Security is tight around Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sprawling Atlanta, GA complex. Before SoulTrain.com could enter for an exclusive interview with the 86-year old civil rights leader, we first had to pass through guarded inspections to ensure safe clearance. Scheduled with good intentions, of course, the attention to Dr. King’s protection is understandable. An attempt on his life in 1968 left the Peach Tree State native pastor and activist confined to a wheel chair. Once given the okay, we were escorted to Dr. King’s plush yet quaint study.
Inside, Dr. King sits listening to the song “God Has Smiled on Me” by James Cleveland, while reading his bible. His skin and bone structure are still radiant for his age, and he smiles as we enter, closing his book before placing it between his wheelchair and left thigh. The walls were decorated with photos of his family and friends, the largest photos were of his late daughter Yolanda Denise (1955–2007) and wife Coretta Scott King (1927–2006).
His white mustache ripples as he sings quietly to himself. He holds up finger to suggest the song will be over soon. He gestures with his hand for us to take a seat as the song fades to silence. “I appreciate you coming to speak with me today,” he says.
SoulTrain.com: That’s a very powerful song, Dr. King.
Dr. King: I agree. I believe the lyrics of a song, like anything a person may read or a message they might entertain, should speak to its listener’s heart. This particular selection by the late James Cleveland is a testament to my life and spirit. God has smiled on me. And he has spoken through me to smile on many others.
SoulTrain.com: Watching Soul Train made people smile. Were you among the many?
Dr. King: I admit, Soul Train at one time or another has brought a smile to my face, and not always from me watching it. The show would often come up during conversations with friends and colleagues. For so many people it was the highlight of their weekend. Hearing them summarize the most recent episode with such enthusiasm brought a smile to my face.
SoulTrain.com: Dr. King, do you have a favorite Soul Train memory?
Dr. King: The creation of Soul Train as a whole is a significant memory, one I’m especially fond of. Don Cornelius was a visionary. Negros were not all portrayed in the most respectable light on television and in films. Those outside the Negro community, especially whites, had limited insight on how Negros lived, behaved, or conducted themselves. Film and television roles were relegated to servants or criminals, and too often as buffoons. We were seen as the stereotypes we fought to discredit. Then Don gave us this beautiful scene. Negros were seen enjoying themselves, setting trends with fashion and movements. There was no sad or angry faces, no anxiety or fear, only the celebration of their cultural togetherness. People of all colors and creeds wanted to be a part of Soul Train.
SoulTrain.com: And who doesn’t love the Soul Train line? It’s become such a universal activity.
Dr. King: I have always viewed the Soul Train dance line as such a grand symbol of unity. Our great nation was divided, segregated, split in two on everything from school enrollment, voting, to the use of public restrooms and water fountains. So many American people during the Civil Right movement, including those who followed and believed in the non-violent movement I championed, hoped both sides could put their surface and social differences aside, to come together in the middle, to integrate in harmony. That is the very act the Soul Train dance line symbolized.
SoulTrain.com: What do you think Don Cornelius symbolizes?
Dr. King: To me he symbolizes the most honest depiction of the American Dream and the dream of every Negro who imagined they could attain the fruits of the American Dream. He worked extremely hard for his success despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. For those who did not grow up in the era of overtly civil unrest and racial turmoil, it would be hard to truly understand how difficult it was for a Negro man to create his own business, especially a music television program cast with men and women not considered equal to their white peers.
SoulTrain.com: And you knew Don, right?
Dr. King: Yes. I met Don during a trip to Chicago many years ago. He was just a young reporter then, and he came out to interview me. I was impressed by his etiquette, how articulately and respectfully he spoke. He dressed like a business-minded individual with visible self-respect, a person who stood for something greater than himself. He carried himself with pride, something I wish for so many of our young Negro men and women today.
SoulTrain.com: Speaking of pride, the recent unity rally in Paris really has people talking. What are thoughts on what happened in France?
