Isaac Newton Farris Jr. was just six years old when his uncle was murdered in 1968. He remembers the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as “Uncle M.L.,” his mother’s lighthearted younger brother, fond of bike rides and pranks. Yet King’s profound message — to look for ways to help others and to remain nonviolent in deeds and words — is no less important now than it was then, he noted.
Farris reflected on King the family man and King the leader in an interview-style discussion at the McNamara Headquarters Complex Jan. 16, as part of an event to honor King’s upcoming birthday. Farris is a senior fellow at and a former president and CEO of The King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, which houses many of King’s papers and belongings. He is also a past president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King founded in 1955.
Moderating the event was Melissa Tune of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Air Force Col. Mark Tate, director of strategic policy and programs at Defense Logistics Agency Energy, served as the master of ceremonies.
If alive today, Farris said, King would emphasize action focus reflected in the event’s theme: “Remember, Celebrate, Act: A Day On, Not a Day Off!” In fact, soon after King’s birthday became a federal holiday in 1986, the King family urged a refocus of the commemoration as a day to help others. The day is now the only federal holiday to be designated a day of service, Farris noted.
“He would not want it to be a day of hero-worship of him,” Farris said. “He would say, ‘Get out there and do something to help somebody.’ ”
An emphasis on action was also reflected in a musical performance. With Eric L. Taylor accompanying on violin, Army Lt. Nafrettifi Griffin, reserve forces adviser at the National Security Agency, sang what Farris noted was one of his uncle’s favorite inspirational songs, “If I Can Help Somebody.” Griffin also sang the national anthem to open the ceremony.
The commander of DLA Energy likewise urged the audience to use Jan. 21 to focus on serving others versus oneself. “People in this room and [viewing] online have service in their DNA,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Albert Miller said. “Think about opportunities to choose how you serve and be of service to your community.”
Nonviolence is the other critical facet of King’s message, Farris said. That includes not just physical violence but also “the way we address each other — particularly in our politics. I think he’d be concerned about that, because he was always about people — not races, not cultures but humanity.”
However, King’s nonviolence should not be misinterpreted, he noted. If alive today, King “would be a very big supporter of the military and of having a strong military,” Farris said.
Although his uncle and his fellow leaders in the civil rights movement advocated nonviolence in their protests — even when attacked with violence — he noted King would not have advocated against everyday self-defense, by the individual or the nation.
Farris recalled as a child noticing that his uncle, for every holiday family gathering, was the last to arrive and the first to leave. At the time, he said he didn't realize King, as the leader of the movement to secure civil rights for all Americans, was on the road most of the time.
An audience member asked Farris how much of King’s “dream” from his historic 1963 speech he reckons American society has accomplished so far. “I’d say we’re maybe about 50 percent there,” Farris said. “I think we have done an excellent job as a country of wiping away surface racism. The racism that exists is below the surface; it’s a kind of unconscious racism.”
Farris noted that as society changes and becomes more of a true melting pot, it’s not surprising that some would feel some anxiety. To address fears both legitimate and not, “it’s important to have the conversation” with those who are different, he emphasized.
“And that’s a difficult thing to do … because we have not changed the terms of the conversation,” he explained. “It’s got to be a lot more than ‘white people mistreating black people.’ … If one of us is the bad guy in every conversation, how many conversations are you going to have with me?”
Those conversations, however difficult, will help unify America over time, Farris said.
After all, he noted, his uncle “was not just a black leader. He was a human leader. His message was for all America.”
The event was co-sponsored by the Defense Technical Information Center and the Defense Contract Audit Agency, in addition to DLA and DTRA.