Jan. 17, 2010 -- On Monday, America will celebrate -- if that's the right word -- Martin Luther King Day. Today, there are two generations of Americans who are too young to personally remember Dr. King as he led what would become known as the Civil Rights Movement.
I am not too young. I can recall Dr. King vividly from my childhood. As a black person, he was not a civil rights leader. He was my leader. I remember my father bringing home a copy of Time magazine with King on the cover. He had just won the Nobel Peace Prize. It was 1965. My father grew up in the segregated South, and he was amazed that King had won this great honor. He wanted us to keep that magazine as a memento. (It somehow got lost in the ensuing years.)
Today, Dr. King is widely revered by all Americans. When I was a child, I knew him as a figure of considerable controversy, reviled -- not revered -- by many white Americans. He was controversial for the tactics and achievements that are now granted as just and reasonable. He agitated, demonstrated and argued for equal rights for black Americans and for all Americans. As the hip-hop music producer Russell Simmons put it, in his own lifetime King was a "rebel."
Dr. King was concerned not just with civil rights for black Americans but moral justice for all Americans. He criticized the Vietnam War. At the time he was killed, he was in Memphis in support of a sanitation workers demanding better pay. He was planning for Poor People's March on Washington, D.C.
After Dr. King was shot and before his death was announced, I remember too seeing on television the powerful climax of the speech he had given just the night before. In some ways, that speech is more indelibly etched in my mind and memory than his more famous "I Have A Dream" speech of 1963.
I read later that King was exhausted that night, April 3, 1968. He begged off speaking but finally agreed to address the audience at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple Church of God. His final words are chilling to hear or read even today:
"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life," he said. "Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!"
The next day, Martin Luther King was killed by an assassin's bullet. He was just 39. Had he lived, he would have turned 81 on Jan. 15. Recently, I sat down separately with three African-Americans -- Faye Wattleton, 67, the former head of Planned Parenthood; Cory Booker, 40, the mayor of Newark, N.J.; and Russell Simmons, 52, to get their thoughts and reflections on King and what he meant to them. It was as much a conversation as an interview. Here are some excerpts:
Ron Claiborne: You remember the '63 speech? Where were you?
Wattleton: I do. I was at that time an undergraduate student in nursing at Ohio State. And it was afternoon, early evening. And I was passing medications in a patient's room. I was just riveted. I was, it was almost as though glue had suddenly attached to the bottom of my feet, and I just could not move. It was just such a compelling moment.
Claiborne: And it, obviously, it reached that crescendo with the litany of "I Have a Dream." Do you remember that?
Wattleton: I do remember that crescendo. You know, I happened to be a child of Southern immigrant parents. My mother was from Mississippi, or is from Mississippi, my father was from Alabama. He speaks about conditions in Mississippi and Alabama. They were really the poster children for the bad public laws that segregated, according to race, in our country.
Claiborne: Dr. King envisioned a future, an indefinite future, when there would be full equality legally and for opportunity, you know, the vestiges of racism would be expunged. Are we there, now?
Wattleton: No, we're not there now. And in spite of the fact that we have an non-white president, we still have a long way to go to change attitudes that are deeply embedded in the way we perceive one another.
Claiborne: Well, do you believe that we're at a point where a person's character, the content of their character is more important in how they are judged than the color of their skin?
Wattleton: No, I don't think that we're at that point. I think that we're at the point where it is more likely that character may be judged, but there is ample evidence that color of the skin trumps character.
Claiborne: What do you believe is the legacy of Martin Luther King 40 or almost 50 years later?
Wattleton: Well, we're still talking about him. This interview is evidence that the impact that he had on this country, the example that he set, the wisdom of the strategies that were implemented at that time, the legacy is still with us.
One of the aspects of the "I Have a Dream" speech is that there is not one word that says "woman" in the entire speech. The speech reflects about brotherhood, about man, about mankind, and women were not a part of the hierarchy, of the power structure of that civil rights time.Claiborne: Martin Luther King talked about the arc of history being long and bending toward justice. Does the arc of history bend from Martin Luther King to Barack Obama being president, making it possible that there be a non-white president?
Wattleton:Oh, absolutely. I agree with you that the arc of history from Martin Luther King bending toward Mr. Obama's presidency is, in my mind, irrefutable.
