For all he’s seen in his life, Martin Luther King III has never witnessed something quite like the last few weeks. The photos of protests from around the world, the torn-down statues of slave traders, the number of people standing alongside and in solidarity with Black Americans—it has all made him start to wonder if something different actually could happen this time.
The oldest son of Martin Luther King Jr., King has faced questions about his father all his life. But in recent years, he’s also had to work harder to make sure his father, the civil rights icon, is remembered for what he actually said. In recent weeks, the White House and Republican congressmen have repeatedly co-opted and misrepresented King’s thoughts in an attempt to delegitimize the Black Lives Matter protests that have transpired in the streets by focusing on the destruction of property.
“What they are saying has remnants of being disingenuous, and I say that because the overwhelming majority of protesters—even doing the rioting—were non-violent and peaceful protesters,” King said. “Yes, tragically, buildings were lost. That’s so tragic. And yes, people did loot and steal clothes. But you can replace a building. You can replace clothing. But how do you restore a human being that you’ve taken the life out of? You can’t.”
King, himself a human rights advocate, will admit he has a slightly different relationship with the police than most people. “The reason being, all of my life the policemen have been used to protect us. My life has been under threat, I don’t know how many times,” he said. So he said it has been difficult for him to watch as his own daughter has become fearful of the police over time—a process that has been recently expedited by the killing of George Floyd. These days, she recently told her parents, she can’t help but worry if the police will approach her when she plays outside.
Last week, King spoke with VICE about the last few weeks—about Floyd, the protests, potential boycotts, Donald Trump, his father’s evolving legacy and where he stands on defunding the police. The interview, which has been reproduced below, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
To start, do you remember when and where you first watched the George Floyd video?
I was at home. I know I did not see it on the actual date because the actual date was the birthday of our daughter, who turned 12 years old. But in the next few days, I did see it. Actually, my wife and daughter watched it more than I did. I knew based on what had been reported that it was such a heinous act. It felt like a lynching and a murder. And so I just didn’t necessarily want to see the entire eight minutes. I did not want to see a man’s life being taken from him over a long period of time. I did hear him asking for help and calling for his mother, which, you know, just pulls on your heartstrings.
How did your daughter react to that video?
It was a very difficult moment. Her first emotion was similar to mine, which was tremendous anger—anger and frustration and hostility. She wanted to tear up something, she said. And of course, we had to sort of retain our calm. Her issue was, you know, my grandfather dedicated his life to resolving these issues. Why does this keep happening?
She heard about Breonna Taylor, who was killed in her bed. She saw Ahmaud Arbery here in Georgia. She knew about Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio—a 12-year-old kid, same age as she is now. And she knew about Eric Garner, who said he couldn’t breathe. We as a nation are inundated with these incidents. And so her point to us was, I thought my grandfather dealt with these issues. What is it that makes our society so evil, or so wrong, that Black people are constantly being targeted? And we had to sit down and explain that it’s not universally all law enforcement. There are elements of law enforcement that engage this way. And that’s why we are all doing the work that we’re doing. She’s an activist in her own right by the way. She spoke in March For Our Lives.
Right, I remember.
At that time, she was nine years old. So she’s very concerned about these activities. And I think the thing that probably bothered us most—we just learned this a couple of days ago—is when she played outside, she was concerned that the police were going to come and do something to her. In the back of her mind, there was this fear. And I’m like, Oh my god. What do you do when your child has a fear?
“To hear my daughter say that she’s frightened—I’m like, how do I protect her? I don’t know that a white child has to ever think like that. But we see it all the time with Black people.”
When I grew up, I was able to decipher between good police and bad police. The reason being, all of my life the policemen have been used to protect us. My life has been under threat, I don’t know how many times. The police were dispatched to our home. They stayed with us for months when Dad was killed. Later on, someone said they were going to kidnap us, so they accompanied us to school. Whenever there have been confrontations with the Klan when I go to cities to speak, the police have been there to protect us. I was able to know that there are good police men and women who are doing a good job protecting and serving.
So to hear my daughter say that she’s frightened—I’m like, how do I protect her and get her to understand? I don’t know that a white child has to ever think like that. But we see it all the time with Black people.
The subsequent demonstrations have been some of the largest we’ve ever seen. They’re diverse, often young, taking place in big cities and small towns and internationally in cities including Edinburgh and Sydney. How do the last couple of weeks compare to other movements in your lifetime?
This is something I have never seen. We have had protests in various cities. When Michael Brown was killed, for example, there may have been protests in a number of cities. We’ve seen sporadic protesting in maybe even 20-25 cities, but we’ve never seen over 130 cities protesting. And we’ve never seen this number of whites who were involved with protests. There’s never been a time when we were protesting, and there were not some whites. But in some cases, the overwhelming majority of those who are protesting are white. That is a whole different thing.
We’ve never seen policemen kneel and take a knee and say I empathize with you. We’ve never seen a sheriff in recent times march with demonstrators in Flint, Michigan, for example. And we’ve never seen whites universally saying Black Lives Matter. Whether it’s in London, or in Australia, or in Germany, or in Belgium, or in Ireland, or in South America, people are saying Black Lives Matter and talking about George Floyd specifically. There’s a whole new energy on the planet now. Because people saw this incident and saw this man being killed right in front of our eyes by a person that was supposed to protect and serve—not to be judge, jury, and executioner all in one.
