January 15, 2018

MLK, in 1964, looks to the future of the struggle for equality


Last year, we were deeply proud to add Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the line-up of our Last Interview series, at a moment when his words felt profoundly urgent.

Well, they still do — perhaps even more so now. So, in honor of Martin Luther King Day, we’re happy to share this excerpt, pulled from a 1964 interview King gave with poet Robert Penn Warren, which was published for the first time in Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Last Interview and Other Conversations.

Here’s wishing all of us a day of peace and contemplation in which to rededicate ourselves to causes of justice, to reflect on the contributions of those who’ve struggled before us, and to remember that freedom, real freedom in a society, is everybody’s or nobody’s.



WARREN: Do you see your father’s role and your own role as historical phases of the same process?

KING: Yes, I do. I think my father and I have worked together a great deal in the last few years trying to grapple with the same problem, and he was working in the area of civil rights before I was born, and when I was just a kid, and I grew up in the kind of atmosphere that had a real civil rights concern. And I do think it’s the — the same problem that we are grappling with. It’s the same historical process, and if, if this is what you mean, I think so.

WARREN: That is, there are vast differences, of course, in techniques and opportunities and climate of opinion, all of those million things that are different from one generation to the other. But you see this, see a continuity in the process, and not a, not a sharp division between roles, yours and his?

KING: Yes, I see continuity. I, I don’t think there’s a sharp — there are certainly minor differences, but I don’t think there is any sharp difference. I think basically the roles are the same. Now, I grant you that at points my father did not come up under the discipline of the non-violent philosophy. He was not really trained in the non-violent discipline, but even with- out that, the problem was about the same, and even though the methods may not have been consciously non-violent, they were certainly non-violent in the sense that he never advocated violence as a way to solve the problems.

WARREN: Yes, yes. Those are phases then, shall we say, in a process. What is the next phase one might envisage?

KING: You mean the next phase in terms of, of—

WARREN: —beyond, beyond the present leadership and the present issues and the present problems.

KING: Um-hm.

WARREN: Is there a phase beyond the civil rights issues that are now on the forefront? What is the next phase of, shall we say better—for the lack of a better phrase—the Negro movement?

KING: Um-hm.

WARREN: In a general sense?

KING: Yeah.

WARREN: What would be the next phase? Say, just, offhand saying your father representing one phase, you another. Can you predict a, another phase? Is that beginning to take shape already?

KING: Well, I think if there is a next phase it will be an extension of the present phase. My feeling is that we will really have to grapple with ways and means to really bring about an integrated society. Non-violent direct action, working through the courts, and working through legislative processes may be extremely helpful in bringing about a desegregated society. But when we move into the realm of actual integration, which deals with mutual acceptance, a genuine intergroup, interpersonal living, then it seems to me that other methods will have to be used. And I think that the next phase will be the phase that really grapples with the — the methods that must be used to bring about a thoroughly integrated society.

WARREN: In that phase, we can certainly see quite clearly responsibilities that belong to the white man, and obligations.

KING: Um-hm.

WARREN: Now, what problems, responsibilities, and obligations would you say the Negro would have in this relationship in this third phase?

KING: Well, I would think this would be the phase, or the responsibilities of the Negro in this phase would be in the area [of] what Mahatma Gandhi used to refer to as “constructive work,” his constructive program, which is a program whereby the individuals work desperately to improve their own conditions and their own standards. I think in this phase, after the Negro emerges in and from the desegregated society, then a great deal of time must be spent in improving standards which lag behind to a large extent because of segregation—

WARREN: —yes—

KING: —discrimination, and the legacy of slavery. But it seems to me that the Negro will have to engage in a sort of operation bootstraps in order to lift these standards. And I think by raising the, these lagging standards, it will make it much more, well, I, I would say much less diffi†cult for him to move on into the integrated society.



We’re proud to publish Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. Copies can be purchased here, or at your neighborhood independent bookstore.