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Martin Luther King III Embraces His Family's Legacy to Fight For Change

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Craig and Marc Kielburger, founders of Free The Children and Me to We, introduce us to not-so-ordinary people who are making a difference.

Martin Luther King III has a built-in public legacy. His father, iconic American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated when he was ten years old. His grandmother, Alberta Williams King, wife of Baptist preacher and early activist King Sr., was gunned down in her church six years later. A young King became embroiled in both politics and personal grief as he learned about sacrifice, public service, trauma, forgiveness and compassion.

When we spoke with King recently at We Day Seattle, he considered how much his fateful family name had shaped his ideals.

"I would like to believe that had I not been raised in the environment that I was raised in, that I would still have the desire and level of consciousness to want to create a better world. But I don't know, honestly, because this has been my life."

King embraced the legacy. He took up his father's struggle for racial equality in America -- as an elected official, community rights activist, and as head of The Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1997, the civil rights organization founded by his father four decades earlier. Today, he heads The King Center in Atlanta, dedicated to advancing his father's legacy.

He keeps faith in his father's dream for equality, and today, fights for what King Jr. called "the beloved community." Martin Luther King III is a changemaker.

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(Photo by Scott Ramsay)

Lots of people look to you as a role model; who is your hero?

My first hero, after my father passed, was my grandfather because he was the person that helped mould who I became.

After my grandfather passed in 1984, it became Mr. [Nelson] Mandela because of what he represents and represented: A man who served 27 years in jail and came out embracing love. In [apartheid South Africa] where he could have held onto hostility, but he never chose to, he always strived for the best and highest in our society and world. And that I have to respect because that is what my mom and dad taught me as a child.

What do you think is the biggest social issue of our time?

Addressing youth violence. Violence is epidemic. When a violent incident becomes fatal, it not only affects the person who did it and his family, but of course the family of the victim. Life is ruined for people with these acts of fatal violence.

A broader issue, and in some cases one of the causes of [that violence], is poverty in America. Forty-five years ago, before my father died, there were about 25 million people in poverty. Today, there are 55 million, maybe 60, living in poverty. People were getting out of poverty then the foreclosure crisis came and it thrust a group of people back into poverty. So I think that's a huge issue that we as a society have not figured out how to address.

If you could have a socially-conscious superpower and change one thing about the world, what would it be?

I would attempt to rid the world of greed to create a consciousness of compassion, because I believe compassion leads to wanting to help others.

People ultimately don't want you to just give to them. People don't want sympathy, they want empathy. They want you to feel with them, to be engaged. When young people go to countries and help build housing or sewer systems or clean up the environment, that's working with the people. You can easily raise money and just send it -- and that's good, that's okay -- but it's even better to empathize and be there with people through their struggle.

I think we live in a world where a few have an abundance. There's a one per cent factor that seems to be garnering more and more wealth and it's an imbalance. And I'm not suggesting that people who have a skill, a talent, should not be able to make as much as they can, but there are some who [are] obsessed, and that's their focus, and so it becomes greed.

We believe in living me to we: making choices that positively impact the world, instead of just ourselves. Describe the moment you decided you wanted to give back.

I can't tell you when there was a moment. I'll say this much though: I became an elected official when I was younger, in my late twenties. One of the ways that I thought I could give back to the community that nourished my growth and development was through public service. And I think we need more public servants, by the way. I chose to run for office. You can do all sorts of things in public service.

That was probably not my first experience just because my entire life had been exposed to service, between what my dad and mom did, so my situation was a little unusual.

I carry a very powerful name and have carried it throughout my life. Our world is not functioning at its optimum level, anywhere near in fact, and so if I can use my name, my influence to create what my father and mother would have called " the beloved community," then I've done something good.

We work with so many young people. Looking back, what advice would you give your high-school self?

The first thing that was taught in my household was to love myself. You really can't love other selves if you don't first love you.

The second thing I realized was I had a loving family, so I had to also understand the importance of loving my family.

The third thing: It was important to have a love of our community.

And the final thing is my faith. And that is love of self, love of family, love of community, and love of God.

We all understand love. There are many who believe in God and there are some who don't and I'm not here to debate that with anybody. I'm just saying that this is what worked for me. And so if there is something in that experience you might be able to embrace, then I would. Here's a formula.

If people from the future were talking about you, what would you want them to say? What kind of legacy do you want to leave?

First, and perhaps foremost, I have a child -- I hope my wife and I are blessed to have another child -- but we have a daughter, and so I want the world to be a better world for her and her generation and those who are coming behind.

There are triple evils that my dad and mom talked about: the eradication of poverty, racism, violence and militarism. And it's a huge goal. No one individual can achieve this, but what we can do is create the climate in the world so that these obstacles can be overcome.

I think it's really sad that in this country, in the United States of America, in every major city you have homeless people and it doesn't make sense. Everybody can't be wealthy, that's a given, but everybody in America should have a decent job, should be able to have the best quality education, should be able to have a decent home. Everyone should have health care and everyone should have justice.

So now, how do I play into all of those things that I want to see? I hope that my legacy is I've used my voice and I've used my energy and resources to mobilize this community, this nation -- and maybe even the world -- to bring about these changes because I'm one who really does believe that the work of a few will transform many.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.