Martin Luther King III, son of the legendary U.S. civil rights leader whose name he bears, visited Costa Rica last week as a guest of the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress. In a speech at the foundation’s Good Governance Conference, a visit to the Ombudsman’s Office and an interview with The Tico Times, he presented his take on a wide range of issues, from the state of democracy in the United States and the future of the Internet in nonviolent protests to his opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
King, 48, the second child of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, has devoted his life to protecting and advancing his father’s legacy as well as that of his other, who died in January.
Only 10 when his father was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, King’s adult career as a civil rights leader includes four years as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which his father founded.
In 2003 he became CEO of the KingCenter, founded by his mother to advance her late husband’s message. Earlier this year, he founded Realize the Dream, a nonprofit organization that seeks to “get America to focus on poverty and how we can reduce it” through conflict resolution, leadership training and community economic development programs, he told human rights workers at the Ombudsman’s Office Oct. 12.
During his speech the previous day at the Arias Foundation’s conference (see separate article), King said the United States has had a genuine democracy for just over 40 years –since 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed – a definition that makes it younger than Costa Rica’s democracy. He pointed to fear on the part of mainstream media and “devious tricks” to suppress black votes in the 2000 and 2004 elections as problems continuing to plague the U.S. government, as well as trends also present in Costa Rica, such as growing voter apathy and a widening gap between rich and poor.
The soft-spoken leader sat down to talk with The Tico Times at the Hotel Herradura, west of San José, following his speech. Excerpts:
TT: What aspects of Costa Rica or the Arias Foundation caused you to accept the invitation to speak here?
MLK: I knew of several things the President (Oscar Arias) has done, such as ensuring that young people in schools are exposed to conflict resolution and nonviolence (training). Young people need that kind of example. I believe my father and his team, and others, have shown us that nonviolence is the way.
Your visit comes on the heels of rising tension between police forces and protestors who oppose the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), with both groups accusing the other of violent acts (TT, Oct. 6).What should the two sides keep in mind?
Sometimes we have to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable. Never reduce yourself to physical confrontation. Boycotting, letter-writing, e-mailing, those kind of things can always be used… and police, in my judgment, all over the world, need human relations, sensitivity and diversity training, because you can’t use a stick or a club all the time. There’s gotta be a more reasonable method to address people.
I don’t know enough to say for sure whether CAFTA is going to work, but I can say that in America, NAFTA (the North American Free-Trade Agreement, ratified in 1993) didn’t work as well as many would like. You take billions of dollars and invest it externally, and yet you haven’t invested enough in communities (within the United States).Most people don’t believe that poverty is real in America, but it is, and it’s even come to a head in many communities.
Hurricane Katrina last year showed us the face of poverty, but there are Katrina situations all over America in pockets.
In your speech, you spoke of the potential of the Internet in nonviolent protests against multinational companies, among other uses. That’s obviously a point of interest here, with or without CAFTA.
Well, technology plays a role in everything that we do. In the old days, if someone wanted to write the President, you’d write, then mobilize and get others to write.Now you can send thousands of e-mails just by touching a mouse. If you have Costa Ricans communicating with other Latin Americans, all working collaboratively together, you have the ability to create the change you want.
The problem is… I don’t think communities are using technology enough.
You mentioned Katrina a few minutes ago, and the war in Iraq during your speech. Based on your work in communities, do you think either of these has created serious impetus for change in the United States?
No, there’s apathy, always. But people are frustrated and want change. They want to see us stop spending so much money that’s simply going into a black hole, and they want our troops to come home. They do not support us being in Iraq; they feel that that was a grave mistake; and they also feel that issues of human concern are not being addressed because we are so preoccupied with Iraq and terrorism. And quite frankly, that’s the truth. The resources that could be dedicated for human uplift are not available.
(Regarding Katrina), in my judgment… it’s really a leadership issue. When leadership exists and shares its vision, things get done. Nothing has been done in New Orleans because of a lack of visionary leadership. Some resources have been dedicated, but you still have no water, no lights, no power, and nothing has been done, not just in New Orleans, but in Biloxi, Gulfport – you look left and right, it’s just devastation. You look, there used to be businesses there, nothing is back.