Martin Luther King III looks back 50 years to icon who was 'Dad'

The global civil rights icon, who is being commemorated this week, will always be “Dad” to the son who bears his name.

“We tossed the football in our front yard; we would ride bicycles; we would play baseball from time to time,” Martin Luther King III told The Hill. “In his suit and his shoes and his shirt, he would maybe loosen his tie and ... we just played.”

King was only five years old when his father, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., gave the “I Have A Dream” speech that has now passed into history. He was too young to attend the original March on Washington, which took place 50 years ago Wednesday.

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“What I do remember, though, was when they came home — Mom and Dad — there was a lot of excitement. They were very excited about what had happened, very proud of the fact that people had come together,” he said. “Americans from all walks of life had come together with a peaceful agenda and stood up for jobs and freedom.”

On Wednesday, President Obama will speak from the spot where King’s father delivered his address a half-century before. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter will also speak.

King is the oldest of the three surviving children of the civil rights leader and his late wife, Coretta Scott King. An older sister, Yolanda, died in 2007. He has a younger brother, Dexter, and a younger sister, Bernice.

Martin Luther King III has worked on a variety of civil rights and political causes. He set up the Realizing the Dream foundation, which ultimately merged with the King Center. He serves as a board member of the Drum Major Institute, a progressive think tank.

On Saturday, he joined with the Rev. Al Sharpton to organize an event at the Lincoln Memorial, where he called for a new commitment to fulfill his father’s vision.

“The task is not done. The journey is not complete,” he told the crowd.

His life is destined to be lived in the shadow of his father, however — an inevitability given Dr. King’s standing.

His father would explain to him, even as a very young child, the struggle he was engaged in, King said. He made sure to describe it in terms that would make sense to his young son.

One reference point was an amusement park near the family’s home in Atlanta that was segregated during the first years of Martin III’s life.

“For many years, we would pass by Funtown taking him to the airport, and we could not go, in the early ‘60s. But Dad would say, ‘I’m working every day to make it possible for you to go to Funtown.’”

The civil rights leader lived to see that day come and took his children as soon as he could.

“Dad was so excited, taking us on every ride and, I mean, it was just a wonderful experience: riding the bumper cars. And it probably was a stress reliever for him because, at the time certainly, I couldn’t understand the pressure that he was under,” his son said.

King paid tribute to both his parents who, he said, shielded him and his siblings from the bitterest hatreds aimed at the civil rights movement and its leaders.

“But, you know, you can’t be in an environment ... where there is a lot of trauma without actually feeling some of it,” he recalled. “For example, my siblings and I sometimes would answer the phone. And voices would be on the phone threatening our family and saying ugly words to whoever answered the phone. So, even as children, we were not totally sheltered.”

Whatever sense of sanctuary the Kings preserved for their children was immolated on April 4, 1968. Dr. King was fatally shot while standing on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. A white racist, James Earl Ray, was arrested and convicted of the crime. He died in prison in 1998, aged 70.

Those facts are well-known. Martin Luther King III’s memories are much more intimate.

“I was actually watching television. Unfortunately, it was flashed across the news and the story said ... ‘Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has just been shot.’ And so naturally we froze — petrified, in one sense. [We] ran back to our mom’s room, and she was preparing herself to go to Memphis because she had already received a phone call. And she left.”

Coretta King got to the airport in Atlanta, only to be told that her husband had died from his injuries. Rather than proceed, she returned home to break the news to her children.

“I think the older ones were still up when she returned home,” her son said. “Bernice would have been five, our sister, and she may not have told her that night. But she certainly told the older ones, which were Yolanda, Dexter and I.

“That was the most devastating incident in our lives,” King added. “You are 10 years old; you don’t know what’s going to happen; your father has been taken away from you. And so, for a moment, it seemed as if everything stopped.”

King said that he and his family never hated their father’s killer, firm in the belief that doing so would traduce the principles of forgiveness and nonviolence for which he had lived and died.

As for the nation at large, “We have made incredible strides around race,” King said. “Certainly, between now and 1963, it is a dramatically different nation.”

Even so, episodes like the killing of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman crystallize King’s view that much more still needs to be done to overcome racial inequalities.

“Have we totally absolved ourselves from race? The answer is absolutely not, and I think that’s what the Trayvon Martin decision shows,” he said. “He was the victim, and yet there seems to not be any justice.”

He added: “People who say that race was not engaged in this, this trial, I don’t quite understand how you can say that when in fact ... one of the jurors came out — the first one — and said that she didn’t believe any of the testimony of the lead witness. ...They assumed, I guess, that Trayvon Martin was the thug and the perpetrator, when he was just trying to get home.”

Many other problems continue to afflict black Americans, King noted, including disproportionate rates of poverty and unemployment. This, he insisted, was part of the reason why his father’s message still resonates.

“In ’63, we had 20 million people living in poverty. Today we have approaching 60 million living in poverty,” he said. “Dad’s message was relevant 50 years ago, but it is relevant in the future.”

Does he still miss him?

“Oh absolutely,” he said. “I was 10 years old, so I did get to spend a fair amount of time [with him] ... I did get to know him,” he said.

“But it would be wonderful to be able speak to him as an adult.”