EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the latest in a series of reflections on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. ahead of the dedication of a new memorial to the civil-rights leader on the National Mall. Richard Parsons is chairman of Citigroup and a prominent African-American business executive. He turned 20 years old on April 4, 1968--the day King was assassinated. Following are edited excerpts from the interview.
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Where were you and what were you doing on August 28, 1963?
To me, the ["I Have a Dream" speech] wasn't one of those searing, indelible moments one never forgets, like the assassination of President Kennedy or, for that matter, the assassination of Dr. King.
I was aware of the great March on Washington, but, as a 15-year-old native New Yorker--who grew up in the North, lived in an integrated neighborhood, went to an integrated school, and had as many white friends as black--the civil-rights movement had, for me, a kind of once-removed quality. It was something important, and clearly right, but it wasn't exactly my fight--or so I remember feeling.
It wasn't until I went to college the following year that "the movement" took on personal meaning to me. It was there, in the ferment of ideas that challenged preexisting beliefs, that I began to internalize the scope and importance of the movement and to appreciate its profound relevance to me.
What memories do you have of King’s assassination?
Dr. King was assassinated on my 20th birthday. A group of friends and I had gathered to celebrate when the news came across the wire. I remember all of us spending the rest of the evening glued to the television, watching one American city after another go up in flames. We all cried a lot and railed against this towering tragedy. Inwardly, I mourned the loss of the most eloquent and righteous man of our times.
Has King—the man or the message—informed decisions in your career or personal life?
It was in [college], with Dr. King's now-famous call for America to live out the true meaning of its creed echoing in my head, that I decided to become a lawyer. If things were going to change in our country, I saw the law as the instrument to bring it about.
Is there a song that for you evokes King’s legacy, or the civil-rights movement?
Bob Dylan's The Times They Are a-Changin'.
Is King’s message relevant to any contemporary civil-rights or equality issues?
Though 43 years have come and gone since Dr. King was taken from us, and America is a much different place than it was when he was here (and a better place, thanks in large measure to his influence), we still have yet to live up to the fullness of his vision. His hope--his dream--that one day our children will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character remains a work in process. It is as relevant, and urgent, today as it was in August of 1963.
Interview conducted by Christopher Snow Hopkins