EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the latest in a series 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. Freshman Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., is one of two African-Americans in the House Republican Conference. Following are edited excerpts from the interview.
What memories do you have of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination?
Being from Atlanta, it had a traumatic effect, especially since I resided in the inner-city neighborhood where King grew up and [also where] Ebenezer Baptist Church was located.
I remember my mother and the other women on our street crying. My dad and the men of the street were trying to console them.... We had a couple of my aunts up visiting from Albany, Ga., and they were completely distraught. It was an incredibly emotional moment. I was [not yet] 10 years old, so it really did not hit home with me, other than watching the sadness in our home and outside.
Has King—the man or the message—informed decisions in your career or personal life?
My elementary school, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School, is located across the street from Ebenezer Baptist Church. Therefore, I grew up under the shadow of Dr. King’s legacy, message, and memory. Each day when I would walk down to the Butler Street YMCA, I would pass by Dr. King’s tomb—I would never walk past without looking over and reflecting. The most important message for me is character, not color!
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Dr. King’s message is and always shall be relevant. It is about individual responsibility and accountability to seek the highest good in your life … as a nation seeks its highest good. America can only be as great as the sum of its parts, all parts.
I think that, if Dr. King were to come back and see what has become of the black community, he would be appalled: The exorbitantly high unemployment rate, the second- and third-generation welfare families, the rampant decimation of the inner-city black communities, the incarceration rate of young black men, and the breakdown of the black family would all bring a tear to his eye.
The black community is now existing on a new plantation, a 21st-century plantation [that] enslaves their will and conscience … actually worse than physical slavery. We have gone backwards from Dr. King’s dream; regardless of certain individual success stories, collectively, we are failing. We have not overcome!
Interview conducted by Christopher Snow Hopkins.