This article originally appeared in our January 1985 issue.
My father was sent to do a very specific job. . . . He was a God-sent man and when his work was done he moved on higher. . . . —Yolanda Denise King
“I hate the man who killed my daddy." That's what 12-year old Yolanda King said to her mother several hours after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. As they sat on the bed in Coretta Scott King's dimly lit bedroom, the widow of the slain civil rights leader gathered all her courage and compassion and told her oldest child, "Your daddy wouldn't want you to (hate the man)." With tears streaming down her face, Yolanda looked at her mother and said, "I'm not going to cry, I'm just not going to cry, because my daddy is really not dead and one day I'm going to see him again - in heaven." Mrs. King put her arms around Yolanda and said, "Your daddy would be so proud of you."
Earlier that day, April 4, 1968, at 6:01 p.m., as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, leaning slightly forward talking to someone below, a Remmington-Peters soft-point, metal-jacket bullet, fired from a high-velocity .30-06 rifle, entered the right side of Dr. King's face, one inch to the right of and one inch below his mouth. The bullet fractured his jaw, exited the lower part of his face and reentered his body in the neck area. The disintegrating shell severed numerous vital arteries, fractured King's spinal column in several places and came to rest on the left side of his back. A few hours later, at St. Joseph's Hospital, he died.
In Atlanta, Yolanda had been watching the news on television while her brothers, Martin III and Dexter, and sister Bernice, played in the spacious, five-bedroom King home on Sunset Street, near Morris Brown College. There was a story on the news about the speech her father had given the previous night in Memphis, where he had gone to participate in a strike of that city's garbage collectors. "He looked sad," Yolanda recalls. "His eyes were somewhere else, he looked removed, there was a detachment I had never seen before."
Shortly after the broadcast was over, a special bulletin aired announcing that King had been shot. Yolanda screamed and ran into the room where her mother was already getting the news by telephone from Jesse Jackson. Yolanda went to her room to pray: "Please don't let my daddy die."
'It's Real Bad'
Sixteen years later Coretta King is sitting in her spacious office, with its panoramic view of the courtyard of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change. She is busily opening correspondence with an ebony letter opener and trying to eat a quick meal before rushing off to a meeting. She is recalling, for the sake of a reporter, the day her husband died.
"It seemed like all the children came in at the same time, just after I got the first call from Jesse. . . . Jesse calling me first was kind of odd in a way, because I wasn't that close to Jesse. . . . With no tact, he said, 'Mrs. King, Doc just got shot and you better catch the first thing smokin' to Memphis.' A few minutes later. Andy (Young) telephoned and asked, 'Coretta, did you hear about Martin? ... Well I'll tell you, it's real bad, but he's alive and you need to come right away.' "Mrs. King sighs softly, remembering. "Just the fact that Andy had to mention that and there was something in his voice, I said to myself, 'This is probably it.'"
That was "it."
And with the last breath exhaled from King's body, the wind left the sails of the civil rights movement, a people were without a leader, a country had lost its provocateer of social justice and the world was absent one of the most inspirational men of this century.
But in addition, in a more private way, four children, ages 12, 10, 7 and 5, had lost their father.
Mrs. King has pursued her late husband's dream of racial harmony. But it is the children who have had to work out how to incorporate their father's social and spiritual legacy into their own lives. "We were able to convey to the children that what their daddy was doing was important," Mrs. King says, "in the sense that he was doing God's work and that he was helping people. . . . Going to jail became a badge of honor, rather than disgrace for them. They thought what Daddy was doing was noble because of the way it was explained."
An Impressive History
Dr. King was continuing, albeit magnified, the leadership-role endemic to his family. Yolanda, Marty, Dexter and Bunny are not the prodigy of some poor obscure son of a black family from Georgia and his Alabama farm girl bride. They are the inheritors of three generations of family history steeped in service and community stature.
Their paternal great-grandfather, the Rev. A.D. Williams, founded Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1894 and was its pastor until his death in 1931. Under his leadership, and later the pastorate of their paternal grandfather, the late Martin Luther King, Sr., "Daddy" King, the congregation grew to more than 4,000 members. The church became a bedrock of Auburn Avenue, that isle of economic, social and cultural enterprise for the South's blacks during the segregated first two-thirds of this century.
Daddy King, as he was universally called, led the fight for equal pay for black and white teachers in Atlanta, wouldn't ride on the city's segregated buses and helped eliminate Jim Crow elevators in the local courthouse. He passed away in November, following a lifetime of civil rights service.
On their mother's side, the King children's great-grandfather, Jeff Scott, owned the 300-acre farm near Marion, Alabama, on which their mother was born. Their maternal grandparents, Obadiah and Bernice Scott, were the proprietors of a small trucking firm, a gas station, a grocery store and a chicken farm around Marion. They sent their daughter Coretta to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where her sister had been the first black to integrate the school. Coretta would meet M.L. King, as he was called then, in 1962, while they were both pursuing postgraduate work in Boston: she at the New England Conservatory of Music while he was studying for a doctorate at Boston University.
The international fame of their father might have left the King children haughty. It has not. They are humble people, who do without the trappings of celebrity. There are no limousines, no bodyguards and no swollen egos. Yolanda, Marty, Dexter and Bernice grew up in the same house that their parents purchased 25 years ago and where their mother still lives with Bernice.
Although Dr. King spent much of his time traveling, he was very close to his children. "Martin always set aside time for family outings," Mrs. King remembers "We'd go bowling, we'd swim in Herman Russell's indoor pool and we'd attend the annual Southeastern Fair. He was able to convey to the children that they were a priority. . . . They always felt that Daddy loved them.
"They had a lot of fun with him," she says as a faint smile crosses her face, "He was not the one to discipline them. Unfortunately, I had to be the disciplinarian and do most of the teaching on how they were to behave. . . . I often felt that Martin was so deprived in one sense; he loved children so much, he wanted to have eight. . . . "
After the assassination, "It was hard," Mrs. King says. "For a while, the children were afraid when I would go someplace." Once, 5-year-old Bernice pleaded with her mother not to go to the bank. "Don't go, don't do!, you might get shot," she said. "Later. . . "Mrs. King continues, "when I started traveling more, I asked them if they were afraid. They said 'Well not really because you always come back.' That helped reassure me. But once Marty told me, as I was preparing to go to Charleston, South Carolina: 'I understand about you having to do Daddy's work and all that, but sometimes I wish I had two Mommies, one to write books and do Daddy's work and one to stay home with us.' They understood," Mrs. King says, "But it was painful."
Not only did Yolanda, Marty, Dexter and Bernice understand, they picked up the gauntlet and joined what in the 1980s is the silent struggle for social equality. Although the tools they employ are as different as their personalities and appearances, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change, which started in the basement of their home and is now housed in an $8 million complex adjacent to Ebenezer, is the common skewer that binds them to their father's goals.
"I don't have any choice in my involvement at the center." Twenty-eight year- old Yolanda makes the observation over dinner at the Mansion Restaurant, the candlelight in the dimly lit room reflecting off her glasses. Pushing her long corn-rowed braids aside, she says, "We didn't hear about being responsible, we saw it everyday."
Next page: Balancing a legacy with personal dreams