Claiborne: What was the most important contribution to America and African-American of Dr. King's life and struggle?
Wattleton: I think the most important contribution of Dr. King's life is that he created a symbol. He was a symbol for, for racial justice, for non-violence, for the possibility to move people forward, to compel people to come together who might not otherwise see common cause.
Claiborne: Do you remember anything of, firsthand or your parents talking about, the speech Dr. King gave in 1963?
Simmons: I don't know that I have a firsthand recollection of the speech, but his legacy has been a great inspiration to me. It's affected me deeply and it's kind of guided me in many ways. But he was a troublemaker when he was alive, and he said things that challenged everybody. He was an honest voice. He had a straightforward vision. And he realized that the best way to make people change is through loving them.
Claiborne: Do you remember when Dr. King was killed?
Simmons: Yeah, just a little bit. I went to school that day, and I remember the people were very upset. I went to an integrated school. I was being bused back then.
Claiborne: Looking back, from the perspective of today, what do you think Dr. King's life, the message of his life was? What was the message of his struggle that he led?
Simmons: Well, Dr. King is an inspiration to me. As you know, I run five charities. One of my philanthropic investments is kind of a social investment as well as the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. He would stand up for other groups, and he would think that what you did for others is what you would get as a result. You would receive what you gave. The inspiration that I get from him is to go out and lift other people's burden and that will then change your circumstances.Claiborne: Do you think younger African-Americans really appreciate what his life and struggle and leadership meant today, or is it just the name of a street and a holiday?
Simmons: I think that young people, African-Americans and others, recognize that Dr. King was a figure that promoted peace in the way maybe Gandhi has an image. He's a statement of peace.
Claiborne: Do you think there would be an African-American president today were it not for what Martin Luther King did and said and how he led his life and led this movement?
Simmons: I think that Dr. King was a great part of what led to us having an African-American president. And I don't know that there would be an African-American president if it were not for Dr. King's work.
Claiborne: Is this an equal society for all people, today?
Simmons: I think there's a lot of suffering in the minds of African-Americans due to their history. And I think there's a lot of people who have stereotypes of African-Americans that limit their ability to see African-Americans in some leadership roles or some roles.
Claiborne: Do you believe that today, 2010, Dr. King's dream is fully realized?
Simmons: I would absolutely not say that his dream is realized. The integration that kids aspire to is not a reality.
Mayor Cory Booker
Claiborne: Did your parents talk to you about Dr. King? Did you learn from them, did you learn in school, out of your own curiosity?
Booker: My parents really were the ones that taught me about Dr. King. I had cassette tapes of the speech when I was growing up that I used to listen to over and over again. In many ways, his oratory inspired me not just to the values and the ideals but his ability to call to the conscience of a country. That really touched and inspired me as a young person. And here I was growing up in a time when that era had sort of passed, but he still was calling me as I played it over and over and over again.Claiborne: In the speech, Dr. King talks about the dream when blacks and whites could live together truly as brothers and sisters, when his daughters would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Are we there now, in 2010, do you believe?
Booker: We're a lot further along, but we still have work to do. We're still a nation that in many ways exemplifies the highest of human values.
Claiborne: Does the arc of history also bend from his life to Barack Obama as president, to Cory Booker as mayor of Newark?
Booker: Look, I would say absolutely yes, but let's not just draw dots between an African-American and an African-American. King never said I'm marching for black justice. He said I'm marching for justice, for justice for our country, for our nation to fulfill its hope and promise that we all have.
And King was not easy. There's nothing simplistic about him. He was a person that often went across the grain of our consciousness and forced us into positions of discomfort, so that we could wake up to the larger urgencies of the time. I think we need to remember him for the totality of who he was. He was not someone seeking racial justice, simply. He was looking for a deeper, richer, more textured, just democracy here in the United States of America.
We have come a long way, but more than anything, I think Martin Luther King Day should be a time where we gird ourselves, where we take strength and solace from the past but allow it to inspire us for the work that still needs to be done.
Claiborne: What was special about his oratory?
Booker: The most powerful oratory that I see that's out there in the history of humanity is that oratory that pushes us to expand our vision, a moral vision of what's possible, and challenges us and motivates us and demands that we do something to make that expanded moral vision real. And that's the power of King. He was a motivating force. He awakened the moral giant within each of us and demanded action and inspired us to do so.