Martin Luther King III Reflects on Father’s Legacy

American Icons, History, People, Traditions
on January 9, 2005
David Mudd Martin Luther King III poses in front of a portrait of his father in The King Center's Atlanta office.

Editor’s Note: This story was published in 2005, one year before Coretta Scott King died Jan. 30, 2006.

Martin Luther King III will begin Jan. 17—the day America celebrates the life of his father, the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.—by speaking at a non-denominational service at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the elder King once served as co-pastor. He’ll then join his family—mother Coretta Scott King, 77, brother Dexter, 43, and sisters Yolanda, 49, and Bernice, 41—to walk next door to lay a wreath at King’s crypt.

It will serve as a touching tribute from a son who has dedicated his life to carrying out the vision of his father who died much too young with much work left to accomplish. Not only has it become Martin King III’s personal mission, but his professional calling as well, because the civil rights leader’s eldest son serves as president and chief executive officer of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, an organization dedicated to spreading the teachings of King internationally. While he admits he’s not able to fill his father’s shoes, he is continuing King’s journey to make the world a better place.

“I know I can’t be my father,” says King, 47. “I would fail miserably if I attempted to be Martin Luther King Jr. But what I can do is to take the message that was the blueprint that he left for us and I can share it with others and hopefully take the legacy to the next level.

“Because I was raised in a family of service, I feel compelled to continue the work. You don’t really need to reinvent the wheel because we haven’t achieved all the objectives. If we can come anywhere close to what my father envisioned, I know we’ll have a better nation and world. So if I had a dream, it would be to see that vision that he articulated is manifest. I do believe everyone in America deserves a decent job with decent pay.”

“I have a dream . . .”

Born Jan. 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. was the most important leader of America’s civil rights movement from 1957 until his murder on April 4, 1968. In 1963, King delivered his most memorable speech during the March on Washington. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” he said.

Nearly 42 years later, his son says his father’s dream still has not been realized. “My father characterized most of our problems in three areas: poverty, racism and violence,” King says. “While we have made great strides as a nation and a world, we still have a long way to go before we abolish poverty. In fact, we’re going the wrong way now.

“Violence is escalating all over the world, whether it’s in schools or domestic violence or just random violence, and obviously in terms of world conflict, terrorism. We talk about racism in every genre now. We believe any form of bigotry must be abolished and we want to work very diligently to achieve that.

“We believe that if people understand the steps and principles of nonviolence and they adhere to these principles, our nation and world will become a better place.”

Becoming his own man

Following in his father’s footsteps, King has been a human rights activist for most of his adult life. He’s traveled through Africa, Europe and Asia, delivering the message of nonviolent conflict resolution for nearly two decades. “I think that when I traveled with my dad as a child and later on with my mom, I knew that ultimately I would be involved in the same kind of work,” he says. “I was greatly influenced by the work of my parents.”

From 1998 until 2003, he served as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization his father co-founded in 1957. In 2004, he took the helm of the King Center. “Coming here was in a sense like returning back home,” he says.

While King is comfortable meeting with national leaders and traveling from Mississippi to Mozambique, Africa, he admits it hasn’t always been easy being his father’s namesake. “I’ve always tried not to look at it as a burden,” he says. “There are days when it’s challenging, but for the most part it’s been positive. There are times when people say, ‘You are not like your father.’ I’m not supposed to be, and I’m comfortable in myself, but it is painful when someone says, ‘You don’t sound like your father.’ Usually my response is, ‘I’m not trying to sound like my father; I’m me.’”

During high school and college, he went by the name Marty to eliminate the obvious connection. “The tough times were when I was in college and people wanted to make me something I was not prepared to be at that time,” says the graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta.

He came into his own at age 29, when he was elected to the board of commissioners in Fulton County, Ga., in 1986. It was at this point that he began asking people to call him Martin. “Somewhere in my mid-30s is where I came to feel confident in who I was as Martin and that I was taking my father’s principles and my mother’s upbringing and synthesizing it,” he says. “While it may sound a little bit like him, it was not him; it was Martin the third.”

However, he admits that it can be difficult grappling with the long shadow cast by his father’s accomplishments. “Usually we say every generation could build onto the next,” he says. “Unless I was in another arena, it would be very difficult to overshadow what my father did. Not that that’s what my objective is, but I’m just saying that’s a challenge because everyone always says every generation should be better.

“But if we can take the vision to the next level, so that families all over the world are understanding and embracing the principles of nonviolence, then in my own personal judgment, I would have achieved something great.”

King, his hair speckled with gray, is now a leader in his own right who has achieved many great things, all done with his own style, reputation and legacy. Although he’s shy and soft-spoken, he’s extremely warm and approachable.

“My leadership style is to try to build a coalition and not be confrontational unless I have to be,” he says. “I try to build support among, first of all, my staff. If the staff doesn’t agree, I try to hear out everyone before I make a decision. Although some leaders lead dictatorially, I believe you can lead in a coalescing way. When you disagree, you don’t humiliate someone because you disagree. You want to hear their point and then you want to bring them around, so I try to use persuasion as a leadership tool and try to see the best in everyone. One of the things my dad did, I’m told, is that he was able to bring the best out of his team.”

Although Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is celebrated in more than 100 countries, could serve a reminder of his father’s absence, it’s not a bittersweet time for him. “The holiday is always joyous and fun,” the never-married King says. “The assassination day, April 4, is usually when I’m sad. For many years, I would shed tears when I was growing up on that day. It’s interesting that although our father is gone, because of the holiday and the many observances, it’s like he’s paralyzed in time. In other words, he will be forever young. That is the one wonderful thing.

“The sad thing for me and my siblings, as adults, it’s not having had the opportunity to have a conversation with him, and that’s what we’ve probably missed. Those are the things that there’s nothing you can do about, but the 10 years that we were together were incredible. Although he was gone often, Dexter and I went on trips with him. He was tremendously playful with us as his children. We all will have fond memories forever.”

The King Center was established by Coretta Scott King in 1968 to continue the legacy of her late husband. More than 650,000 people annually visit the facility, which includes a library and archives, as well as King’s crypt. The center provides educational tools for those studying Kingian philosophies worldwide, and its goals for 2005 are to launch a conflict resolution program, find new funding sources and establish an endowment to sustain the institution’s work for years to come. For more information on the King Center, visit