In the January 1965 issue, Playboy magazine released an in-depth interview with Martin Luther King Jr. He was 36 at the time. He was assassinated 3 years later.
I came across the interview while browsing Amazon's Singles Classics, a collection that "showcases the best journalism, fiction and essays from the top authors and magazines of our time".
There are not many extended interviews with King, and I found the Playboy interview a fascinating read. Prior to reading my knowledge of King could be summed up as civil rights leader and the guy that gave the "I have a dream" speech. The interview delved into all facets of his life and provided many insights as to who King was beneath the public image.
I'd like to highlight some passages and encourage you to read the full interview.
Explaining to his daughter why he is doing what he is doing:
“Daddy, why do you have to go to jail so much?” I told her that I was involved in a struggle to make conditions better for the colored people, and thus for all people. I explained that because things are as they are, someone has to take a stand, that it is necessary for someone to go to jail, because many Southern officials seek to maintain the barriers that have historically been erected to exclude the colored people. I tried to make her understand that someone had to do this to make the world better—for all children.
On witnessing the power of nonviolence:
Another moment which I shall never forget: when I saw with my own eyes over 3000 young Negro boys and girls, totally unarmed, leave Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church to march to a prayer meeting—ready to pit nothing but the power of their bodies and souls against Bull Connor’s police dogs, clubs and fire hoses. When they refused Connor’s bellowed order to turn back, he whirled and shouted to his men to turn on the hoses. It was one of the most fantastic events of the Birmingham story that these Negroes, many of them on their knees, stared, unafraid and unmoving, at Connor’s men with the hose nozzles in their hands. Then, slowly the Negroes stood up and advanced, and Connor’s men fell back as though hypnotized, as the Negroes marched on past to hold their prayer meeting. I saw there, I felt there, for the first time, the pride and the power of nonviolence.
On nonviolence as a weapon:
Our white brothers must be made to understand that nonviolence is a weapon fabricated of love. It is a sword that heals. Our nonviolent direct-action program has as its objective not the creation of tensions, but the surfacing of tensions already present.
A rhetorical question to white people who view African Americans as ungrateful for the Civil Rights Act:
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?
On the goal of the Civil Rights movement:
What the Negro wants—and will not stop until he gets—is absolute and unqualified freedom and equality here in this land of his birth, and not in Africa or in some imaginary state. The Negro no longer will be tolerant of anything less than his due right and heritage. He is pursuing only that which he knows is honorably his. He knows that he is right.
On certain whites telling African Americans to be patient, change will come eventually:
I feel that the time is always right to do what is right.
On assassination plots:
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.
Segregation, as even the segregationists know in their hearts, is morally wrong and sinful. If it weren’t, the white South would not be haunted as it is by a deep sense of guilt for what it has done to the Negro—guilt for patronizing him, degrading him, brutalizing him, depersonalizing him, thingifying him; guilt for lying to itself. This is the source of the schizophrenia that the South will suffer until it goes through its crisis of conscience
On "the establishment":
The white leadership—which I hold as responsible as anyone for the riots, for not removing the conditions that cause them. The deep frustration, the seething desperation of the Negro today is a product of slum housing, chronic poverty, woefully inadequate education and substandard schools. The Negro is trapped in a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign, caught in a vicious socioeconomic vise.
Regarding not condoning outbreaks of looting and lawlessness:
The use of immoral means will not achieve the moral end of racial justice.
Will there be a violent revolution?
Many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations are boiling inside the Negro, and he must release them. It is not a threat but a fact of history that if an oppressed people’s pent-up emotions are not nonviolently released, they will be violently released. So let the Negro march. Let him make pilgrimages to city hall. Let him go on freedom rides. And above all, make an effort to understand why he must do this.
On Malcolm X:
I have often wished that he would talk less of violence, because violence is not going to solve our problem. And in his litany of articulating the despair of the Negro without offering any positive, creative alternative, I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice. Fiery, demagogic oratory in the black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief.
Historical impact of violence as a tactic for social change:
I’d be the first to say that some historical victories have been won by violence; the U.S. Revolution is certainly one of the foremost. But the Negro revolution is seeking integration, not independence. Those fighting for independence have the purpose to drive out the oppressors. But here in America, we’ve got to live together. We’ve got to find a way to reconcile ourselves to living in community, one group with the other.
