Martin Luther King Jr. was appalled by the return of voting rights in this country and efforts to suppress the teaching of the civil rights struggle, according to his eldest son, Martin Luther King III.
“People ask me, what do you think your father does? He’s not just spinning — he’s spinning in his grave,” MLK III told Deadline in a conversation at the SXSW Conference and Festivals. He thinks of his late father thinking, “’What the hell is going on? Me, my team, we opened doors that shouldn’t have been closed.’ And yet we go, back and forth it seems — at least temporarily. Which is interesting because he wrote a prophecy in his last book, Where Are We Going From Here: Chaos or Community?, he clearly wants us to return to the community, but we always see chaos. Every day something else comes out that is more extreme than the last thing. And, so, we have our work cut out for us.
King and his wife Arndrea Waters King were among the panelists at a SXSW Featured Session titled Voting is a Civil Rights Issue. Our conversation ranged from the GOP campaign to restrict voting access and the right-wing’s disdain for “woke-ism,” to post-George Floyd America and King’s upcoming documentary series Protect/Servewhich examines “the history of American policing and the origins of institutional racism” and offers “solution-based discussions.”
In the Kings’ home state of Georgia, the Republican-controlled legislature in 2021 enacted major changes to state election law, including a reduction in ballot collection boxes, especially in areas with higher numbers of colored voters and Democrats. The so-called Senate Bill 202 also reduced the window of time voters can request an absentee ballot (a practice favored by Democrats by a wide margin among Republican voters in 2020).
“It’s sad that my dad and his team and others — John Lewis, Amelia Boynton, Josea Williams, to name a few — have broken down the barriers that would have given us the right to vote, legally, by Voting Rights Act,” King said. “And yet, 55 years after dad’s death — it’s the 55th anniversary of his assassination in April — there are people literally putting in provisions to make it harder for people to vote. The same people, by the way, who on the national stage talk about protecting and preserving democracy in the world while you restrict democracy at home.
Waters King added, “Our daughter is the only granddaughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. He is 14 years old, he will be 15 in May. And he and his peers sit today with fewer voting rights, and era of rights, than the day they were born. So, when you really think about the work of his grandparents and many others, I can’t imagine that this [Martin Luther King Jr.] thought… And the reason I say that is he was born in 2008. In 2009, the Voting Rights Act, which was the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement, was basically destroyed.”
Waters King featured another retrograde action affecting young people like his daughter.
“Laws have been passed in Georgia on what can be taught in schools,” Waters King said. “He and his peers are not taught history. I think, in a very real sense, that gives us the status of where we are as a nation.
The New York Times published an article earlier this week reporting that the state of Florida is reviewing social studies curricula, inviting parents, teachers, political activists and others to weigh in. textbooks, “not only checking academic content, but also flagging anything that might hint at, for example, critical race theory.” The Times reported that a publisher “created multiple versions of its social studies material, softening or removing racial references — even in the story of Rosa Parks — as it sought to gain approval in Florida. “
This amounts to “writing Black history,” MLK III bluntly said. He visited Tuscaloosa, Ala. in February, shortly after hundreds of high school students there “walked out of class… after they said they were told by school leaders to remove certain relevant events from the upcoming Black History Month program student-led,” the Associated Press reported. (School officials denied the students’ allegations).
“All these crown, big struggles — the Montgomery Bus Boycott in ’55, the campaign in Birmingham that led to the Civil Rights Act of ’65, the Right to Vote campaign between Selma and Montgomery in ’65. And anyway, you can’t teach history anymore. You can’t even talk about these things — the way this school did.”
The Kings clearly do not intend to be silenced and are, in fact, expanding the scope of their activism and outreach through a media partnership with Calabasas Films, founded by producer Kapil Mahendra. MLK III and Calabasas collaborate on documentary series Protect/Serve, which examines ways to combat police bias against communities of color. According to a Washington Post analysis, updated as recently as this week, Black Americans continue to face a higher rate of police killings – more than twice the rate of white Americans or Hispanic Americans.
“You have to look at how we elect police officers? How do we train the police? In other words, human relations, sensitivity, diversity and some other areas. Consistent [training] — not just one and done, but over and over again — that training needs to happen,” King insisted. He also suggested rotating the police to dangerous beats, similar to the rotation of soldiers on the battlefield. He also urged independent mechanisms for investigating police misconduct.
“Seven out of 10 – maybe nine out of 10 – of the cases that are brought to prosecutors come from police forces,” he said. “So, they have a cozy relationship. How come, when a police officer does something wrong, you are expected to prosecute it? You have no such objectivity. You need an independent prosecutor.” He added, “You [also] community policing is needed. This is what Protect/Serve should be about.”
The death of George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis in 2020 shocked the nation and sparked a reckoning with systemic racial injustice.
“Corporate America is starting to change,” King said. “Diversity, equity and inclusion departments are funded and resources are allocated.” But progress has stalled, or even reversed, it can be argued. The national debate has shifted from addressing systemic injustice to debates about “critical race theory” and “woke-ism.”
“[My father] We’ve been challenged to stay awake and stay focused and now someone else uses wokeness as a negative concept,” King observed. “We all have to stay awake and stay focused if we’re going to change America, to be the America it should be. That he said. He never talked about America being great or ‘again’, because no one knows when that will be. But he said that America can be the America we all deserve, by challenging the let’s all stay awake.
MLK III, who lost his father when he was just 10 years old, has seen backlash before.
“Dad said, we are at the point where oppression is legalized. The worst part is that we are still there, that we have not moved,” he commented. “He also understands the inevitable backlash when there is progress. In 1963 — 60 years ago — the great March on Washington brought together workers, religious leaders, Blacks, whites, Latinos, and others. And less than three weeks after that, the 16th Street Baptist Church [in Birmingham, Ala.] was bombed. So, [there’s] inevitable pushback.”
Arndrea Waters King still sees some reason to remain hopeful.
“At the end of the day, there are more people with good will. I’ve seen it many times, not only in the work we do now, but in the work I’ve done before, working against hate crimes and hate groups,” he said. “There are actually more people with good will than not.”
The work they intend to do with Calabasas Films in the future will help rally those forces of goodwill.
“We have to struggle on more than one front. Certainly, we will always be active in activism and legislative work, and at the same time continue to put out content that will be more impactful at a time in history when these stories are not being told. “