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Martin Luther King III joins UVa faculty, pushes students to restore 'fibers of democracy'

Sixty-one years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made a solo trip to Charlottesville.

After accepting an invitation from Black students fighting for racial equality at the University of Virginia, King drove to UVa without bodyguards, entourage or fanfare. And on March 25, 1961, he graced Old Cabell Hall, where he spoke on the long fight behind him and ahead of him for civil rights in the U.S.

On March 25, 2023, his eldest son, Martin Luther King III, accepted an appointment to a professor of practice at the UVa Center for Politics.

Since then, he has spoken at Old Cabell Hall and given a public keynote address at an event commemorating the center’s 25th anniversary.

In his new role, professor King will guest lecture in a variety of classes throughout the univeristy based on his expertise and interests, collectively speaking to thousands of UVa students as well as participating in at least one public event during the semester.

“Professor King brings a wealth of experience in social justice, politics, human rights and much more, and we’re thrilled that he has chosen the Center for Politics. I know the students will enjoy getting to know him and learning from his vast experience in the public arena,” Larry Sabato, the center’s director, said in a statement announcing professor King’s arrival.

King recently spoke with The Daily Progress about his new role and his concerns about American politics.

The interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

There are lots of universities that would like to have you in a role like this. Why did you choose UVa, and did your father’s legacy at the school have any impact on your decision?

Well, certainly, I’m always cognizant of where my father went.

But beyond that, UVa in my opinion is one of the finest institutions in our nation. And certainly, the Center for Politics probably is like no other. I just believe that under the leadership of professor Sabato, the Center for Politics has been an outstanding leader in our nation around politics, engaging young people and launching individuals who wanted to go into the political arena.

Obviously, I come out of the modern civil rights movement. The last three years, I’ve been working on a campaign to expand democracy, where it feels like the fibers of democracy have been shaken. The political process actually seems to be causing that because a basic fundamental right that all of us have equally is the right to vote. Instead of expanding voting rights, it feels as if certain communities have made it far more difficult to vote.

My dad would say a voteless people is a powerless people. One step we must take is the short step to the ballot box.

When you recently spoke at the center in a celebration of its 25th anniversary, you spent a lot of time focused on democracy, and you’ve already mentioned it here. Why is that? It seems like you’re genuinely concerned about the state of American democracy.

Absolutely. Former President Trump has said, "I’m going to be a dictator." And I’ve learned in life when people tell you who they are, believe them. I’m very concerned about that. Because if he is reelected, he has a history of doing what he says he’s going to do.

I’ve seen him and some of his cohorts directly attack and denigrate people. The civility in the political space is lost. We should always be able to discuss issues whether we agree or disagree. My dad and mom taught us how to disagree without being disagreeable. Now, the disagreeing becomes a scenario where if you don’t agree with what some are saying, your life is threatened just because you don’t agree with that position. The question I would have is, how is that sustainable in a society of human beings? We’re not animals; it’s not survival of the fittest.

It feels like we’re headed in some sense towards some degree of fascism, a dangerous direction for our nation to be headed in. We’ve had democracy for a long time, or at least some level of democracy. We talk about making our nation a more perfect union. We must come together for that to happen. We can’t do it when we’re at each other’s necks as it feels like we are right now.

What’s top of mind for you as the election is approaching? Is it democracy?

It’s democracy.

Our daughter is turning 16 years old. She has fewer rights now than she had the day she was born. What I mean by that is, in 2013, the Voting Rights Act was eviscerated by the Supreme Court. In 2020, there were hundreds of pieces of legislation probably voted on in at least 30 states to make it harder for people to vote, and particularly as it relates to communities of color. In 2022, history and books have been banned. A woman’s right to choose was eviscerated. Last year, affirmative action was eviscerated.

Every child, every Black and Brown child, has less rights than their mothers and grandmothers, and really since the Black Codes were put on the books. It feels like we’re going backwards. And the goal for me is to make sure we as a nation move forward.

Historically, the court was used to make advancements. It was not until reproductive rights and maybe even the Voting Rights Act was struck down that we went backwards. When the court is balanced, sometimes you go forward and sometimes you go backwards. When you have an imbalance in the court, which now exists at the Supreme Court level, then it feels like you’re only going backwards. I’m not sure what that’s going to mean for the next few years.

You’re going to be working with a lot of students closer to your daughter’s age than yours. What is your sense of how young people currently feel about the American political process?

Some feel that it’s so complicated: "Why should I care? Why should I participate? Let me go on and develop my own set of skills and start a business. Let me not be concerned with politics."

Hopefully people will embrace a position of "I want to be included. I want to be a part of the process. I want to be a part of making our nation a better nation." That is what the hope is, but there may be some who have a different position. And it’s fine to have that different position. As long as you are not denigrating and doing harm to others.

A lot of what I am hoping to promote is student engagement. If a young person at 21 goes to college and is a member of the ROTC, at the end of four years that person becomes a commanding officer leading a platoon of troops. So if you can do that at 21 in the military, why then should you not offer yourself for city council or state legislative positions? We need the energy and vision of young people who bring new ideas to the table so that our nation can move forward.

It’s not just registering people to vote. It is voter education. Voter education with registration creates participation. We have a difficult time getting people to participate. There’s so much confusion that is going on in our nation between what the internet promotes and between what mainstream media promotes. But these are all tools that we need to find a way to use in a constructive way, not a destructive way.

Just how concerned are you about the current state of American politics and democracy?

I’m extraordinarily concerned. And I’m extraordinarily concerned because the former president has said to us, "I want to be a dictator, at least for a day." That’s a frightening proposition, because that is antithetical to democracy. There’s not a king here in this country. There’s not a monarchy. That’s not how we were founded. And so when you go against how we were founded, that’s a danger to the preservation of democracy. There’s enough of what appears to be confusion that we could drift into a direction that we may not ever regain our full democratic stature and status.

So I’m extraordinarily concerned. And I’m hoping that I can use my platform and profile to raise that consciousness enough. There’s always a silent majority, that maybe chooses not to participate, but we don’t have the luxury of the majority sitting out this election.

Now, I don’t want to just have it just be this election. I would like to see people participate in the political process at large levels for every election cycle. Not just for the president, but for the governor, for the mayor and state legislative offices. Every time we have an election, wherever it is, whatever it is, people need to be engaged. And that’s the thing that I promote.


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