The Dream Deferred

In advance of his RealTime Philadelphia keynote presentation, the elder son of America's greatest civil-rights leader offers provocative ideas on how to combine economic growth, digital innovation, and a commitment to social justice.

Martin Luther King III was just five years old when his father delivered the sermon that rocked a nation. On August 28, 1963, he couldn't have known how his father's dream would shape the civil-rights movement, U.S. politics, and his own life forever.

Today, King serves as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization founded by his father in 1957 to combat segregation and racism through grassroots activism. Although the SCLC no longer enjoys the visibility it did during his father's heyday, King is working hard to restore passion, purpose, and relevance to the organization through education and community building.

In an interview with fastcompany.com in advance of his RealTime Philadelphia keynote presentation, the elder son of America's greatest civil-rights leader examines the new economy's broken promises and missed opportunities. Here, King challenges today's leaders to bring the dream to life through economic growth, digital innovation, and community building.

Nearly 40 years ago, your father dreamed that his four children would live in a nation where they would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Will America realize that dream in your lifetime?

America will absolutely fulfill my father's dream. But we have a long, long way to go. This country has accomplished nearly everything it has put its mind to. Yet we still live with poverty, racism, and violence. To demolish barriers to the dream, we must focus as a nation and work tirelessly toward a solution. I believe that the solution lies in education.

There are some hopeful signs in America today. For example, African-Americans hold prominent leadership positions at major corporations and institutions like American Express, the Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Fannie Mae. The number of black leaders is nowhere near great, but it's a start. The truth remains that people are too often judged by their skin, not their character. It's sad but very true.

I am most discouraged by the growing prison population in America. My father used to say that violence is the language of the unheard. This country's high homicide rate suggests that a huge number of people still do not feel included in society. If we can create the opportunity for more citizens to participate in this remarkable economy, I believe that we can reduce the number of frustrated people who embrace crime.

We must find a way to include people, rather than exclude them, from the vast opportunities available today. We have the ability to do almost anything as a nation, but we have to look into the depths of our souls and identify the will. When ability meets will, success is created.

Some people suggest that the recent explosion of wealth has created an even greater divide among genders, cultures, and races in America. Have the past five years brought greater opportunity or greater frustration to the civil-rights movement?

In some ways, the new economy concentrated our attention on the wrong things. We became preoccupied with the accumulation of wealth through stock options, signing bonuses, and investments. It's good to aspire to greatness, but greatness does not necessarily mean a big house and an expensive car. As a nation, we need to promote more redeeming metrics than paychecks and property. We need to stop asking how we, as individuals, can strike it rich and to begin asking how we, as a community, can help every person make a decent living.

America has been living in denial for the past 20 years. We are a dysfunctionally functional nation. Most of us live and work in insane environments. We work nonstop to provide for our children financially while neglecting them emotionally and spiritually. We function despite the insanity. Our nation needs help.

Whenever a crisis erupts in a school or workplace, we send in counselors to help the victims. That is a positive thing. But we are sick all the time, and we don't know it. For example, a majority of Americans don't think that this country suffers from serious discrimination problems. Yet African-Americans still face racial profiling and discrimination when they enter a shopping mall, apply for a home loan, or drive home from work. Gays and lesbians still face outright homophobia and hostility daily. Women still receive lower wages and less venture-capital funding than their male counterparts.

Forty million Americans go to bed hungry every night. We don't often hear about those people on network television because America likes to pretend that they don't exist. As a result, a huge population feels unimportant and unwanted. We must work to become a more inclusive nation.

How can digital technology and business innovation work to reverse these discouraging trends?

The Internet has the potential to be a true equalizer among races, sexes, and ages. The Web's anonymity allows content to overshadow color. At the same time, the poorest and most underserved members of our society are not allowed the opportunity to utilize and benefit from this technology. They are falling victim to poor schools and low socioeconomic levels that prevent them from learning the technology.

America has gone wrong somewhere. We are importing a workforce of talented people to bolster the technology sector. Yet we have an entire population in America that wants to learn these trades but that doesn't have access to adequate education and training. For selfish reasons, we should all want to develop the minds of the generations coming after us so that U.S. companies will have a viable workforce for the future. I understand why we are importing so much talent today, but I don't understand why our education system is failing. If we applied the same ingenuity to education that we do to business, our society would succeed beyond our wildest dreams.

How can business leaders begin to turn the tide?

My father said that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. All you need is a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love. I believe that today's business leaders can make a huge difference by giving their talent, expertise, and time. Anyone can give a little money, but by mentoring someone once a week, a business leader can help produce the next Bill Gates, Colin Powell, or Dr. Benjamin Carson. One of our greatest challenges is harnessing the power of our incredibly smart and successful business leaders to help our underserved people.

On a national scale, President Bush needs to convene a group of top business leaders to focus on this question: How can America apply the principles of business success to protect and serve its children? I would like to see a coalition of retired business people sink its teeth into a project that is centered on learning. I would like to see the most experienced members of the business community create a blueprint, a pilot project designed to infuse our national education system with solid, proven business standards. Business leaders' expertise is so valuable. And America needs it.

How are you working with the SCLC to deliver on the new economy's promises?

The people whom I represent are the least of God's children. They cannot pay their electric bills. They cannot pay their rent. They are living on a fixed income — or no income at all. We need to address these economic realities before we can push forward. The SCLC is working to unite all of its 50 chapters and 25 affiliates through education and technology. We are wiring all of our chapter offices and introducing computer training for our members.

Before we can mobilize people around a cause, we must revive the dialogue and get the message out. We must help our constituents understand the issues facing them, and we must help them feel empowered to change those issues. So, in addition to computer training, the SCLC is using the Web to spark conversation about issues like racial profiling.

There are hundreds of Web sites dedicated to hatred and hostility. The Internet can promote division and racial insensitivity, but it can also promote love and harmony. I don't believe in suppressing freedom of speech, but I do believe that we can drown out hatred by creating 10,000 sites dedicated to justice and tolerance. We must show our children that there is far more love and fairness in the world than prejudice and hatred. We've got a lot of work ahead of us.

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