The Daily Beast republished an interview with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. done by Alex Haley in 1965 for Playboy magazine. So much of our memory of Dr. King is bound up in his 1963 speech in Washington and the mythmaking that has followed his death. Reading his comments in such a relatively relaxed setting is a powerful reminder of his human side.
Fifty years later his casual commentary on events from that time still resonate. The whole interview is worth a read, but here are a few excerpts:
Comparing Southern racism against his experiences in the North:
Well, the Northern white, having had little actual contact with the Negro, is devoted to an abstract principle of cordial interracial relations. The North has long considered, in a theoretical way, that it supported brotherhood and the equality of man, but the truth is that deep prejudices and discriminations exist in hidden and subtle and covert disguises. The South’s prejudice and discrimination, on the other hand, has been applied against the Negro in obvious, open, overt and glaring forms—which make the problem easier to get at. The Southern white man has the advantage of far more actual contact with Negroes than the Northerner. A major problem is that this contact has been paternalistic and poisoned by the myth of racial superiority.
Responding to calls for more patience in achieving better race relations:
Why do white people seem to find it so difficult to understand that the Negro is sick and tired of having reluctantly parceled out to him those rights and privileges which all others receive upon birth or entry in America? I never cease to wonder at the amazing presumption of much of white society, assuming that they have the right to bargain with the Negro for his freedom.
We often forget that King was criticized bitterly in the Black community for being a racial “moderate,” bargaining with the white community for freedom.
I mean to say that a strong man must be militant as well as moderate. He must be a realist as well as an idealist. If I am to merit the trust invested in me by some of my race, I must be both of these things.
His painful disappointment with white religious leaders:
The most pervasive mistake I have made was in believing that because our cause was just, we could be sure that the white ministers of the South, once their Christian consciences were challenged, would rise to our aid. I felt that white ministers would take our cause to the white power structure. I ended up, of course, chastened and disillusioned. As our movement unfolded, and direct appeals were made to white ministers, most folded their hands—and some even took stands against us.
Haunting comments on the impact of the Civil Rights movement, up to that point, on middle class African-Americans and the poor:
Though many would prefer not to, we must face the fact that progress for the Negro—to which white “moderates” like to point in justifying gradualism—has been relatively insignificant, particularly in terms of the Negro masses. What little progress has been made—and that includes the Civil Rights Act—has applied primarily to the middle-class Negro. Among the masses, especially in the Northern ghettos, the situation remains about the same, and for some it is worse.
Facing the constant threat of death:
If I were constantly worried about death, I couldn’t function. After a while, if your life is more or less constantly in peril, you come to a point where you accept the possibility philosophically. I must face the fact, as all others in positions of leadership must do, that America today is an extremely sick nation, and that something could well happen to me at any time. I feel, though, that my cause is so right, so moral, that if I should lose my life, in some way it would aid the cause.
Is it strange that the best song ever written about Dr. King came from an Irish rock band?
Happy Birthday Dr. King.