by Agueda Pacheco Flores
Exactly 60 years ago, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. checked into the very same hotel where Monday, Nov. 8, his eldest son stood, echoing his father’s dreams of a more equitable country.
“I wasn’t given any guidance exactly in terms of how long to speak, so how long do y’all have?” Martin Luther King III said to laughter under a crystal chandelier at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, surrounded by media.
King III’s visit to Seattle culminates the Northwest African American Museum’s (NAAM) three-day event MLK60, which commemorates the 60th anniversary of Dr. King’s visit to Seattle in 1961. Like his own visit through Seattle then, the three-day event was packed with activities including an opening ceremony, vaccine drive, and book giveaway at Garfield High School on Saturday, as well as a community and performance event at the historic Mount Zion Baptist Church.
“It is essential that we have greater awareness of the continuing injustices to humanity, even today, and at the same time remember the significance of Dr. King’s message and the impact he made all those decades ago. That message is relevant now as ever before,” said LaNesha DeBardelaben, president and CEO of NAAM, in a press release.
The press event preceded King III’s keynote address at the University of Washington later in the day. His father, Rev. Dr. King, also spoke at UW’s Meany Hall 60 years ago. The presser was attended by community members and state politicians including State Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-30, of Federal Way.
While Rev. Dr. King only visited Seattle once, his legacy and influence is deeply ingrained within the community. Since his visit in 1961, an elementary school in the South End was renamed in his honor, as was Empire Way (now Martin Luther King Jr. Way). Most significantly in 1999, the county was officially renamed in honor of the late civil rights leader, who was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. King County is the only county in the country named in honor of the reverend and civil rights leader.
At the press conference, King III addressed many of the most pertinent issues and movements facing the nation, including police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, voting rights, and immigration, just to name a few.
“There are so many things going on in our nation and really in our world as we attempt to navigate a very difficult time,” he said, pointing to the last book his father wrote, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community.
In his opening remarks, King III recalled what he saw at the steps of Congress on Jan. 6 this year.
“We saw chaos of the worst in America on Jan. 6, where Americans came to Washington with the intent, it felt like, of trying to overthrow the government, but we see the best of America from time to time; also, a lot of what we see as the best of America goes unprinted in newspapers.”
King III, who served on the Fulton County Commission in Georgia from 1987 to 1993 and currently chairs the board of the King Center, a nonprofit that aims to spread the lessons of nonviolence globally, said his father wrote that “while we are nowhere near where it should be yet, we are making strides every day.”
Among the questions King III answered at the event was what people can learn today from the lessons his father taught more than 60 years ago.
He was quick to point to the work his civil rights think tank the Drum Major Institute, where he is chair, has done on police brutality and misconduct following the widely publicized death of George Floyd.
“We saw activism all over the nation, certainly a lot here in this city of Seattle,” he said. “We saw activism all over the world. … Consciousness was aroused, was awoken, and people said we want action now and that Black Lives Matter, but we also encouraged people to go out and vote; people voted like they never voted before.”
In Georgia, his own state, for example, on Jan. 5, 2021, he said people voted in their first African American senator as well as their first Jewish senator.
But since then, he says more than 1,000 restrictive voting rights bills have been introduced across the country. Nineteen states, he says, have passed those regressive voting rights bills, including Georgia.
“There’s nothing more important that we could be focused on at this time than expansion of voting rights,” King III said. He added that was critical to an “agenda that works for American people and provides protections for American people, that takes the tax burden or at least reduces the tax burden on the masses.”
It’s why just last week, he said, he, his wife, and his daughter were arrested at the White House. The three were advocating for the expansion of voting rights and protesting against regressive voting bills currently up for debate across the country.
King III also said he was adamantly opposed to the filibuster, which has been used throughout history to stop anti-lynching and civil rights legislation from becoming law.
“What kind of democracy [is it] where you can’t even discuss something which is fundamental to all of us: the right to vote,” he said in regards to the Freedom to Vote Act. “This is wrong.”
At one point, Rev. Paul Benz of Faith Action Network asked King III about the legislative bills that take aim at police brutality in Washington State as well as the disparity between the number of available affordable housing that is currently under construction in the South End compared to the North End.
King III said there needs to be a broader conversation about the difference between defunding the police and restructuring the police, especially at a time when crime is up across the country.
“I think words are important and the concept of defunding is not clearly understood, and you really can’t make people understand that, but people can understand restructuring,” he said. “Defund does not sound like the right thing to do when crime is off the charts everywhere.”
He said police need deescalation, sensitivity and diversity, and human relations training and that it needs to be constantly reinforced and that the legislative bills Benz mentioned are a step in the right direction.
“There are elements in police departments that harbor provisions that are racist and do target Black folk, that has to be changed,” he said. “So we need action and action now.”
As for affordable housing disparities, he said, “We should be more equalized; I don’t know about the specifics, but number one: Where is the need?”
“The need should dictate where the affordable housing goes,” he said.
As for the future of the civil rights movement, he said he looks to the young people and has been impressed by the leadership of young women, from the Black Lives Matter movement to the #MeToo movement.
“I look to the young people,” he said. “We’re inspired by our children and grandchildren … It’s a different kind of energy after the tragic death of George Floyd — I’m very proud of these young people, but it’s a whole different kind of energy that we’ve never seen.”
Agueda Pacheco Flores is a journalist focusing on Latinx culture and Mexican American identity. Originally from Querétaro, Mexico, Pacheco is inspired by her own bicultural upbringing as an undocumented immigrant and proud Washingtonian.
📸 Featured Image: Seattle veteran civil rights advocates Larry Gossett (center) and Eddie Rye Jr. (right) meet with Martin Luther King III Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel to commemorate the 60th anniversary of his father Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Seattle. (Photos: Susan Fried)
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