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MLK III to focus on youth participation in politics as professor of practice

King also said adequately protecting free speech at universities is a “critical issue”

<p>King said that universities are on a dangerous trajectory today by not adequately protecting freedom of speech.</p>

King said that universities are on a dangerous trajectory today by not adequately protecting freedom of speech.

Prominent civil rights leader Martin Luther King III is the Center for Politics’ newest professor of practice, a position he said he will use to encourage civic engagement and political awareness among students at the University. In an exclusive interview with The Cavalier Daily, King also discussed top issues in the country like voting rights, freedom of speech and the 2024 election.

Having started his term as a professor of practice March 24, King will visit the University twice each year to give presentations in classes and converse with students on civil rights issues. Professors of practice with the Center do not teach classes, but visit classes periodically and contribute to research at the Center. King’s appointment comes roughly a year after the Center appointed former Rep. Liz Cheney as a professor of practice last spring.

King, the son of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and a prominent activist himself — advocating against racial injustice and for the eradication of violence and poverty — said he hopes to offer a new perspective on key issues like civil rights in today’s political environment.

“It's a great honor bringing a civil and human rights perspective to the political process,” King said. “Institutions of higher learning should have a diversity of perspectives, so that students can be exposed to a large range of information.”

One of King’s scheduled visits to the University is planned to take place in the fall, ahead of the 2024 election. King said participation in this election, as with all others, is a critical part of the democratic process, and he hopes to encourage students to vote through his presentations and conversations during his visits.

“My father used to say that a voteless people was a powerless people,” King said. “One of the most important steps that we can take is that short step to the ballot box.”

King’s father, Martin Luther King Jr., led the fight for voting rights during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and was a key player in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signature of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But since the Voting Rights Act was signed, voting laws have become increasingly restrictive. A 2023 Brennan Center for Justice report revealed that, since 2013, at least 94 restrictive voting laws have been passed in 29 states. King, like his father, is now leading a modern charge against restrictive voting laws.

King currently sits on the board of advisors for Let America Vote, a political action committee that advocates against restrictive voting laws. From 1997 to 2004, King also chaired the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization founded by his father. King has consistently advocated for more accessible voting.

“My point of view is that we ought to be able to have voting even on our phones,” King said. “We pay our bills on our phones … so why are we not able to make it easy to vote?”

But voting is not becoming easier, nor is it on mobile phones.

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. Section 5 previously required states with a history of restricting voting rights to receive preclearance from the federal government to pass voting laws. The 2023 Brennan Center report also estimated that one-third of the restrictive voting laws passed would have been subject to preclearance from the Justice Department before the court’s decision.

Restrictive voting laws are only one problem with voting today, according to King — the other is voter apathy. King even called the level of voter participation in U.S. elections “abysmal.”

“People have become complacent. People have become apathetic,” King said. “And that's why it's so important for young people to be a part of leading.”

While youth turnout reached a record high in 2020 with over half of eligible voters 18-29 casting a ballot, the group votes at variable rates from election to election with especially low turnout in midterm elections. In 2014, for example, youth turnout hit a record low of about 15 percent.

As King joins the Center for Politics, which has also placed an emphasis on combating voter apathy, he will be in good company. The Center held the Hoos Vote initiative Feb. 24 ahead of the Virginia presidential primary. Interns passed out pizza and t-shirts while registering and encouraging students to vote in the March 5 election.

For King, however, the solution is not only voter registration but voter education. When people understand what they are voting for, King argues, they will be more likely to vote.

“The fact of the matter is, government, like any other arena, is complicated,” King said. “People may not understand why [they] need to vote.”

King said he wants to be a part of that education. In his visits to the University as a professor of practice, he said he wants to encourage students to run for office — even immediately out of college — and participate in politics through engaging conversations that encourage bringing new ideas into politics.

New ideas and policy solutions often serve as the focal point of King’s activism. In 2022, King and his family marched in Washington, D.C., where he called on Senate Democrats and President Joe Biden to honor his father — who also advocated for voting rights at the 1963 March on Washington — by passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The legislation would restore the protections of Section 5, but it ultimately failed in the Senate as Democrats were unable to overcome a Republican filibuster.

Still, King said if Democrats hold the Senate and win back control of the House of Representatives, new voting rights legislation will likely be introduced. 

And though King may support Democrats on the issue of voting rights, he has a nonpartisan outlook on the Israel-Hamas war — one of more pressing issues facing college campuses.

Since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza, students and administrators have expressed concern over rhetoric about the conflict, including where to draw the line between protecting free speech while still limiting hate speech. 

King said that universities are on a dangerous trajectory today by not adequately protecting freedom of speech. He even suggested that the Ku Klux Klan, which he called a “separatist” group, should have the right to exist so long as it is not promoting hate.

“If you want to be a separatist, that's your prerogative,” King said. “But you can't be a separatist and advocate hate and doing harm to others.”

Avoiding hate while protecting freedom of speech is an issue King said was critical. He said he hopes for a brighter future with less hate and more civil discourse, saying the current path is not sustainable.

“[With] a sustainable model that all of us can benefit from, we can live in a world of peace and harmony with justice for all,” King said.


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