Martin Luther King Jr. would be stunned by the rollback of voting rights in this country and efforts to suppress the teaching of the struggle for civil rights, according to his eldest son, Martin Luther King III.
“People ask me, what do you think your father is doing? He’s not just turning over — he’s spinning in his grave,” MLK III told Deadline in a conversation at the SXSW Conference and Festivals. He imagines his late father thinking, “’What the heck is going on? Me, my team, we opened doors that should never be closed.’ And yet we’re going, it feels backwards — at least temporarily. Which is interesting because he prophetically wrote in his last book, Where Do We Go Here: Chaos or Community?, obviously he wanted us to revert to community, but we are seeing chaos constantly. Every day something else comes out that’s more extreme than the last thing. And, so, our work is cut out for us.”
King and his wife Arndrea Waters King were among the panelists at an SXSW Featured Session titled Voting is a Civil Rights Issue. Our conversation ranged from the GOP’s campaign to restrict voting access and the right wing’s disparagement of “woke-ism,” to post-George Floyd America and King’s upcoming documentary series Protect/Serve, which examines “the history of the police in America 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 of vote collection boxes, especially in areas with greater numbers of voters of color and Democrats. So-called Senate Bill 202 also sharply reduced the window of time voters could request an absentee ballot (a practice Democrats favored by a wide margin over Republican voters in 2020).
“It’s kind of sad that my dad and his team and others — John Lewis, Amelia Boynton, Josea Williams, just to name a few — knocked down barriers that would give us the right to vote, by law, through the Voting Rights Act,” King said. “And yet, 55 years after dad’s death — this is the 55th anniversary of him being assassinated in April — there are people who are literally putting in place provisions to make it harder for people to vote. Those same people, by the way, who at the national stage are talking about protecting and preserving democracy in the world while you are restricting democracy at home.”
Waters King added, “Our daughter is the only grandchild of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. She’s 14 years old, she’ll be 15 in May. And she and her peers are right now sitting with fewer voting rights, and rights period, than the day that they were born. So, when you really think about the work of her grandparents and so many others, I can’t imagine that this is what [Martin Luther King Jr.] envisioned… And the reason I say that is she was born in 2008. In 2009, the Voting Rights Act, which was the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement, was basically decimated.”
Waters King highlighted another retrograde action impacting young people like her daughter.
“Legislation that has been passed in Georgia on what can be taught in schools,” Waters King said. “She and her peers are not being taught history. I think that, in a very real sense, gives us status of where we are as a country.”
The New York Times published an article earlier this week that reported the state of Florida is reviewing social studies curricula, inviting parents, teachers, political activists and others to comb through textbooks, “not only evaluating academic content, but also flagging anything that could hint, for instance, at critical race theory.” The Times reported one publisher “created multiple versions of its social studies material, softening or eliminating references to race — even in the story of Rosa Parks — as it sought to gain approval in Florida.”
This amounts to “writing Black history out,” MLK III says flatly. He visited Tuscaloosa, Ala. in February, shortly after hundreds of high school students there “walked out of class… after they say they were told by school leaders to omit certain relevant events from an upcoming student-led Black History Month program,” the Associated Press reported. (School officials denied the students’ allegations).
“All these crowning, major struggles — the Montgomery Bus Boycott in ’55, the Birmingham campaign which led to the Civil Rights Act of ’65, the Right to Vote campaign between Selma and Montgomery in ’65. And yet you can’t teach history anymore. You can’t even talk about these things — according to what this school did.”
The Kings clearly don’t intend to be silenced and, in fact, are expanding the scope of their activism and engagement through a media partnership with Calabasas Films, founded by producer Kapil Mahendra. MLK III and Calabasas are collaborating on the documentary series Protect/Serve, which examines ways to combat police bias against communities of color. According to an examination by the Washington Post, updated as recently as this week, Black Americans continue to face a dramatically higher rate of being killed by police – more than twice the rate of white Americans or Hispanic Americans.
“You’ve got to look at how are we selecting police officers? How are we training police officers? In other words, human relations, sensitivity, diversity and several other areas. Consistent [training] — not just one and done, but over and over again — that training has to take place,” King insisted. He also advocates rotating police off hazardous beats, much like soldiers are rotated off the battlefield. He also urges independent mechanisms for investigating police misconduct.
“Seven out of 10 — maybe nine out 10 — of the cases that are brought to prosecutors come from police forces,” he noted. “So, they have a cozy relationship. How then, when a policeman does something wrong, are you expected to prosecute this? You don’t have that objectivity. You need an independent prosecutor.” He adds, “You [also] need community policing. This is what Protect/Serve should be about.”
The death of George Floyd under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer in 2020 shocked the country and caused a reckoning over systemic racial injustice.
“Corporate America was beginning to change,” King observed. “Diversity, equity and inclusion departments were funded and resources were allocated.” But progress has stalled, or even reversed, it could be argued. The national debate has switched from addressing systemic injustice to debates over “critical race theory” and “woke-ism.”
“[My father] challenged us to stay awake and stay engaged and now someone else has used wokeness as a negative concept,” King observed. “We all have to stay awake and stay engaged if we’re going to change America, to become the America that it ought to be. That was what he said. He never talked about America being great or ‘great again,’ because nobody knows when that was. But he did say America can become the America that it ought to be for all of us, by challenging us to all stay awake.”
MLK III, who lost his father when he was just 10, has seen backlash before.
“Dad used to say, we’re at a point that oppression’s being legislated. The sad part is, we’re still there, that we have not moved further,” he commented. “He also understood the inevitable backlash when there’s progress. In 1963 — 60 years ago — the great March on Washington brought labor, religious leaders, Blacks, whites, Latinos, and others together. 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 of goodwill. I’ve seen it too many times, not only in the work that we do now, but in the work that I did previously, working against hate crimes and hate groups,” she said. “There really are more people of goodwill than not.”
The work they intend to do with Calabasas Films going forward will help rally those forces of goodwill.
“We have to struggle on more than one front. Certainly, we’ll always be active doing activism work and legislatively, and also at the same time continuing to put out content that is even more impactful at a time in history when these stories are not being told.”