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Sunday, January 29, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large

Martin King III: living up to society's expectations

Seattle Times staff columnist

Martin Luther King III has a difficult job. His father is a revered icon of legendary charisma, a man who helped shape modern America, whose words inspire people across the planet.

Martin King carries inherited expectations with him everywhere, and he seems to do it with grace. Last Monday, King was in Lynnwood, speaking to students at Edmonds Community College and to a sellout crowd at the Lynnwood Convention Center. He's always busy in January and February. Central Washington University brought him to King County.

Being the child of a famous person comes with some diminishment of individuality, at least in the eyes of beholders who search for the parent in the child.

Outcomes for such children vary. There is Paris Hilton, George W. Bush, a host of Kennedys.

Martin Luther King's children remind me of British royalty, whose fate is determined at birth.

Martin III devoted a good portion of his speech here to keeping alive his father's words and ideas. He went over his father's six steps for nonviolent action and his enumeration of four kinds of love.

He quoted words his father made famous in speeches that eroded American apartheid.

But he also ran down his own list of concerns. King wants rehabilitation for children sentenced in juvenile courts. He said that if wealthy nations cut military spending by 10 percent we could end world poverty in a generation.

King said the occupation of Iraq is creating more terrorists and that the U.S. needs to end its dependence on foreign oil, not by doing more drilling in Alaska or the Gulf of Mexico, but by developing alternative energy sources.

He discussed the neglect that caused so much pain in New Orleans, championed universal health care, job training and pollution prevention. He urged people to get involved.

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I kept wondering who he is, this 48-year-old man. I wanted him to tell us that.

He opened the window a bit when he talked about the tragedies that have befallen his family.

He was 10 when his father was murdered. The next year his uncle, an accomplished swimmer, drowned in his own pool (family members doubt it was an accident). When he was 16 a man burst in on a church service and shot his grandmother to death.

A white man killed his father and a black man killed his grandmother. "I could have embraced hatred and hated all of y'all," he said — humor with an edge.

It would be quite an accomplishment after all of that just to be a normal person.

The first question from the audience was: How have you used forgiveness in your life besides the childhood tragedies?

I think the questioner wanted some sense of the adult King separate from his father.

Instead, King told the story of a white man who tried a few years ago to live as a black man. He used make-up to change his appearance and planned to wear his disguise for a month. He barely made seven days. It's still hard just to be a black man. There is still work to do.

A 12-year-old girl asked something a lot of people were wondering about. "It must have been really tough when you were young. How did you stay focused?"

He said she'd asked a very grown-up question. "My mom taught us to be strong. I was around positively charged people."

Then he left himself and said it's hard for children today in a dysfunctional society where cartoons are violent, movies are violent. "We keep feeding each other violence. We have to change our diet."

King is president and CEO of the King Center in Atlanta, which his mother created to keep her husband's work alive. Before that he headed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which his father co-founded.

It is likely that the National Park Service will take over the center, a move pushed by his younger brother, Dexter, (King Center's board chair) and his sister Yolanda. King and his sister Bernice oppose the sale.

Whatever his next role may be, he'll still be a regular guy caught in an outsized legacy, trying to make the best of it. I wish him well.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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