Dr. King: There have been way too many accounts of heinous, atrocious acts committed by humans against their fellow humans. It is inconceivable to me how a group of people can partner with one another to strike calculated fear, even conspire to takes lives in the name of political views, religious beliefs, or simply the hate of another race. I prayed for all those who lost their lives in Paris that day—those who perpetrated the attacks and their victims. And I commend every single person who marched to their nation’s capital to stand for unity in the face of fear. The news touched me in a deeply personal way.
SoulTrain.com: Do you have any desire to see the movie Selma?
Dr. King: Well, I did receive an invitation to attend the premier of the film. Truly, I was grateful, but respectfully declined. Let me be clear when I say I have no Ill will against the making and presentation of this film. I believe our march from Selma to Montgomery all those years ago, our march for the right for Negros to vote, is one of our great American tales. While it is one of triumph, it is also one of tragedy. I can just as easily close my eyes and see Selma. It only takes the slightest, fleeting thought to be transported back to that stretch of Alabama highway. When I learned what transpired in Paris, I was transported back to that highway. I could smell the exhaust from the vehicles providing escort, and clearly heard the many voices singing to the heavens. I wish the film the best of success, but I live with visions of the actual Selma march.
SoulTrain.com: Any thoughts on David Oyelowo’s award-nominated portrayal of you in the film?
Dr. King: I have been told by a number of associates he has done an impeccable job. I wish him the best a luck with the many accolades I hear he’s receiving. I have gotten the opportunity to view several pictures of him as me in the role. He’s gotten the incredibly handsome part right.
SoulTrain.com: Have you by chance heard “Glory,” Common and John Legend’s Gold Globe-winning song from Selma?
Dr. King: I have not had the opportunity, but I have been told I should. I’m not familiar with Common’s music but I know of him. John Legend, on the other hand, sings a song I thoroughly enjoy, “Ordinary People.” It’s one of those songs that, like “God Has Smiled On Me,” speaks to a deeper part of my being. When I hear it, it reminds me of my lovely Coretta and me back when. It’s just an extraordinarily touching song.
SoulTrain.com: Being a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, what was it like for you knowing Barak Obama, our nation’s first black president, is also a recipient of this award?
Dr. King: The Nobel Committee determined me to be worthy of their highest honor, and I was truly humbled. Having been forced from a bus for the color of my skin, having people I care for deliver me tearful news that one of my friends or associates lost their life because they were a Negro, because they wanted to be treated as equals, those issues made me angry. I asked God to grant me and those who supported me the strength to not retaliate with force, but with faith. Peace is worth fighting for, but the fight does not need to be violent. Our president has been in a fight from the day he accepted victory, and I admire his ability to, in the face of great opposition, remain mild-mannered yet focused in his actions, mild-tempered yet stern with his decisions, and a showcase of respect. I am honored to know we are both on the list of Nobel Peace Prize recipients.
SoulTrain.com: Did you think you’d ever live to see a black man become president of the United States?
Dr. King: Whether I lived to see it was irrelevant to me. But I believed it would happen. When calling attention to President Obama’s ethnicity, let’s not neglect the white counterpart to his Negro heritage. He is a product of both races, which I feel makes him a more impactful social figurehead than any other president before him. With that being said, it was not his victory that touched me profoundly. I enjoyed his victory speech. I thank God for such an important moment in American history. What moved me was all the Negros and whites holding hands, standing arm in arm, and shoulder to shoulder in Grant Park the night he’d won the election. So many smiling faces. All those people shared in Obama’s triumph. They’d done it together in the name of unity. I stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and told every ear listening I had a dream that one day our nation would rise up and live up to its creed. My dream came true that night. It was proof racial harmony is not a fantasy, and I thanked my God above for smiling on all of us.
—Mr. Joe Walker
Known as “The Word Heavyweight Champion”, Mr. Joe Walker is a biographer, author, entertainment journalist and columnist, currently a senior writer for SoulTrain.com, staff writer for Muskegon Tribune Newspaper, and consultant/writer for Liquid Arts & Entertainment’s liquidae.com. Also co-creator of TheGrooveSpot.com, Walker’s acclaimed, award-winning work has been published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker, connect with him on Facebook, and also visit his blog ByMrJoeWalker.blogspot.com.