Have you talked to the president since the start of the protest?
I have not reached out, but my belief is that there has to be dialogue with the president. I tried to reach out when he was president-elect. Before he was inaugurated, I went up to New York to meet with him about voter suppression. I had no idea that he was going to later on create a commission on voter fraud, which does not exist in the United States—or, if it does, it’s like less than one percent. But he had said he was going to have us to the White House. And although we reached out many times, it fell on deaf ears.
A lot of Republicans have referenced your father over the last few weeks as a way to delegitimize aspects of the protests around the country. Recently, the White House press secretary used your father’s words as an argument against the destruction of property. A Kentucky congressman said—and I’m just going to quote—“I’m falling victim right now to calling them protesters. A lot of them are violent looters and lawless criminals … contrast it to what Martin Luther King Jr. did.” What is it like to see Republicans co-opt your father in this way? To sort of use him to ridicule a movement that you yourself support?
First of all, what they are saying has remnants of being disingenuous, and I say that because the overwhelming majority of protesters—even doing the rioting—were non-violent and peaceful protesters. Yes, tragically, buildings were lost. That’s so tragic. And yes, people did loot and steal clothes. But you can replace a building. You can replace clothing. But how do you restore a human being that you’ve taken the life out of? You can’t. I don’t even quite get the comparison to the destruction of buildings. My father never condoned violence, but he said riots are the language of unheard. He never condoned it, as I said, but he understood it.
“[Trump] said he was going to have us to the White House. And although we reached out many times, it fell on deaf ears.”
Unfortunately, these people who are talking don’t understand that the reason the violence occurred—the linchpin, the actual catalyst—was seeing a man killed. I don’t ever think there’s a reason to kill somebody. But this was caused by police behavior. If you don’t say that first, and talk about “Well, you need to be non-violent”—without acknowledging the fact that the reason that this violence occurred was because of that—that’s fundamentally wrong. So it’s unfortunate that people co-opt Dad’s words to try to use them for their purposes.
Your sister Bernice recently noted that your dad was “one of the most hated men in America” in 1967. Now, obviously, he’s one of the most beloved. Have you noticed any changes to the way your father’s remembered over your lifetime?
After the Voting Rights Act, and certainly during the last few years, Dad was hated, particularly in ’67, one year before his death, when he made a speech about why it was wrong for us to be in Vietnam. He became one of the most hated persons on the planet, only because he said that that war was wrong and unjust and unnecessary, and talked about how we spent money on death and destruction as opposed to life and the preservation of life. So, yes, in 1968, when dad was killed, he was hated.
But when he was killed, every major person running for office came to his service. He had a relationship with Richard Nixon, most people didn’t realize that. As a child, I thought Nixon came just because he was running for office. That may have been part of it. But they had corresponded on a number of issues. So he was here. So was Robert Kennedy. And all of the other candidates who were running, most of the athletes, and many of the entertainers, they all came to Atlanta, as did hundreds of thousands of people. So I did not necessarily see the hate at that time. I think the hatred also was bolstered by the fact that cities went up in flames. People were really hating. Well, this is a result of King. But then when people begin to read and understand what he did and what he said, I believe they evolved and grew, and then began to love what this man represented.
Do you think that there’s another sort of group though? For example, I saw you were saying that your father said a riot is the language of the unheard, and a bunch of people responded to you that you’re quoting that out of context. I feel like sometimes people try to use your father to say these protests aren’t being done the “right” way.
Yeah, but I don’t think that’s what he was saying at all. I think he was saying I understand why people are rioting. I choose to use a different method and encourage people to use the different method. But I do understand. And I empathize. And that’s what you need. People need to empathize and understand this is not just something that just happened. This whole nation has been founded upon the right to protest, whether it was the [Boston] Tea Party—I mean, you can go on and on and talk about movements. Not all those movements were totally non-violent. I’m not sure that people who owned the tea thought it was a non-violent act to throw the tea overboard. [Laughs.] That was a radical act.
My father was concerned that the nation was becoming a burning house and that he was encouraging people to embrace something that was going in the wrong direction. He wasn’t saying that so that you would be more destructive, but so that you could have corrective action. If the policies that exist are diminishing for all people, and particularly for people of color and Black folk, then you have got to make a serious departure. Because certainly by now, 52 years after his death, racism should be something of the past. But instead, it has found a way to manifest. I still think the vast majority of Americans are against that kind of behavior, but Dad used to say it’s not what our enemies or adversaries do. It’s the silence of our friends. Now, that silence has become vocal. So the vast majority of people are saying this is wrong. This is unjust. This is unfair. We are better than this. We must create policy that causes immediate change with Black people and in Black communities because Black lives do matter. That doesn’t mean other lives don’t matter. A different way of saying it is Black Lives Matter Also. Black people never say that nobody else’s life matters.
