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Keeping the King dream alive

ICON: Dr Martin Luther King Jnr

IF YOU’RE a regular reader of celebrity mags, you’ll know that children of famous parents don’t have it easy. As well as the inevitable media scrutiny, there is often the pressure not to mess up the family name and continue a legacy.

But when you’re the child of someone who is not just famous, but regarded as a towering figure of world history, you can imagine that sense of pressure must be huge. It’s something that Martin Luther King III has had to live with all his life.

His late father, Dr Martin Luther King Jnr, was the man who changed race relations in America.

Before Dr King, a hardworking seamstress like Rosa Parks could be jailed just because she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Or a black teenager like Emmett Till could be chased by a Mississippi gang and then murdered because he may have been perceived to make suggestive remarks to a white woman.

Black Americans were not allowed to vote, forced to eat at segregated lunch counters, could not buy or rent property where they chose to, and in some parts of the rural south, were obliged to step off the pavement and stand in the street if a white person walked by. The determination of King as a civil rights leader and the vision he outlined in his historic 1963 I Have A Dream speech swept all that away.

It’s a measure of Dr King’s impact that nearly every major city in America has a school or a street named after him. And he is the only non-president to have a national holiday dedicated in his honour.

So it’s no wonder that former American President Bill Clinton described the responsibility of King’s children to carry on his legacy as a “terrible burden” and asked people to pray for them.
But King III, the civil rights leader’s eldest child, doesn’t quite see it that way.

CHALLENGES

“There are always challenges in life but out of the challenges come opportunities so I try not to look at it as pressure” he says. “Sure there are many obstacles that I’ve had to overcome.

Everything we do as a family is magnified even though we’re a private family. But it’s not a challenge when you consider that there are individuals who wonder every day where their next meal is going to come from or whether they will have a job tomorrow. When I think about those things, the pressures that I have can be managed. I don’t look at it as a burden. I look at my life more as a blessing. The world is a better place today because of what my dad and his team did.”

Like his father, King III is a passionate human rights campaigner and community activist. He is the CEO of The King Center in Atlanta Georgia, a non-profit organisation dedicated to educating people about Dr King’s nonviolent philosophy and methods.

It is this work that brought the 54-year-old to Liverpool last month. He was invited to the city for Slavery Remembrance Day, organised by National Museums Liverpool and Liverpool City Council.
He was the guest of honour at the renaming, in his father’s honour, of the Albert Dock Traffic Office. The building will eventually become part of the International Slavery Museum.

The goal of creating a better society is one that he is clearly passionate about. In 2008 King told the Democratic National Convention that his father would have been proud of Barack Obama and of the party that nominated him.

OBAMA

“When the US elected its first African American president, President Obama in 2008, that was one sign of the change in race relations” he says. “We're a much better nation but that doesn't mean we don't need to improve.”

However King has publicly warned that his father's dream will not be completely fulfilled if Americans are suffering from poor health care and education systems and a tough housing market.


CONTINUING LEGACY: Martin Luther King III in Liverpool at the renaming of the Albert Dock Traffic Office in his father’s honour

It would have been understandable if he had taken the decision to shy away from public life after the tragedy of losing his father.

King was ten years old when the civil rights leader was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968.

The emptiness created by a parent's death in such a manner can quickly fill with volatile emotions such as grief or anger.

However he looks back at that period with a calm philosophical perspective.

“The 60s was a very tragic decade for America. We lost President John Kennedy, we lost Malcolm X, we lost Martin Luther King Jnr and we lost Robert Kennedy (President Kennedy's brother and a civil rights supporter). For me personally, it was the most tragic experience of my life to lose my father and for my mother to lose her husband and for my siblings to lose their father. We lost a loved one, but the nation gained a message and an understanding of a movement that reverberated throughout the world. Obviously I miss him sorely. There's no replacement for a child losing a father at ten years old but I was so thankful that there were people in my life like the great human rights activist Dick Gregory and my grandfather Martin Luther King Senior who helped me mature into manhood.”

Prior to the civil rights movement, African Americans were once united by the experiences of overt racism. Today however Black people occupy key roles in public life and the symbolic significance of electing the country's first African American president have led some media commentators to question whether the civil rights movement is still relevant.

King believes that the global recession will provide opportunities to give new life to his father's dream.

“Today, because times are tough, I think there is a sense of the need to tackle challenges and in tackling those challenges will come greater opportunities” he says. “I believe there are young people today who are equally as focused as any of the civil rights leaders were. Every generation has its calling and I think there is going to be a calling for this current generation.”

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