On June 5, 1963, two months before the March on Washington, about five years before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Fort Wayne's Scottish Rite Auditorium. It was two months before King's iconic “I Have a Dream” moment, but he was already known as a leader of the effort to win basic civil rights for black Americans. His message here was tailored to an overflow crowd that was perhaps a third white, and it carried a sense of the wider vision King had for the nation's future.
“We will win our freedom and win you in the process,” King said that night. “We will develop a divine discontent about discrimination in all its forms, even the subtle form in Indiana. We will speed the day when all men join hands and sing, free at last.”
Say his name today, and the soundbites begin to echo, the videos begin to roll. But what did King really accomplish? What would he say is still left undone? And what was King – the man, not the icon – really like?
If anyone can answer those questions, it is his son and namesake, Martin Luther King III, who will speak Wednesday at the Embassy Theatre from behind the same lectern his father used that night exactly 56 years ago.
Ten years old when his father died, the man who introduced himself in a telephone interview as Martin King is 61.
He, too, has spent his life on the quest for social justice.
“Dad had a phenomenal vision of where America could go,” King said. In the dozen years or so he was in the public eye, the elder King and his allies saw passage of laws outlawing overt discrimination in public accommodations, schools and the workplace, and asserted the right to vote, his son noted.
“Certainly we're in a better place than we were in 1963,” he said.
Much is left undone, but that truth has become a truism. King goes further.
“No one possibly could have projected that we would be going backward instead of forward,” he said, citing the turmoil over immigration and political discourse that encourages hostility and racism and distorts the truth.
A key, King believes, is getting ordinary people to become more involved in determining their own future. “We start that process at the ballot box,” he said. But change can't be brought through just one party or one ideology. “It just has to be people who are willing to work together for the good of the nation.”
The younger King knew Martin Luther King Jr. as a busy parent who made the time he could spend with his children count. “My brother and I would go to the YMCA with him maybe once a week,” King said. “He taught us to swim. I remember playing baseball in the front yard. ... We rode bikes together in Atlanta. We traveled with him in the context of his work.”
But “we were sheltered, to some degree,” King recalled. “My mom and dad did the best they could.” The kids knew the family sometimes received threatening phone calls, but they didn't understand the degree of hatred and danger their father faced.
It wasn't until his father's funeral in 1968 that Martin III fully realized Martin Jr.'s impact.
“Richard Nixon was there,” he recalled. “Robert Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, Wilt Chamberlain. I remember him at the funeral,” King said of the NBA superstar. “He was so tall.”
In the decades since, King has worked to keep his father's message alive and make it relevant today.
“Some years ago, when I spoke in places where my father had spoken, it was intimidating,” King said. “Now, it's become a great honor to stand where he stood.”
Violence, intolerance, poverty in the midst of plenty – the problems his father once confronted are still a part of life in cities such as Fort Wayne. King can make you believe confronting challenges with his father's blend of nonviolence, compassion and even love can still work. “Somehow, we've got to get back on the constructive path,” he says. “People have to feel like there is hope.”
Martin Luther King III will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Embassy Theatre. Gospel stars Yolanda Adams and Tramaine Hawkins will sing.
Admission is free, but requires a ticket. A freewill offering will be taken to support the One Church-One Offender program. A limited number of seats remain available at the Embassy box office.