Martin Luther King: Forward looking icon

In interviews, King was often prescient.
In interviews, King was often prescient.
Image: StudyHall.Rocks

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

    With his death, the world lost a civil rights icon -- but also a prescient American thinker.  Remembered as a powerful orator, Noble Prize winner, author, peace activist and on and on, King (Jan. 15, 1929-April 4, 1968) also possessed keen foresight, and his words remain relevant today.
    King held forth on civil rights, of course, but also on political power and the controversial Vietnam War.  Interviewed by notable broadcasters, writers and talk show hosts, he argued his position, always unruffled and in deep, even tones. Here are four quotes from various interviews, along with links for further study:  

  •  During a 1957 interview with Martin Agronsky, host of the NBC television program, "Look Here," King spoke about the future of race relations, predicting that increasing industrialization would change the South.

     "Well, I’m quite hopeful about the future pattern of race relations. I realize that there will be difficulties, and the reactionaries of the white South will make it more difficult, in order to get to this goal of integration," King said. "But I think there are other things at work which will defeat all barriers in the long run. For instance, there is increasing industrialization and concomitant urbanization. These things will inevitably undermine the folkways of white supremacy. The white South, there are many persons, young white men ... good businessmen, and they see that bigotry is a very costly thing. I think also the Christian church will be forced to continue to take a strong stand and urge its members to match profession with practice. And also, the determination of the Negro himself to achieve freedom will be one of the greatest forces to bring about integration, and the rolling tide of world opinion will force the federal government to take even a stronger stand. So that I’m quite optimistic about it. I think we live in one of the most momentous periods of human history. These are great days to be alive. And I feel that, before the turn of the century, segregation on the basis of race will be non-existent."

  • During a 1964 interview with the writer Robert Penn Warren, the conversation turned to the possibility of sporadic violence as the struggle for racial equality continued. 

    “ The more progress we have in race relations and the more we move toward the goal of an integrated society, the more we lift the hopes, so to speak, of the masses of people. And it seems to me that this will lessen the possibility of sporadic violence,” King predicted.
     But if there are setbacks, for example, to laws intended to push forward racial equality,  “the despair and the disappointment would be so great that it will be very difficult to keep the struggle disciplined and nonviolent.”

  •  On NBC’s "Meet the Press"s in 1965, King spoke of the importance of removing barriers to voting rights and the need to end police brutality. 

       “First, there must be agreement on the part of the political power structure of the South to guarantee the unhampered right to vote. This must be done with zeal, and it must be done with good faith," King said. "And this means removing every obstacle including the poll tax. Now there are some states in the hard core South and other sections of the South that still have the poll tax in state elections, and we feel that this must be removed. Secondly, we confront the problem of brutality from sheriffs and from other police forces, from other law enforcement agents, and we feel that before demonstrations can cease, something must be done to end this kind of unnecessary abuse of police power and what we see as outright police brutality. Third, I would like to say that if our demonstrations are to stop, there must be some equality in terms of grappling with the problem of poverty.”
       (King then discussed a poverty bill. For more, see the Meet the Press website.)

  •     Appearing on "The Mike Douglas Show" in 1967, King was asked why he advised African-Americans not to fight in Vietnam. He clarified his views:

       The war was “so unjust, so abominable, so futile and bloody and costly that nobody should be fighting there,” King said.
       Douglas asked King if he thought the war could be stopped without harm to the country. Without missing a beat, King suggested unilateral withdrawal.
       “I feel that this is a possibility. After all, France withdrew unilaterally from Algeria – withdrew without a military victory. And this did not lessen France’s prestige or influence in the world. If anything, it increased its prestige in the world.”
       Douglas interrupted, “But France is not the power that this country is.”
       “I think that’s an even greater reason why we should restrain our power,” King countered. “There’s always the danger that any nation will abuse its power and I think our power must be much more than military power. We don’t need to prove to the world or anybody our military power. I think we've got to prove our moral power.”
       Asked if the country had abused its power, King said yes.
       “I think the time has come now for our leaders to say that we’ve made a grave mistake in Vietnam and we ought to take the initiative in bringing an end to this conflict. If not through unilateral withdrawal at least through a negotiated settlement. And I think there are things we can do to create the atmosphere for negotiations.”

       Sources: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Mike Douglas Show, 1967

       NBC Learn: Martin Luther King Jr. on Meet the Press, March 28, 1965

       Vanderbilt University: Robert Penn Warren/Martin Luther King Jr. transcript

       Stanford University: Interview by Martin Agronsky for the program, Look Here, Oct. 27, 1957


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