Interview: Bernice King - Civil Rights - Atlanta Magazine

Interview: Bernice King

Martin Luther King’s youngest child is taking over the family business. She discusses responsibility, legacy, and growing up under a shadow of tragedy.

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This article originally appeared in our August 2013 issue.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, his youngest child was just five. She had spent little time with her father; he was so often on the road—jailed in Birmingham a few weeks after her birth, addressing 200,000 people on the National Mall when she was five months old, marching from Selma to Montgomery when she was a toddler. So she clings to her single vivid recollection: When he came home to Atlanta, she would sit on his lap to play the “kissing game.” There was a spot on his face reserved for each of his four children; the forehead belonged to Bernice. Other memories are scattered snapshots: her dad catching her brothers as they leaped from the refrigerator in the kitchen of their redbrick home on Sunset Avenue, or him sitting at the table, snacking on scallions. When she saw him in his casket it looked like he was sleeping, and she wondered if he was hungry, and if so, whether he’d care for a green onion.

As children of one of the most iconic men on earth, Bernice and her siblings—Yolanda (who died in 2007), Martin III, and Dexter—were tasked with carrying on the legacy of a man known as the “conscience of America,” even though their own memories of him could be summoned only in fragments. Dr. King’s most famous speech mentioned a dream that his children would one day be judged solely by the content of their character. Could he ever have imagined such words would set them up for a lifetime of judgment?

The Kings’ inheritance is complex. Their father bequeathed them the burden of great expectations; as children of a world leader for peace and justice, they are presumed to be leaders, just as young princes are destined for thrones, whether equipped to rule or not. Dr. King left them something else. Although he famously cared little for money—he donated his Nobel Prize cash to civil rights causes and died with only $5,000 in the bank and two suits in his closet—his advisers persuaded him to copyright his works. You must leave something to your wife and kids, they insisted.

Those dual birthrights spawned two family businesses. The civil rights legacy is embodied in the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, founded by Coretta Scott King after her husband’s assassination and envisioned as a “living memorial,” with archives for King scholars and hands-on training for would-be social agitators. Originally run at the Atlanta University Center, it opened its Auburn Avenue complex in 1982 and hosted nonviolence workshops, sponsored an annual festival, and opened its library to researchers.

The copyright enterprise—the estate King Inc., and Intellectual Properties Management, which licenses King’s works and image—has been managed for years by Dexter, the younger son, a sometime actor and producer who lives in Los Angeles. While most Americans may believe MLK belongs to history, the tangible stuff he left behind—books, recordings, letters, and indeed his very likeness—remains the property of his heirs. For instance, the family holds the copyright to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech through 2038; if a news outlet wants to rebroadcast the speech in its entirety, the fee is at least $1,700. The King monument, a thirty-foot sculpture of the preacher carved out of granite in Washington, D.C., cost private benefactors and taxpayers $120 million; a portion of the cost—$800,000—went to Intellectual Properties Management for the license to MLK’s crossed-arm likeness and to inscribe his quotes on the statue’s base.

In the 1990s, Coretta Scott King turned management of the King Center over to her sons, and its philosophical ambitions atrophied while the physical facilities deteriorated. The family feuded with the federal government over the National Park Service’s proposed visitors center on the north side of Auburn Avenue, directly opposite the King-run complex. (Baffling though it may seem to the 700,000 pilgrims who visit each year, two entities run the thirty-five-acre King Historic District: The family operates the King Center, while the Park Service operates Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, the King birth home, and its own visitors center.)

Although the Center and IPM are ostensibly separate organizations, they previously shared staff and have boards composed of the same family members. Between 2000 and 2004, according to tax records, the King Center paid more than $4 million in staffing contracts to Intellectual Properties Management. In 2005 Dexter drew a $186,000 salary as the Center’s chief operating officer, while his cousin Isaac Newton Farris Jr. earned $65,000 as president and CEO. (Bernice took no salary as CEO for the Center’s fiscal year ending in mid-2012, according to tax records.)

