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NBC's Rarely Seen 1967 Interview With Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • On May 8, 1967, less than a year before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was interviewed by NBC News' Sander Vanocour at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church. The 26-minute interview is shown above, and it's a reminder that Dr. King was a human being, regardless of the myth and legend that surrounds him now. Seeing him in muted conversation rather than the fiery oratory we see more often, his eyes shifting between Vancour and his camera operator, shows that he was a man working to get his message across in much the same way his successors are today.

    Vanocour asked him a pointed question about his stance on nonviolence that continues to be a topic of debate to this day, given the police response to the Black Lives Matter protests last year. "In additon to your commitment to the idea of nonviolence, wasn't it also the only thing you could do? The white community having the monopoly on violence, that if you had tried violence, they would have met it with violence. It was the only device open to you, wasn't it?"

    Dr. King responded by putting it another way. "Morally, I was led to nonviolence because I felt that it was the best moral way to deal with the problem. We were seeking to establish a just society, and it was my feeling then and it is my feeling now that violence is certainly much more socially destructive and it creates many more social problems than it solves. So I was led to nonviolence for deep moral reasons. Now, there is no doubt about the fact that in our struggle in Montgomery, and all over the United States for that matter, nonviolence is also practically sound. It would just be impractical for the Negro to turn to violence. He has neither the instruments nor the techniques of violence. We are about ten or eleven percent of the total population of the nation, and I would say we are about one tenth of one percent of the firepower. So it would just be totally impractical and unwise and unrealistic for the Negro to think of violence. Well, I saw this in the beginning in Montgomery, but this wasn't the basic reason that I turned to nonviolence and that I believed in it as a philosophy. I turned to it because I felt that it was the morally excellent way to deal with racial injustice in our country." 

    Later in the interview, he speaks of a "new phase" of the civil rights movement, which includes the idea of universal basic income, also a topic of contemporary discussion. "Many of the people who supported us in Selma, in Birmingham, were really outraged about the extremist behavior toward Negroes, but they were not at that moment and they are not now committed to genuine equality for Negroes. It's much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee an annual income, for instance, to get rid of poverty for Negroes and all poor people. It's much easier to integrate a bus than it is to make genuine integration a reality, quality education a reality in our schools. It's much easier to integrate even a public park than it is to get rid of slums. I think we are in a new era, a new phase of the struggle where we have moved from a struggle for decency, which characterized our struggle for 10 or 12 years, to a struggle for genuine equality. And this is where we're getting the resistance, because there was never any intention to go this far. People were reacting to Bull Connor [Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama] and to Jim Clark [sheriff of Dalls County Alabama] rather than acting in good faith for the realization of genuine equality."

    That feeling seems to have lingered over the decades, and remains an civil rights obstacle today.

    Dr. King also addressed the notion of "picking yourself up by your bootstraps," a cliche still slung by right-wing pundits. "America freed the slaves in 1863 through the Emancipation Proclamation of Abramam Lincoln, but gave the slaves no land, or nothing in reality and as a matter of fact, to get started on. At the same time, America was giving away millions of acres of land in the west and the midwest, which meant that there was a willingness to give the white peasants from Europe an economic base, and yet it refused to give its black peasants from Africa, who came here involuntarily in chains and had worked free for 244 years, any kind of economic base. And so emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate, and therefore it was freedom and famine at the same time. And when white Americans tell the Negro to lift himself by his own bootstraps, they don't look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own boostraps, but it's a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps, and many Negroes by the thousands and millions have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression and as a result of a society that deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading."

    "It seems to me that integration, at its best, is the opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity," Dr. King noted, before speaking of younger revoutionaries with words that could easily apply to today's activists. "These young people are saying that there must be a revoution of values in our country. As Jimmy Baldwin [author, If Beale Street Could Talk] said on one occasion, 'what advantage is there in being integrated into a burning house?' And I feel that there is a need for a revolution of values in America, because some of the values that presently exist are certainly out of line with the values and the idealistic structure that brought our nation into being. Unfortunately, we haven't been true to these ideals, and many of the values of so-called white middle-class society are values that need to be reviewed and re-evaluated and, in a real sense, they need to be changed. So I think the young people in the Negro community who are raising these questions are raising some very profound questions about our total society."

    "There are three evils in our nation," Dr. King said, detailing the complexity of the civil rights struggle. "It's not only racism, but economic exploitation of poverty would be one, and then militarism, and I think in a sense, in a very real sense, these three are tied inextricably together, and we aren't going to get rid of one without getting rid of the other."

    Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was declared a federal holiday in 1983, but not officially recognized by all 50 states until 2000. 

    Andy Hunsaker has a head full of sitcom gags and nerd-genre lore, and can be followed @AndyHunsaker if you're into that sort of thing.

    TOPICS: Martin Luther King Jr., NBC, Sander Vanocur