One of the major sort of rallying cries that’s emerged from these protests has been “defund the police.” A lot of people say that’s too extreme, but I know your sister has said that she hopes the country will focus on “ deconstructing and reconstructing policing ,” and the Minneapolis Council recently signed a pledge to dismantle the police department and create a new public system. I wondered where you stand on the issue?
I think that every city has to decide what it’s going to do. There are cases, like Minneapolis, where the police may have to be abolished and created in another way. Philando Castile, we heard about. The whole world obviously saw George Floyd. What people don’t know about Minneapolis is there are probably 15 or 20 cases of this kind of thing that have been going on for a long time. So maybe it is in order. But Minneapolis is not the only city. There are going to have to be other cities that perhaps will have to take extreme measures to get to some level of solace for the community. And I do believe that defunding or reconstructing [the police] is one method. I just think that every community has to decide for itself.
“There are going to have to be other cities that perhaps will have to take extreme measures to get to some level of solace for the community. And I do believe that defunding or reconstructing [the police] is one method.”
The communities have to come together and say this is the kind of policing that we want to see, because we’ve seen what you’ve done. In America, by and large, the overall population of Black people is roughly 13-14 percent. But the prison population is 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 percent African-American [depending on the city and state]. How does that happen? Policemen are targeting or profiling Black people all over America. So almost all of these departments have to be changed. The attitudes have to be changed. The training has to be changed. The racial sensitivity has to be changed. Because Black people should not be 14 percent of the population and 60, 70, 80 percent of the jail population. That’s crystal clear to me.
You along with George Floyd’s family and Al Sharpton are reportedly organizing a new march on Washington in August. How did you get involved there and what do you hope to accomplish?
For one, we [want to] make sure that we address the issue of police brutality and misconduct. And I would say some of it is evolving, because in the past, we used to work to get a few hundred thousand people there. This year, I think the issue will be we may have millions of people who join, particularly if enough movement has not occurred in this country around the issue of policing, police brutality, and misconduct. But also I think we got to address the fact that 1 percent of the nation controls 50-plus percent of the wealth. We’ve got a figure out what we can do to create a scenario where all boats can be lifted. My father was talking about a living wage in 1967 and ’68. That’s why he was killed, not because he was organizing people to be able to sit in the front of buses or to be able to eat at a restaurant or be able to live somewhere. It was because he was talking about a radical redistribution of wealth. And he was talking about a living wage. We could have achieved that then had he lived, but we did not. And so we’re still at that point. How do we create a living wage? When we create the climate where people can be in a position to take care of themselves and their families, many of these issues will disappear.
One recent change has been a lot of corporations putting out messages in support of Black Lives Matter. A lot of the statements have been sort of ridiculed online. But I also saw you had previously said you hoped corporations would come out in public support and take a stand on this issue. Why is that a point of emphasis for you? What are people missing?
It’s not just the kind of lip-service support. Lip service is just saying, Okay, we support you. Black Lives Matter. That’s a good first step, quite frankly. I’m proud of that. But corporations have to do something. Now what they usually do is they send some money. They’re doing that, but you’ve got to change your structures internally. You got to put more Black people on your boards. You got to have your corporation reflect what America is from a diversity standpoint.
Black people spent over a trillion dollars in this economy last year. So if we can’t get changes right now that are reasonable and responsible, then there’s dialogue already going on about withdrawing from the economy and using our buying power and spending it elsewhere. And that’s the only thing that the power structure understands. If you stop supporting it, then it will do something dramatic to make sure that you continue to support it. So my point is that that’s something that’s not out of the realm of possibilities in terms: withdrawing economic support. That’s a non-violent form of protesting in my judgment, and I think that there are discussions that are going on all over the country about imposing this if we do not see some responsible change in a very reasonable amount of time. Some things are going to take a lot longer, but people need to see something—and something very, very soon.
It’s been a pretty tough couple of weeks for lots of Americans, especially Black Americans, where have you found inspiration if anywhere during all of this?
My greatest inspiration probably was seeing millions of people all over the world demonstrating peacefully. Just to look at people in London, who are white and not Black, who are saying Black Lives Matter. To see people in Australia. To see people in Belgium. To see people in South America and Brazil, and even though the police were operating in a confrontational way, the people were still saying Black Lives Matter. The list goes on and on of those countries. And naturally, I’m proud of the people in the United States. The only incidents that were reported over the weekend [of June 6-7] were police overreaction. It was not the people, the people were just marching and protesting and saying we’ve got to do something, we’ve got to do something. So that was inspirational.
It was also interesting to see people in the UK and other places tearing down statues of people who were slave supporters. My only issue was I believe there’s a way to do it constructively. But the people decided, Okay, you guys are not gonna do it. We’re gonna pull them down. And they did that in Virginia as well and other places here in the United States. I’m inspired to see that happening. I may disagree with the technique or the tactic that was used, but I was just amazed to see that they are people who are pulling these symbols down that don’t represent universality and progress for the planet. I think they belong in museums, quite frankly. People ought to be able to know this history. While it was painful, and hurtful to a lot of people, it is history, and you learn about history in museums, because the people who do not remember their history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.