We spoke with King about his life's work — a mission to achieve equality that he says is far from complete. He sees efforts such as voter identification laws and the battle over immigration as a modern form of discrimination. And he's not shy about his opinions, which we edited for length.
On his 1960 campaign
It does not seem that long ago. And I guess I look back at that time with fond memories and also horrible memories about some of the things people did to me and to others who were just trying to make Americans profess that freedom and justice and equality ring for us, as well as for white people.
I’m proud of what we did. I’m glad that thousands of young African-American students not only in Atlanta, but throughout the South, challenged the system that had been in place in this country for a long time. And I’m also convinced the white south and white west would never have moved (white only) signs voluntarily. They had a lot of time to do it and it wasn’t done.
I’m sad when I reflect back and see how much hope and promise we had for ourselves and America, but then you begin to examine the ensuing years of the 1960s to where we are today and you realize that the descendants of (segregationists) and their supporters never really gave up in trying to turn the clock back.
I’m also disillusioned by the fact that we were perceived and lulled into a feeling that everything is going to be alright, and now we look up now and realize we deceived ourselves. We should’ve kept working and kept pushing, because we still have too many people who could be something else if they had been given the chance.
The glass is not half empty. It’s half full and we can fill it up to the top with liberty, justice and equality, but it will require people of all persuasions and colors who believe in the American dream to not sit idly by.
On modern crusades
If I had to go back and pinpoint where the African-American movement fell short in the South, and Georgia particularly, it would be registration of voters, and then having those voters vote. Right now in Georgia we have approximately 1 million people who didn’t go to jail, who are African-American, could register and vote, yet have not done it.
When you think about it, Georgia is red because of two things: 1) the intransigence of people who call themselves conservatives and vote Republican today and 2) the nonfeasance of African-Americans to take advantage of the things made available to them in the 1960s.
Since we did not take advantage of it, you have people all across the South and Midwest and North putting in these voter restrictions. We’re fighting a battle that was allegedly won years ago, but we have to keep going round and round like a dog chasing its tail.
Voting ought to be an automatic thing for people in a democracy, but it is not. How do we solve it? We have to have people of good will, regardless of color, working on making freedom ring for everybody.
We’ve come a long way, but there’s a long way we have to still travel primarily because the opponents we had to battle 53 years ago have retrenched, dug in, taught their children and other progeny that came from them to go forward and continue this two-tiered society: whites on top, and blacks on the bottom.
Why he’s being recognized now
I don’t have a clue to be honest with you. I think a part of what’s going on is I’m 77 years old now. Maybe there are people who feel I ought to get this recognition on this side of it, rather than the other. I’m just honored that they are willing to do this. I am going to get a preview before I leave here, I guess, of what nice things people will say about me when I’m gone.