Forty-nine years ago today, the shots fired at a hotel balcony in Memphis changed the nation. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King is marked each year by the People’s Organization for Progress with a rally in Newark. Chair Larry Hamm spoke with NJTV News Correspondent David Cruz about progress made over the nearly half century since King’s death. And what the civil rights leader might have thought of conditions in the country today.
Cruz: So with Dr. King we celebrate the birthday, obviously. But you don’t hear that many commemorations about the day he was killed, which I think is as important a date and says a lot about our history as much as the date of his birth. Would you agree with that?
Hamm: I absolutely agree with that. It’s just as important as the birthday because, number one, many of us still consider the assassination of Dr. King an open matter. And many of us are still calling for an investigation, particularly after a federal district court in response to a suit brought by his widow, Coretta Scott King, determined that his death was the result of a conspiracy that involved intelligence agencies here in the United States. But more importantly, at the time of his death, Dr. King was in Memphis, Tenn. trying to help black sanitation workers organize a local of ASME and trying to get justice for working people. And that was in the middle of the Poor People’s Campaign, which really was his unfinished magnum opus. He was trying really to merge the movement for civil rights with the movement for economic justice.
Cruz: I always wonder if Dr. King’s non-violent philosophy of protest, how it would go over today.
Hamm: Well, as one who participates today in protest, I would say Dr. King’s philosophy is still in full effect. Ninety-nine percent of the protests I’ve either been involved in or have observed for the most part have been non-violent. So I think people, whether they’re doing it consciously or unconsciously, are still pursuing social change along the non-violent path. It is my hope that the changes that need to be made are made non-violently because the costs of violent uprising are so great.
Cruz: What do you think Dr. King would think of our current president?
Hamm: I think Dr. King would be marching today against Donald Trump. I think Dr. King would be greatly disheartened and the irony is that one of the great achievements of the Civil Rights Movement was the passage of the Voting Rights Act and today in the 21st century in 2017, African-Americans actually have less protection as far as their voting rights are concerned as they did at the time of the passage of the Voting Rights Act because what has happened over the past almost half century has been the dilution of voting rights protections as a result of decisions by the Supreme Court.
Cruz: The attorney general just issued an order to have the Department of Justice review all consent decrees. I would imagine that includes Newark, which has just had this historic consent decree. What danger does that represent to reforms in this city?
Hamm: Absolutely. It represents the greatest threat to reform because it’s clear that the objective of the Trump administration is to take us back, to go backward from reform. To, in fact, return what many might consider the Jim Crow era. And in this city we’ve made progress in terms of police reform and now all of that is in jeopardy as a result of Jeff Sessions’ decisions. I mean, you can see a progression. The Fraternal Order of Police, they endorsed Donald Trump. Donald Trump is elected. He appoints Jeff Sessions who had such a terrible record that even the widow — Coretta Scott King — criticized him and opposed his appointment as a federal judge. And as soon as Jeff Sessions is appointed as head of the Justice Department as the U.S. attorney general, what does he do? He says we’re going to step back. We’re not going to interfere with local police matters. We’re going to put all of those projects that the Justice Department was involved in under Attorney General Loretta Lynch, all of those are now going to be under review. And he’s even said that he’s going to follow the president’s lead in terms of investigating voter fraud, which we know is a red herring because there’s no significant voter fraud in the United States.