‘Learn non-violence or face non-existence'

Mumbai 19/09/2010  Picture to go with Meena Menon's story.  Martin Luther King III in Mumbai on Sunday.  Photo:  Vivek Bendre

Mumbai 19/09/2010 Picture to go with Meena Menon's story. Martin Luther King III in Mumbai on Sunday. Photo: Vivek Bendre

As the oldest son of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King III is carrying forward the legacy of his parents into the 21st century. President and chief executive of the Martin Luther King Jr. Centre for Non-violent Social Change, Atlanta, his main focus on this brief goodwill trip to India is to reconnect the ties that his father and the King Centre have had in India. Mr. King spoke to Meena Menon of racism, non- violence, and his optimism for the future. Excerpts:

Your movement is committed to civil rights, human rights and non-violence — something which your father started. How difficult is it for you to take his dream forward, and is it a burden as some say?

I have never looked at it as a burden. I have always seen it more as a blessing, to be at the helm of an incredible legacy, an opportunity; and there are always phenomenal challenges. Wherever there are great challenges, there are also great opportunities. I think this culture and our nation and the world is more violent than it has been — we are not as peaceful as we purport to be. There are wars always brewing, whether it's Middle East, whether it's the conflicts that exist here, whether its with Afghanistan or Iraq and others or things that are going on in China — there's conflict all the time and what we must learn is how to resolve a conflict without destroying either person or property. That's what the non-violent philosophy teaches us and man has just refused to learn that yet but we got to learn that. My dad used to say we must learn non-violence or face non-existence and so we are at that point now where it is crucial, critical and essential that we learn non-violence and learn how to live together as brothers and sisters.

How do you reconcile this whole philosophy of non-violence in a violent world? How will you spread Gandhi's and your father's message of peace?

Part of what we do is a lot of non-violence training which teaches people how to live together without destroying either person or property. That entails going into school systems and teaching children. Just recently we had a training at the King Centre at Atlanta. I don't know how it works in India, but in the U.S. various parts of the city are cordoned off by zip codes and in one particular area or zip code, 60 per cent of the violence is occurring. We identified 100 or 150 community leaders and brought them — mostly young people — and taught them the methods of non-violence. This is a six-day training that they will do again and again. The goal is for them to go back out into the community and teach others how to use this method so that no conflicts will be engaged in, the violence will be reduced and ultimately the goal will be for it to be eliminated. That can be done online as well but it is always better to come to the centre. At a national level, we are looking at identifying global partners, collaborators or partners; that's part of what we are talking about with some of the leadership here — how can we do work together with some of the Indian business leaders and NGOs and others to create a collaborative project that works here in India and also works in U.S. and other places around the world.

In terms of racial equality and discrimination in the U.S., which has a long history of civil rights movements, what is the situation today?

One of the issues related to race before the elections was that of election of the President. Once he was elected, the discussion changes because racism actually has reared its ugly head in a number of ways... Compared to 40 years ago it's far better now as a nation but racism is not totally resolved. For example, if you look at whether or not people of colour, and particularly black people, have access to capital — this is not a good example because of the economy, but it is an example. One of the largest problems any business has is access to capital. In the African-American community there is still no access to capital even with an African-American in the White House. The reality is that nobody can get capital much now (laughs).

That's why I said it is not a great example but it's real — very few people can get access to capital, period. How do we get business' to get start up capital, how do we promote entrepreneurship and how do we get this economy out of this tailspin? I think part of that is an equality issue.

You still have housing discrimination; these are individual incidents and this is not in thousands, that is why I say every now and then racism pops its head up. The other day a gentleman was trying to buy a home and it was a several-million-dollar home and when the owners of the property found out he was African-American they said it was no longer for sale. And he was paying a premium dollar. It was a three- to five-million-dollar home that he was going to purchase and they decided not to sell even though they had been trying to for three or four years. He was one of the few people who had capital and [was] ready to purchase. So those are the kind of things that still happen but that's not constant.

These are small examples but by and large we are making progress and I say if the economy was doing well, a lot of issues would subside but because the economy is doing so poorly, and the world economy too, the President's hands are full.

After 9/11 there has been a rise in anti-Muslim feeling. You have race and culture issues as well to deal with in it. How do you see this resolving?

Well, the media didn't help and what I mean by that is that they create an issue — it is perplexing and am dumbfounded. 9/11 was one of the most tragic incidents that ever occurred on American soil but the gentlemen accused of 9/11 — I say accused because it is a different discussion when you really flesh it out — were Muslim. Why would you condemn all Muslims and Muslim activity when you did not ask the question — somebody should ask the question — [that] Timothy McVeigh was a Christian and he blew up a building in Oklahoma City [and] nobody even brought that up.

To me that attitude is very tragic because we would take an entire religion and condemn it; and to me, again the media is responsible. I don't know if division sells.

To me the real issue is there are hundreds or thousands of teachers who are losing their jobs because schools don't have funding. So you need to be focused [on the fact] that your children are not getting educated because there are no funds for education. Not focus on one particular group or community or culture which decides to build a community centre. In the scheme of things they are Americans too. There were Muslims who were killed in 9/11 so it's kind of an issue. My grandfather used to say they are not talking about what they are talking about.

So it's a cultural issue and there is hatred and hostility. Again when we learn the philosophy of non-violence then that issue goes away because we have tolerance, we accept others. I am a Christian but I understand and not just accept I have brothers who are Muslim, I have brothers and sisters who maybe Hindu or Buddhist, maybe even some who are non-religious but they still are my brothers and sisters even though they may not agree with what my Christianity says. But I don't say if you don't believe in this there is something wrong with you. We can't exist in a world like that. Yes, you can condemn those individuals, you can condemn those particular religious leaders but how do you condemn an entire religion. There are a lot of issues brewing and there always have been. I would love to see journalists operate differently. Most recently, the man who was going to burn up the Koran — did he burn the Bible after Mc Veigh bombed the building in Oklahoma? I mean it's a double standard. First of all it is wrong to take anyone's religion or philosophy and decide you are going to desecrate it because you don't understand it.

With all this conflict and violence, what drives you and gives you the optimism in such a situation?

Every morning that I am blessed to wake up, probably the greatest inspiration I get is from my child. My wife and I have a beautiful daughter, we hope to have more children and I want to make the world better for her, so she does not have to deal with some of the issues that I am having to deal with. She is the only grandchild of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King and it's a continuation of our lineage and our legacy and that is where I derive my inspiration.

Before I had her I would draw inspiration from those in front of me, my father and grandfather and others who gave their lives so that our lives were not so difficult. These men and my mom they went through and overcame insurmountable odds to make the world better so can't I just do a little something? Now I am driven by the fact that I've got a daughter and I want the world to be better for her.

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