Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Words In This Rare 1967 Interview Are Still Relevant Today (Video)
A recently found master tape of a 1967 interview featuring Martin Luther King, Jr. on the iconic Merv Griffin talk show surfaced earlier this year, and it is an awe inspiring look at a man who was rarely seen in casual conversation. The Civil Rights Era thought leader has always been celebrated as an oratory genius, a man whose way with words continues to inspire generations nearly 50 years after his death. In this interview, there are glimpses into King’s sense of humor in addition to his penetrative understanding of African American issues. Particularly commanding is the relevance of his words in observation of today’s political climate, where Black Americans continue to struggle for justice in so many facets of society.
Upon his arrival to the stage, Griffin relays to his formidable guest that it is such a great pleasure to see him in New York City, where the show tapes. Griffin says “you’ve discovered it’s a fun city,” to which King humorously responds “I haven’t quite discovered that side of New York. Being a Baptist clergyman, they keep me involved in other areas,” at which point the receptive audience laughs loudly. After some conversation about King’s role as a pastor and his family background, the interview takes a reflective turn when Griffin asks King to comment on how Atlanta, Georgia is doing. “I would say Atlanta is the most progressive city in race relations in the South. Now that doesn’t mean that we have all problems solved in Atlanta. It suffers from the same problems that all of our major cities are facing today.” He goes on to detail what those problems are, saying “we have serious economic problems in the Negro community, and although the middle class in the Negro community faces a degree of prosperity, the masses of Negroes confront the same poverty and deprivation that we would find in any city.”
At the 4:10 mark, Griffin begins to introduce the notion of violence, saying that often when it occurs, King’s name is mentioned as being to blame. And yet, he says to Dr. King “you are absolutely against [violence]. Why do they blame you?” Dr. King puts forth his thoughts by saying “I think it’s because of our wrong analysis of events and history and circumstances. It so happens that many demonstrations that I lead end up in violence in the sense that we who are demonstrating are inflicted with violence.” Much like the contemporary protests and demonstrations organized in the Black Lives Matter and similar movements, the resultant violence King is describing rings true today. “I always say you can’t blame non-violent demonstrators who are demonstrating for their constitutional rights when violence erupts. This would be like blaming the robbed man for the evil act of robbery because his possession of wealth or money precipitates the act.” Much blame has been placed at the feet of today’s social activists for “inciting” violence, and yet there is little blame placed at the feet of the police who brutalize people of color by those who so easily blame protesters for any alleged violence they incite. As King says, “society must always condemn the robber and protect the robbed…we can’t be blamed for the violence that emerges. We merely brought it out in the open, we brought the evil conditions, the cancerous disease of racism out into the open so that society can cure it.”
In the closing segment of the interview, Griffin introduces Dr. King’s book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? , and asks his guest to tell us “where we’ve been and how far we’ve come.” Poignantly applicable to today, King’s response includes “we have made some very significant strides. There’s no doubt about the fact that we’ve come a long, long way since the days of slavery and since the days of rigid segregation,” and he celebrates that “legal segregation is dead today.” But it hasn’t all been fixed, clearly. “Now we’re faced with, in a sense, greater problems. We’re faced with hard economic problems, which are much more difficult to solve.” Those economic problems continue to be realities for people of color in 2016’s America, where far and wide access to high-paying jobs, affordable schooling, and upward mobility continue to elude poorer citizens. “It’s much easier to eradicate segregation, for instance, on buses and public accommodations than it is to eradicate slums. It is much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to create jobs. We are in a phase of the struggle now which is really a struggle for genuine equality.”
Only one year after this interview’s original air date of July 6, 1967, the U.S. would be engulfed in violent unrest in cities across the country that reached such a fever pitch that 1968 is forever embossed on our collective report card as one of the worst years ever. Nearly five decades later and the U.S. is engulfed in what can fairly be called a tragic instance of history repeating itself. One can only assume that Martin Luther King, Jr. would be pained to see his beloved country and people in continuous pain. However, one could also assume that he would want only for the forward progression of the fight for justice, no matter the unforgivably slow pace at which it seems to travel.