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Dr. King on Leadership, Malcolm X and Personal Wealth

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In January 1965, Playboy Magazine published Alex Haley’s interview with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., shortly after King received the Nobel Peace Prize. In that historic interview, King talked about Birmingham more than three dozen times, far more than any other city, including his own native city of Atlanta. Here are some excerpts where King. The interview was conducted by author Alex Haley.

Alex Haley: Whom do you consider the most responsible Negro leaders?

Martin Luther King Jr.: Well, I would say that Roy Wilkins of the NAACP has proved time and again to be a very articulate spokesman for the rights of Negroes. He is a most able administrator and a dedicated organization man with personal resources that have helped the whole struggle. Another outstanding man is Whitney Young Jr. of the National Urban League, an extremely able social scientist. He has developed a meaningful balance between militancy and moderation. James Farmer of CORE is another courageous, dedicated and thoughtful civil rights spokesman. I have always been impressed by how he maintains a freshness in his awareness of the meaning of the whole quest for freedom. And John Lewis of SNCC symbolizes the kind of strong militancy, courage and creativity that our youth have brought to the civil rights struggle. But I feel that the greatest leader of these times that the Negro has produced is A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, whose total integrity, depth of dedication and caliber of statesmanship set an example for us all.

Malcolm X

Haley: One of the most articulate champions of Black Afro-American brotherhood has been Malcolm X, the former Black Muslim leader who recently renounced his racist past and converted to orthodox Mohammedanism. What is your opinion of him and his career? (One month after this interview was published in Playboy Magazine in January 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated in New York City on February 21, 1966 while preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity at the Audubon Ballroom in the neighborhood of Washington Heights).

King: I met Malcolm X once in Washington, but circumstances didn’t enable me to talk with him for more than a minute. He is very articulate, as you say, but I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views—at least insofar as I understand where he now stands. I don’t want to seem to sound self-righteous, or absolutist, or that I think I have the only truth, the only way. Maybe he does have some of the answer. I don’t know how he feels now, but I know that I have often wished that he would talk less of violence, because violence is not going to solve our problem. And in his litany of articulating the despair of the Negro without offering any positive, creative alternative, I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice. Fiery, demagogic oratory in the Black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief.

Haley: For them or for whites?

King: For everyone, but mostly for them. Even the extremist leaders who preach revolution are invariably unwilling to lead what they know would certainly end in bloody, chaotic and total defeat; for in the event of a violent revolution, we would be sorely outnumbered. And when it was all over, the Negro would face the same unchanged conditions, the same squalor and deprivation—the only difference being that his bitterness would be even more intense, his disenchantment even more abject. Thus, in purely practical as well as moral terms, the American Negro has no rational alternative to nonviolence.

Personal Wealth

Haley: Many Southern whites have accused you of being among those who exploit the race problem for private gain. You are widely believed throughout the South, in fact, to have amassed a vast personal fortune in the course of your civil rights activities.

King: Me wealthy? This is so utterly fallacious and erroneous that I often wonder where it got started. For the sixth straight year since I have been S.C.L.C.’s president, I have rejected our board’s insistent recommendation that I accept some salary beyond the one dollar a year which I receive, which entitles me to participate in our employees’ group insurance plan. I have rejected also our board’s offer of financial gifts as a measure and expression of appreciation. My only salary is from my church, $4000 a year, plus $2000 more a year for what is known as “pastoral care.” To earn a grand total of about $10,000 a year, I keep about $4000 to $5000 a year for myself from the honorariums that I receive from various speaking engagements. About 90 percent of my speaking is for S.C.L.C., and it brings into our treasury something around $200,000 a year, Additionally, I get a fairly sizable but fluctuating income in the form of royalties from my writings. But all of this, too, I give to my church, or to my alma mater, Morehouse College, here in Atlanta.
I believe as sincerely as I believe anything that the struggle for freedom in which S.C.L.C. is engaged is not one that should reward any participant with individual wealth and gain. I think I’d rise up in my grave if I died leaving two or three hundred thousand dollars. But people just don’t seem to believe that this is the way I feel about it. If I have any weaknesses, they are not in the area of coveting wealth. My wife knows this well; in fact, she feels that I overdo it. But the Internal Revenue people, they stay on me; they feel sure that one day they are going to find a fortune stashed in a mattress. To give you some idea of my reputed affluence, just last week I came in from a trip and learned that a television program had announced I was going to purchase an expensive home in an all-white neighborhood here in Atlanta. It was news to me!