most inspired by the young boy Asean Johnson, who spoke on Saturday. This is a boy who is 9 years old, who is already engaged in and articulate on matters of social justice. I realize that civil rights giants like the Rev. Joseph Lowery and Al Sharpton spoke on behalf of people of my generation, and Ben Jealous of the NAACP speaks for the generation after us, but my own daughter and young people like Asean Johnson speak for the generation that is to come. That makes me proud. And it shows me that the dream is awakening. And my message is: Open your eyes. Don't sleep.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington, Arise America and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.