The nephew of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the keynote speaker Sunday afternoon when the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in North Little Rock and the Arkansas MLK Commission co-sponsored the "Celebration of Worship in Unity" service in the days approaching MLK holiday on Jan. 21.
"I do not remember Dr. King," said Isaac Newton Farris, Jr., 48, of Atlanta, Ga., "I remember Uncle M.L."
Farris, the son of Christine King Farris, who is a surviving sister of Martin Luther King. "I have a lot of vivid memories but they are family memories."
Farris said he remembers playing with his Uncle M.L. as well as riding bikes.
Farris said many people didn’t know the personal side of his uncle.
"I remember he used to play jokes on people," Farris said. "He liked making people laugh and telling jokes."
Farris said he had a talent as a young man most ministers don’t.
"If my uncle was not a man of the cloth he probably could have made a living professionally as a pool player." Farris said. "He used it in his work."
Farris said he would use his pool playing skill as a recruiting tool to get men into church.
"He would make bets and say, ‘If I beat you, you are going to my church’."
Farris said there were many prideful men who didn’t think a preacher could beat them at pool. But many of them did get beat by Uncle M.L. and would have to pay their debt by going to church.
Farris said he believes his uncle’s message of racial harmony, dealing with social injustices, and bringing about societal change through non-violent means is more relevant today than during his lifetime.
"We are entering into a new phase in American society. We are truly beginning to integrate as a society," Farris said. "We would not have an African American president if white Americans had not bought into that."
Farris said more political parties are seeing non-white candidates and elected representatives.
"We are beginning to become that melting pot," Farris said. "That is why this melting pot is so relevant. His message basically was, ‘We are all God’s children.’ And we are responsible to and for one another. Regardless what God we worship or political party we are a part of, we should accept the fact that we are all God’s children. We are all human beings."
Farris does a lot of traveling promoting the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He currently serves as the president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was co-founded by his uncle.
Farris said he came to Central Arkansas because he wanted to show support of work being done by the Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission and its current executive director, DuShun Scarbrough.
Scarbrough said it was an honor that Farris came to Central Arkansas.
Scarbrough said, "The Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission welcomes Mr. Farris to our state. We are sincere about teaching Dr. King’s philosophy of love and nonviolence. I believe that today’s celebration of worship will help Arkansas see growth and change within our communities."
Farris was asked if he believed America needs a spiritual renewal, which he responded that the country does need one. However, the issue of spiritual renewal can become a bit tricky, according to Farris.
"We could use a spiritual renewal but how do we achieve that?" said Farris. "Your god is your god to you."
Farris said the most divisive force in human history has been over religion.
"Our greatest tragedy took place when about a dozen men thought they were doing God’s work and crashed into buildings," Farris said.
Farris was also asked about he believed would be some effective strategies to curtail the number of young African American males who are disproportionately getting into trouble with the law and underperforming in society in comparison to other racial/gender classifications in the United States.
Farris said one of the final issues that his uncle undertook before his death in 1968 was the issue of poverty in America.
"It was called the poor people’s campaign," Farris said. "It is a complex solution. Clearly family values have a role to play."
In past generations, communities were much more closely knit. Single motherhood is nothing new but in past years if there were a single mother a child had many other adults looking out for him or her.
Another problem not helping some African American males has been the evolution of the American criminal justice system to include an economic development component.
"This is unfortunate, but jails have become a business," Farris said. "You can almost track the growth in the Three Strikes You are Out and the growth of the prison industrial complex."
Farris said it would be helpful if the country reexamined how it dealt with drugs.
"Nine out of 10 of these young men get into the system first because they had some marijuana," Farris said. "Once they get into the system, they have got to survive in the system. We are sending young males to jail when they had a joint and once they get into the system they have to become a menace to survive. You might go into prison for a couple of years and leave with a totally different mentality."
Farris said he believes America is well on its way of being the country his uncle dreamt about.
"We are at a crossroads," Farris said.
Farris said he believes the 2012 Presidential election was a major historical event for the country.
"Look at what happened in the debate. You had a debate of big government verses small government," Farris said. Big government verses small government in providing assistance to people."
Farris said he believes the unfortunate natural disaster of Hurricane Sandy striking the Northeast in the days before the Presidential Election bolstered the argument that big government is necessary in some venues to take care of situations that are too large for most individuals to fix on their own.
Farris added that while he believes a big government should have a role to play in American society, he does not believe that government is the answer to every problem.
Farris said there is a philosophy among some people in America that supports the "looking out for yourself" mentality and "fend for yourself." But Farris said he believes that is not where the country should be headed and he believes that is not the path that his uncle would have supported either.