On the belief that he has amassed a vast fortune from the Civil Rights movement:
I have rejected our board’s insistent recommendation that I accept some salary beyond the one dollar a year which I receive, which entitles me to participate in our employees’ group insurance plan. I have rejected also our board’s offer of financial gifts as a measure and expression of appreciation. My only salary is from my church, $4000 a year, plus $2000 more a year for what is known as “pastoral care.” To earn a grand total of about $10,000 a year, I keep about $4000 to $5000 a year for myself from the honorariums that I receive from various speaking engagements. About 90 percent of my speaking is for S.C.L.C., and it brings into our treasury something around $200,000 a year, Additionally, I get a fairly sizable but fluctuating income in the form of royalties from my writings. But all of this, too, I give to my church, or to my alma mater, Morehouse College, here in Atlanta.
On free time:
Tuesdays when I’m not out of town, I don’t go to the office. I keep this for my quiet day of reading and silence and meditation, and an entire evening with Mrs. King and the children.
On a week of uninterrupted rest:
It’s difficult to imagine such a thing, but if I had the luxury of an entire week, I would spend it meditating and reading, refreshing myself spiritually and intellectually.
Aside from the Bible, which book would he take on a desert island?
Plato’s Republic. I feel that it brings together more of the insights of history than any other book.
On Alabama's Governor Wallace:
He represents the misuse, the corruption, the destruction of leadership. I am not sure that he believes all the poison that he preaches, but he is artful enough to convince others that he does. Instead of guiding people to new peaks of reasonableness, he intensifies misunderstanding, deepens suspicion and prejudice. He is perhaps the most dangerous racist in America today.
On what he would do if he left the Civil Rights movement:
One time I dreamed of pastoring for a few years, and then of going to a university to teach theology. But I gave that up when I became deeply involved in the civil rights struggle. Perhaps, in five years or so, if the demands on me have lightened, I will have the chance to make that dream come true.
One of the books I’m intermittently reading is “The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge” by David McCullough. It’s a 562 page encyclopedia behind the most iconic structures in America. Side note, I have major respect to McCullough (and any historical writer) for creating such a book. I can’t imagine the amount of work that goes into researching and fact checking a book of this magnitude. And then to write it in an engaging and storytelling style; it takes a lot of skill, patience, and effort.
My freshmen year of college I took a history course that covered post Civil-War US. We spent a couple days learning about the Brooklyn Bridge. My professor, the master story teller, had me mesmerized by the bridge. To build a beautiful bridge of such scale, at that time, over the East River (a very turbulent area), and unite Manhattan and Brooklyn, is nothing short of incredible. The Chief Architect, German born John Roebling, was a visionary. He saw a bridge that wasn’t just a utility, but would be a iconic structure that would define New York City. He envisioned a pedestrian walkway that would rise above the horses and carriages, giving pedestrians a feeling of walking in the clouds. The beautiful towers would rise to the sky and would be seen from miles away. The opening chapter has a perfect quote by Montgomery Schuyler, written in Harper’s Weekly on May 24, 1883:
It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge.
Spoiler alert. John Roebling passes away before work on the bridge commences. The Chief Architect becomes his son, Washington Roebling. Washington had experience in bridge building, but not nearly to the extent of his father. With the passing of his father, Washington was tasked with building one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in US history.
Washington was trained for the job. In 1853 his father sent him to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, New York. It was a new kind of school, the first in America established to provide an education in "Theoretical and Practical Science". It was one of the few institutions in the US offering a civil engineering program. Here is what Washington, age 17, was facing in 1853:
His senior thesis was to be on "Design for a Suspension Aqueduct," but in three years time he had also to master nearly a hundred different courses, including:
- Analytical Geometry of Three Dimensions
- Differential and Integral Calculus
- Calculus of Variations
- Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis
- Determinative Mineralogy
- Higher Geodesy (the mathematical science of the size and shape of the earth)
- Logical and Rhetorical Criticism
- French Composition and Literature
- Orthographic and Spherical Projections
- Geology of Mining
- Rational Mechanics of Solids and Fluids
- Spherical Astronomy
- Kinematics (the study of motion exclusive of the influences of mass and force)
- Machine Design
- Hydraulic Motors
- Steam Engines
- Stability of Structures
- Engineering and Architectural Design and Construction
- Intellectual and Ethical Philosophy
No computers, no calculators. I imagine the best-of-the-best from MIT to be challenged by such a curriculum. Washington describes students dropping out our committing suicide from the pressure. He made it through, and with his experience as a soldier (and the son of the Chief Architect) he became the right man for the job.
Studying Washington’s story leads me to think about various topics. I’m mesmerized by what an individual can achieve. The importance of a college education when so many people (myself included) are questioning it’s value today. A ‘new’ type of school that balanced theory with practical knowledge that was around in 1853. Who were the visionaries behind the Civil Engineering program at Rensselaer Polytechnic and how did they come up with such a program? It was a fascinating time, and I’m looking forward to continuing to read about Washington Roebling’s story in building The Great Bridge.