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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Interview With Martin Luther King III

Aired August 22, 2003 - 20:16   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: It was August 28, 1963, nearly 40 years ago, that the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spoke the words "I have a dream" to about a quarter million people during the March on Washington.
His words and his dream still define the search for social justice in America and around the world. There was a ceremony today on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial commemorating the March on Washington. And members of Martin Luther King's family was there.

Martin Luther King III joins me from Washington, D.C. this evening. He is the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Good evening. It is nice to see you. And thanks for joining me.

MARTIN LUTHER KING III, PRESIDENT, SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE: Good evening and thank you for the opportunity.

O'BRIEN: It must be a very difficult time, in some way. Every anniversary, your father is honored for his powerful words. And, at the same time, it has to be, for you and your family, a reminder of his very violent death.

KING: Well, no, we try not to focus on the negative aspects.

Certainly, it is almost impossible not to sort of think about it. But it is wonderful that tributes and honors are paid to him, as the one today, where his spot, the spot where he stood when he delivered the "I have a dream" speech, is now dedicated. And people will come and be able to see this etched in history for generations yet unborn.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk a little bit about progress. Assess it for me.

Do you feel that you're hopeful as far as opportunities for African-Americans go or do you feel frustrated that some of the same issues that your father outlined in that speech on that day are things that you're still dealing with today?

KING: Well, I try not to become frustrated.

But, in a real way, it is very challenging, particularly when you look at the fact that, over the last 18 months, almost three million people have lost jobs in this country, when you look at the fact that 15 million people are living in poverty, and three to four million of those are homeless, and a disproportionate number are African- American, 45 million people with no health insurance. Blacks sill make 60 cents to the dollar that others make.

So there is a lot of issues that we have to overcome. But if we work very hard, we certainly can overcome them.

O'BRIEN: How about some other statistics? For example, only 47 percent of blacks who are eligible under the age of 44 voted in the last presidential election. A higher number of whites did, same age. What do you think your father would say to that?

KING: Well, I would hope -- let me just say what he always said, which is, a voteless people is a powerless people. And one of the most important steps that we can take is that short step to the ballot box.

I think we have got to do a better job explaining to people why their vote does count. I think people feel disconnected from some of their elected officials, as well as the system, because, sometimes, it is very complicated. That's why we're engaged for the next 15 months in a voter education and voter registration campaign. Voter education with registration will create voter participation.

We have seen the hip-hop community, with Russell Simmons, registering people. Just the other day in Philadelphia, he registered 10,000 young people. And in every city that they go to, meaning the hip-hop kind of folk, they're registering folk. We're working kind of in a coalition, in a sense, to register more new voters. And I believe that, ultimately, we're going to see more people participate in the process.

O'BRIEN: The story goes, back on that day, nearly 40 years ago, that, as your father was delivering the speech that he had written down, he suddenly sort of veered off the speech and started preaching.

And, actually, the part where he was preaching was the part where he really connected with the audience and may be the most memorable part of that speech, the "I have the dream" part. Is that accurate to say? Is that right?

KING: Well, it is accurate to some degree.

But he had delivered a version of that speech in June, just a couple of months earlier in Detroit, when he marched down Woodward Avenue with Walter Reuther, a labor leader, and Reverend C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin's father and prominent pastor, and over 100,000 people. So, to some degree, he had rehearsed that portion of the speech. But he actually refined it for the -- for August 28.

O'BRIEN: Martin Luther King III, nice to talk to you. And thanks for joining us this evening. We sure appreciate it.

KING: Thank you. Thank you so much for the opportunity.

O'BRIEN: You're most welcome.

You've been seeing some of the pictures of the march from 40 years ago. And while they're compelling, they don't quite convey what it was like to actually be in the crowd that day. And for that matter, the pictures don't quite convey who was in the crowd. The civil rights movement was multiracial.

And Cappy Harmon joins us from CNN Center in Atlanta. She was just 14 years old when she attended the March on Washington.

It is nice to have you, Ms. Harmon. Thanks for joining us.

CAPPY HARMON, ATTENDED MARCH ON WASHINGTON: Thanks for having me.

O'BRIEN: That day 40 years ago, your dad piled the family into the Volkswagen and drove from Brooklyn, New York, to D.C. It has been 40 years, but do you remember that day pretty clearly?

HARMON: I do.

We actually drove from Roxbury, Massachusetts. And it was an exciting opportunity to do something that was already a part of my life. I'm a preacher's kid. And our faith community and our neighborhood, we were engaged in social justice kinds of activities all the time.

O'BRIEN: At just 14, did you have a sense, though, that it was going to be an important and historic event?

HARMON: I think I did.

And what I remember was that -- I remember the day was very hot. I remember that it was very exciting. There was a sense of purpose in the crowd. There were lots of people engaged in very joyful, purposeful ways. There was music. I remember a sense of fun and knowing that we were doing something very important.

O'BRIEN: You were one of just 50,000 white faces in that crowd. A quarter million people, as we have mentioned, attended that march. Did you and your family feel like you stuck out or do you to feel like you were very much a part of that march?

HARMON: I was very much a part of the march. And I grew up in an environment where that was -- that was very racially diverse, anyway. So somebody mentioned that to me the other day and I was actually surprised at the numbers. I wasn't really aware of that.

O'BRIEN: You were well aware, though, that -- the fears about the march. I know workers had been told to stay home that day. Bars couldn't serve alcohol. Troops were on standby in case riots erupted. Do you remember that? Was it a fearful feeling at all?

(CROSSTALK)

HARMON: No. No.

It was the most exciting, joyful, really clear moment about doing something right in the world. So I don't remember -- there was none of that in my experience. O'BRIEN: Being part of the march and being part of a family that strongly believed in civil rights, how has it affected you?

HARMON: Yes.

O'BRIEN: What has the lasting impact been of your experience there that day?

HARMON: Well, it probably is logical and makes sense that the work that I do now in the world with National Coalition Building Institute, which is about ending racism in all forms of oppression, that really is a part of that family legacy and history and a part of that journey. So it has greatly impacted the work that I do today.

O'BRIEN: Cappy Harmon, thanks for sharing your story with us this evening. Appreciate it.

HARMON: Thanks for having me.

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