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Walking in the Footsteps of a Giant

Martin Luther King III carries on his father's legacy

Shortly after the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington, Martin Luther King III traveled to the nation's capital for the dedication of a new memorial honoring his father's life and legacy. When it was officially unveiled on Oct. 16, 2011, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial became the first on the National Mall to pay tribute to an African American, and the only memorial not devoted to a president or a war. The four-acre plot it sits on along the Tidal Basin is close to where King delivered his soaring "I Have a Dream" speech.

See also: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. 

MLK National Memorial

The memorial's "Stone of Hope" depicts the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — Photo by Michael Reynolds/EPA/Corbis

Today, Martin Luther King III believes that the $120 million memorial will inspire visitors from across the globe. King, who was 10 when his father was assassinated in 1968, has dedicated his life to his dad's causes. Now 53, he is the president and chief executive officer of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. Here, he talks about the memorial, shares a few childhood memories and chats about some upcoming projects.

Q: Your father has been honored numerous times, including the Nobel Peace Prize, Time's Man of the Year and a federal holiday to mark his birthday. How does a national memorial rate among the other tributes?

A: It's a very special honor. When the King holiday was enacted [in 1983], I thought, well, this is about the highest honor a citizen can achieve. But a major memorial of this scale on the National Mall brings his legacy to another level. The nation's capital hosts thousands of visitors from all over the world, and this will be one of the major attractions. In a sense this memorial will globalize my father's legacy.

Q: Do you think the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial captures the enormity of his contributions to our nation?

A: In a symbolic sense, yes, since it is a major memorial. Viewing a statue can be inspiring and uplifting, but it can't really capture the details of his story and the philosophy that empowered his leadership. The King Center in Atlanta specializes in educating people about my father's life, work and teachings, and we have resources and programs available for that purpose.

Q: What are you currently focusing on at the King Center?

A: One of our most significant projects is the digitization of the King Library and Archives holdings, to make this unique resource available to people all over the world via the Internet. Anyone, anywhere in the world will be able to study my father's philosophy and methods of nonviolence in great detail so they can apply his teaching in their nonviolent struggles for justice and human rights.

Q: Are we any closer to achieving his dream?

A: Yes, we are closer in some respects. There is more racial integration in American life and many more people of color serving as elected officials and corporate leaders than there were during my father's time. But there is also reason for concern about new forms of racial oppression, such as measures to make it harder to vote, racial profiling and crushing public worker unions.

Next page: Parallels between President Obama and Dr. King. »

Q: Who today, in your estimation, carries on Dr. King's legacy as a moral crusader?

A: There is no one leader. There are people of conscience all over the world, famous leaders, as well as unsung heroes and "sheroes," who are carrying forward the nonviolent movement for freedom and human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma comes to mind as an outstanding example, along with the courageous nonviolent protesters and organizers in Egypt and Bosnia and many other places.

Q: Do you see any parallels between President Obama and your father?

A: President Obama certainly has an impressive gift for eloquence, and he has a global vision, as did my father. He doesn't rattle easy, and he doesn't harbor animosity, which were also characteristics my father had. But my father's arena was far broader than politics.

Q: Most people remember Dr. King as a civil rights pioneer and a spectacular speechmaker. How do you remember him?

A: I remember him as my dad, a man who loved his family and made an extra effort to give us quality time, when he was home. I think he realized that his children needed a little extra attention from him, since his work was dangerous and took him on many travels. So he was always fun to be with.

Q: How much time did you get to spend with him at home?

A: Quite a bit. When he was there, my brother, Dexter, and sisters, Yolanda and Bernice, kept him pretty busy. We even bugged him when he tried to catch a little nap, something I am now experiencing with my daughter. He would play games and enjoy sports with us. He also took my brother and me on a couple of the movement campaigns so we could have a sense of what he was doing.

Q: It was recently announced that you're a cofounder of Bounce TV, a new broadcast TV network for African Americans. What type of programming will Bounce offer when it debuts in September?

A: We want to showcase the best of African American culture to the widest possible audience. Bounce TV will carry a wide range of programs, drawing from the arts, drama, music, sports and current events.

Q: You're also an executive producer on an MLK biopic that DreamWorks and Warner Bros. is developing for the big screen. Where are you with that project?

A: I've seen parts of the script. It's very much a work in progress, and I have high hopes that it will inspire the younger generation to study and emulate my father's example and teachings.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to see done to honor your father?

A: The greatest honor is yet to come — the fulfillment of his dream and the creation of the beloved community, a worthy challenge for us all and for the coming generations.

Also of interest: AARP's Black Community page. »

Craigh Barboza is a writer in Washington, D.C., and the editor of

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