In Yale visit, King urges all to join the work of improving America

Speaking to a packed Woolsey Hall, Martin Luther King III called on young people to become leaders in the ongoing fight for racial justice.
Martin Luther King III on stage

(Photos by Andrew Hurley)

Every January people across America and the world mark the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. with “profound gratitude” for his contributions. But until the beloved civil rights leader’s hopes for racial equality, economic prosperity, and nonviolence are realized, the annual observance should be called a “commemoration” rather than a “celebration,” said King’s son, Martin Luther King III, in a Jan. 18 address at Yale.

I’m not quite able to call [the marking of my father’s birthday] a celebration yet because African Americans and others are still experiencing discrimination and racial injustice across America,” said Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the iconic civil rights leader, who has continued his father’s legacy of civil and human rights activism.

King spoke before more than 2,300 people from across the campus and Greater New Haven communities in an event at Woolsey Hall. It was the first time in three years that the commemoration was held in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic. His address, “Sanctuary in the Storm: Healing in Action,” was also broadcast via livestream.

We will one day celebrate when the beloved community of ‘the dream’ becomes a reality for people of all races, religions, and nations,” King said, referring to his father’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech, in August 1963, calling for racial and economic equality for Black Americans.

Martin Luther King III

We cannot celebrate when so many of our sisters and brothers are being crushed by poverty, racism, and violence,” he told the Woolsey Hall audience. “We cannot celebrate when African Americans are still experiencing violence from some law enforcement divisions while driving, walking — and just living — while Black. We cannot celebrate when so many members of Congress think it’s okay to reject certified election results. We cannot celebrate as long as voter suppression laws are on the books in many states. We cannot celebrate when denying voting rights to people who are incarcerated, which remains one of the most effective methods of voter suppression.”

The word “storm” in the title of King’s speech, he said, referred to the simultaneous challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the widening income gap between America’s rich and poor, the racial violence and civil rights protests in the wake of the unlawful police killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans, ever widening political divisions, and continued assaults on American democracy.

As we work and struggle together in the years ahead, we will surely continue to disagree about many of the great issues,” King told the audience. “But let us refuse to be dragged down into a polarizing and paralyzing hatred. Instead, let’s always make sure we disagree with our adversaries as brothers and sisters with a spirit of civility that befits the people of what should be a great democracy.”

A young man and woman in the audience

He called on all people, particularly the younger members of his audience, to become involved in the political process and to take on leadership roles in advocating for transformations in American society.

Consider that college students the same age as many of you here this evening played a critical role in the nonviolent campaign of the modern American civil rights movement,” said King, noting that even elementary and high school students were jailed for taking part in protests over racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 in a campaign led by his father. The protests resulted in the desegregation of the city.

More recently, King said, high school students who survived the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida took on the issue of gun control, resulting in the passing of gun control legislation in the House of Representatives. (The measure stalled in the Senate.)

King recounted the words of the educator and statesman Horace Mann: “Be ashamed to die until you’ve won some victory for humanity.”

You know, we can win victory in our neighborhoods, any of us,” he said. “We can win victory in our schools. We can win victory in our places of worship. Some of us may win victories in our nation. And yes, some of us may win victories for our world.”

Following his address, King joined James Forman Jr., the J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law at Yale Law School and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” for a short conversation.

James Forman Jr. and Martin Luther King III
In conversation with Yale law professor James Forman Jr. after his address, King spoke about young leaders setting the agenda in social movements and about the impact of trauma on King’s life. Forman’s father, James Forman Sr., worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. to promote civil rights.

Forman, whose own father was a prominent civil rights leader who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr., asked King how he managed to not be bitter and despairing after experiencing so much trauma during his life — including the murders of his father, grandmother, and other incidents of violence and threats against his family.

King answered that he was “immersed in love” by his parents, who also taught him the importance and value of forgiveness. That said, he added, improved mental health resources are critical for those who have suffered intergenerational trauma — including many Black Americans whose families endured slavery.

The event also featured remarks by Risë Nelson, who chairs the Yale MLK Commemoration Planning Committee and is the inaugural director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the Yale University Library; and by Kim Goff-Crews, secretary and vice president for university life at Yale.

In addition, the student a cappella group Shades sang a medley of the gospel songs “Amen” and “We Shall Overcome.” The New Haven Board of Alders presented a citation to King, and the Yale Zeta chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity presented him a tapestry depicting New Haven landmarks to commemorate his visit.

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