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. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., represents the city of Memphis, which has one of the highest percentages of African-Americans in the country and was the site of King's assassination in 1968. Following are edited excerpts from the interview.
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I was a student in junior high school when Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. I saw it on television with one of my brothers and was so moved and inspired by Dr. King’s words and how the crowd responded to him. My brothers and I followed the civil-rights movement from the very beginning, and we each had our favorite leaders. Mine was Julian Bond of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but Dr. King’s "Dream" speech really made an impression on me.
What memories do you have of King's assassination?
I was a student at Vanderbilt University at the time and learned of Dr. King’s assassination while in my freshman dormitory. I was shocked and appalled by the news of his death and thought of my family and friends in Memphis. I also remember watching the funeral in my freshman dormitory lounge and thought of Memphis and how martial law had been declared there. Martial law had also been declared in Nashville, Tenn., and there were tanks on the streets near my campus.
It was all so strange, frightening, and sad. As a child I’d been in the Lorraine Motel, so I knew the location of the assassination well. The assassination of [President Kennedy] in Dallas left that city with a bad image for many, and I hoped a stigma wouldn’t hang over my hometown of Memphis.
Has King—the man or the message—informed decisions in your career or personal life?
Ever since being elected to Congress, I’ve been wearing my “Build the Dream” bracelet. I think about Dr. King every day as I do my best to serve my constituents, Memphis, and our country. I often look at my MLK bracelet when faced with a difficult decision or antagonism from political opponents.
Thoughts of Dr. King and his eloquent wisdom—I keep many of his quotes around my desk—help to keep me calm and focused on how best to help people.
Is there a song that evokes King’s legacy, or the civil-rights movement?
Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan.
Is King’s message relevant to any contemporary civil-rights or equality issues?
Dr. King’s message is relevant to all current issues facing our country. His views are relevant to the war in Afghanistan, the war machine in America, and how much we spend on defense, the health care debate, economic justice that is being denied and delayed, threats to Social Security, Medicaid, and voting rights, and budget cuts for social safety programs. These are all things that still exist, [things] that Dr. King fought to rectify. And those are just some of the reasons why Dr. King’s views are still relevant and why I will attend the dedication ceremony of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial.
Interview conducted by Christopher Snow Hopkins.