When Coretta Scott King died in early 2006, most of the King Center’s programs had been discontinued, and the compound—chapel, administration building, auditorium, small exhibit space, and gift shop—was in disrepair. When Mrs. King’s remains joined those of her husband in the marble crypt, the cracked reflecting pool surrounding the tomb bloomed with algae.

After their mother’s death, it was Bernice, the youngest sibling, who took the lead in coordinating the nationally televised funeral attended by four presidents. She delivered the eulogy and—as her mother had done decades earlier after her father’s death—served as the gracious public face of the family’s personal grief. “She had to step out of being Bernice King, daughter, to take on this other role, to be a caretaker and to comfort the masses,” says Imara Canady, a former executive with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and a longtime friend of Bernice’s.

Relations between the siblings soured following oldest sister Yolanda’s death from heart disease in 2007. In 2008 Bernice and Martin III sued Dexter over his management of their father’s estate, including the licensing deal for the monument. Dexter in turn sued Bernice for refusing to release some of their mother’s papers. The Kings settled, and in 2009 a judge appointed attorney/entrepreneur Terry Giles custodian of both the Center and King Inc. Serving as a sort of tough-love counselor, Giles helped the siblings craft a business plan and carve out a truce.

Today Dexter chairs the King Center board but remains focused on the intellectual property business. Martin serves as a Center board member. The daily operations of the King Center are left to Bernice, who has been CEO since January 2012.

Like her father, who delivered his first sermon as a teen, Bernice King demonstrated oratorical ability early; at seventeen she addressed the United Nations on the subject of apartheid, and a day before turning twenty-five she preached at Ebenezer, following her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather in its historic pulpit. She was ordained before she turned thirty, served as senior pastor of Greater Rising Star Baptist Church in Cascade, then as an elder at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia. (Her time at New Birth was not without controversy: In 2004 she and its chief minister, Eddie Long, led a march to protest gay marriage; never mind that her mother and sister championed gay and lesbian rights as an extension of earlier civil rights battles.)

In her first eighteen months running the Center, Bernice King has upgraded and repaired facilities, smoothed relations with the Park Service, and addressed basics; now when you call, someone actually answers the phone. Once the Center’s website barely functioned; now staff steadily tweet and post Facebook updates. Through a partnership with JPMorgan Chase, the Center is digitizing its one-million document archive.

Along with professionalizing the Center’s operations, Bernice King seized its bully pulpit. This April, on the anniversary of her father’s assassination, she launched 50 Days of Nonviolence, a national awareness campaign aimed at teens and young adults that includes a curriculum for school-age students. She spoke at schools, churches, and colleges and solicited celebrity backers—the Atlanta rapper 2 Chainz and Chicago-born actor/rapper Common. She also launched a summer training program for college students.

“She’s doing a great job, and it’s not an easy one,” says former Mayor Andrew Young, a colleague of King’s who serves on the King Center board. “There is a tension between celebrating history and making history,” he says. The Center, Young believes, needs to be less of a shrine and more of the think tank it originally was intended to be.

In late May, King discussed with Atlanta magazine the challenges of embracing her legacy, following her father into the pulpit, and taking over the Center founded by her mother.

Next page: King speaks about embracing the legacies of both her father and her mother

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  1. John Williams posted on 07/31/2013 09:18 PM
    Ms. King states (in all earnestness, i'm sure): "But I think we have to be careful in our nation that we don’t demonize everyone who doesn’t agree with us. It’s almost coming to the place where people feel, “If I don’t agree, then I will be ostracized.” And that’s unfortunate. The issues and concerns that I keep hearing about are that people address certain rights, and there are ways to do that without changing what has never happened before in civilization."

    Fine. I accept that, but I'm sure many within the Deep South with the Jim Crow laws felt just the same way.

    Sometimes the apple just falls way too far from the tree -- hopefully the next generation will make more of a difference.
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