I recently had the good fortune of spending time with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Since today is a celebration of his life and accomplishments, I believe it appropriate to publish the interview. We met in Providence, Rhode Island, in a quiet room off the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel. Only about 5′ 6½” his stocky build lent size and gravitas to his presence. He wore a dark brown suit with a thin tie and settled into the couch with a contented sigh.
MLK: “Good to be here. Don’t get around much anymore.”
ME: “Dr. King, I was surprised you asked to meet me in Providence.”
A small smile danced across his face.
MLK: “I knew it wasn’t terribly far from your home–mine either.
ME: “You know, I was pretty nervous thinking about talking to you. I feel I’m in the presence of a truly great human being.”
MLK: “I hope you aren’t nervous now. As you can see, we both have two arms and two legs.
ME: “Dr. King…”
MLK: “Martin, please.”
ME: “That might be tough, sir.”
A flicker of annoyance flashed in his bright brown eyes.
MLK: “This interview isn’t going to last very long if you insist on calling me ‘sir.’ I much prefer to be seen as a person, even a dead person. I’m getting tired of being a larger than life figure.”
ME: “Okay, s.., excuse me, Martin, but speaking of larger than life, what do you think about your monument?”
MLK: “I’ve always thought of myself as a kinder and friendlier looking man than the one made from that stone. I appreciate the thought and effort, but find the strife it’s caused from its conception onward…”
ME: “Pretty ironic.”
MLK: “Very much so. I’d rather my legacy be framed in social progress.”
ME: “In your wildest imaginings, did you ever think this country would have a Martin Luther King holiday?”
MLK: “Of course not, although being assassinated helped, I suppose. But at the time of my death, my approval rating was around 30 percent.”
ME: “You kept track of approval ratings?”
MLK: “Ahh, another shock to your fantasy about Saint Martin? As a writer who came along after me once wrote, ‘The medium is the message.’ While I don’t entirely agree with that message, it was important to understand how others saw me if I wanted my words and actions to mean something.”
ME: “Why only 30 percent, though?”
MLK: “I’m tempted to suggest that you ask the respondents, but I’ll give it a try. It was a moment in time when traditions were being challenged. When the vast majority of Americans were confused, upset, and bewildered by what was taking place around them. Stokely had rejected my non-violent approach toward change by calling for Black Power and aligning himself with the Panthers. So there was real fear among White people about Negro leaders. But I think what angered many people in 1968, including allies and friends, was my linkage of civil rights, the Vietnam war, support of unions, and a guaranteed income for everybody as the way to end poverty.”
ME: “Do you feel your non-violent approach was vindicated by the election of a Black President. Progress as a result of your efforts?”
King smiled widely before he spoke.
MLK: “It’s certainly progress but needs to be understood within a larger context.”
I nodded for him to continue.
MLK: “In the long run, the most important aspect of Obama’s presidency may be less that he is a Negro than the coalition he put together to be elected. I believe he was able to mobilize the constituencies needed to work for significant and progressive change. I’m hopeful that coalition will continue to act in concert. People of color, as we’re now known, young people, White people, women, unions, Gays. All were instrumental in Obama’s election.”
It took me a moment to realize the sound coming from the couch was laughter.
MLK: “Which is why those groups are so angry with him. He surely isn’t a progressive. Which is also why people who believe in real progress must understand that change comes from the ground up and not top down.”
ME: “You sound like a member of the Occupy Movement.”
MLK: “I really don’t belong to groups anymore.”
ME: “But it does sound like you support their cause though many people criticize their lack of organization, that their outdoor compounds were just magnets for drug addicts and the homeless.
MLK: “Causes is more accurate. And I do believe if they are to become relevant organizational development is essential, but the other criticisms–those sadden me. Homelessness in a land of this wealth? Drug addiction without real treatment alternatives? A justice system that metes out different punishments for drugs that White and Black people use? Worse–a country that turned its mentally ill onto the streets by closing down homes and institutions while spending billions for multiple wars? Those are tragedies and that’s why the broadest possible progressive coalition–including addicts and the homeless–is needed to foster real change.”
ME: “People point to the election of President Obama as evidence that we, in the U.S. live in a “post-racial” society. What’s your take?”
King’s bulky body shook and this time there was no confusion about his laughter.
MLK: “From where I listen, the words often used are ‘level playing field.’ That, and ‘post racial’ are ways to ignore the injustice that runs rampant throughout this society. Simply look at life expectancy: white males live about seven years longer on average than Black men. White women live more than five years longer than their Black counterparts. Although researchers have suggested that genetics accounts for the differences in health and not health care access, that notion has been debunked. Wages? As recently as 2010 median annual earnings of Black men were 74, 75 cents to a White male’s dollar. Less than the Constitution’s original 3/5ths valuation.
I began to ask another question but King shook me off.
MLK: “The issues facing our country are deeper than simply race–though race is certainly not simple. The issue of color is interwoven with economics and economics affect more than just people of color. It affects the White woman and her children who live in a holler without clean water, or no water at all, the laborer whose pensions have been destroyed by the upper class even as the upper class generates enormous amounts of money for itself, the government worker who no longer has the right to collective bargaining, the middle class who struggle to pay exorbitant college tuition. I could continue.
ME: “You seem pretty up to date on what’s taking place here.”
MLK: “I have plenty of time on my hands.”
ME: “So if you were able to return would you still be as committed to non-violence given everything you just described?”
MLK: “Absolutely. Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. It doesn’t require murder. A society formed from blood inevitably leads to more blood. We need nothing else than to look at history for confirmation.”
ME: “Most people don’t believe this world capable of non-violence. To use your words, ‘we need nothing else than to look at history for confirmation.'”
MLK: “You’ve lost your nervousness. Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
ME: “You didn’t have a chance to climb the stairs.”
MLK: “The assassination just strengthened my belief that a society built upon blood never leaves that blood behind–which makes it so important that change is engendered non-violently.”
Dr. King stood and I popped off my chair.
MLK: “I’m not interviewed much these days. Thank you.”
ME: “Are you kidding? This was an honor.”
MLK: “No, my friend, it was just an interview.”
“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
Martin Luther King