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The Children of Dr. King: Living with the Legacy
On April 4, 1968, an assassin robbed the nation of a leader and four young children of a father. But the memories have not dimmed.
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
Yolanda’s business card manifestly displays her “involvement.” It lists her as an actress/director/lecturer. The order of the listing is indicative of how she characterizes herself. Yolanda is one of those rare people who have known, since early childhood, what she wanted to do when she grew up. She wrote her first play when she was 7 years old, “a rags to riches story about a queen . . . with absolutely no plot.” She continued to write plays, finding would-be stars in the neighborhood children. “By the time I was 12, I had decided to be an artist.”
Yolanda’s official responsibility at the center is director of the Cultural Affairs Institute. Several years ago she established a New York-based theatrical company with Attallah Shabazz, daughter of the slain Black Muslim Malcolm X. Yolanda splits her time between New York and her Midtown Atlanta home.
“I want to produce my own work,” she says, “to do the kind of roles that are meaningful and educational for blacks. There is no substance, no worth in things being produced today. . . . There is no message or meaning and it can be destructive, demeaning and not healthy. Broadway musicals like Ain’t Misbehavin’, Eubie and Bubblin’ Brown Sugar depict blacks having a light, wonderful time and that was just not so for blacks in the ’20s and ’30s.”
Her theatrical company breaks even, more or less, and she reaps no salary from the King Center. She earns much of her income by delivering lectures around the country. “There are things that need to be said. It’s imperative that we keep talking about the struggle for civil rights and tell the story of who we are and our heritage. Black youth, in general, have no understanding of our past. Young black people who don’t know who Martin Luther King Jr. was, don’t know nothin’. You have to know where you’ve been, to know where you’re going.”
There are expectations when you’re the child of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps of nobody quite as much as Marty, who was once introduced by a jubilant master of ceremony as “Martin Luther King Jr. III.”
“When I was younger, I had problems signing autographs. I didn’t know why anyone would want my signature. Then someone explained the legacy. A stranger told me, ‘I always wanted your father’s autograph and now I can’t get it, so I would like yours.’ After that I began to accept it.”
Marty relates the anecdote in his sparsely furnished office at the King Center, where he recently had been appointed vice president and director of the center’s Youth Programs project. At 26, he has the cuddly physique of an overgrown teddy bear. With meticulously manicured full beard and close-cropped hair, he has inherited the soft round features of his mother’s face.
Although Marty describes himself as a “timid” child, he is intrepid about giving his views: “Today, it’s even more difficult to motivate black people than it was in the ’60s,” he says, “though issues are there.” Universities in Georgia are insensitive to the needs of blacks, he claims.
Marty’s Youth Program is designed to teach young blacks how to lead and confront issues affecting their communities. “Leaders need . . . training and direction. . . . I don’t know if we’ll (blacks) ever need one leader again. Certainly, we’re all looking for that one messiah, but I don’t think it’s going to be about that. The greatest leadership is a . . . collective body. A whole conglomerate of different persons. Because what happens is, if there is one leader and something happens to him, the whole movement dissipates.”
Marty speaks often of the spiritual essence, strength, resolve and responsibility implicit in working for social equality. At times he sounds more like a minister, than a social activist. Even though his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were ministers, he says there was no family pressure to enter the pulpit. But, he adds, “Sometimes God calls you and your ears are closed.”
“Marty could identify with his father,” says Mrs. King. “He was with Martin a great deal and went to St. Augustine, Florida, where he saw Klansmen in their robes every night.” Marty recalled the 1964 trip and vividly remembers a black man being severely beaten.
When Dr. King was assassinated, Marty had some sense of the violence of the civil rights movement. He had seen it. “But Bunny (Bernice) and Dexter were greatly affected by the assassination,” Mrs. King says. “They were so young.”
Bernice readily admits that her memory of her father is a series of vague recollections clarified by her mother, sister and brothers. She was only 5 years old when Dr. King was killed. “But sometimes,” Bernice says, “it seems as if it was only yesterday. It worries me that I didn’t get to know him. My birthday falls a week before the day he was shot. . . . It still bothers me, especially on Father’s Day. I try to keep busy. It’s a rough thing to deal with, especially when people criticize his policies. I say ‘Look, I lost a father because he was out there risking his life to help blacks.’ “
At 21, Bernice is blunt, forthright and unpretentious; Clad in beige shorts, white pullover top and sandals, she says her studies at Spelman College, where she is a senior psychology major, have kept her from being as “involved” as Marty and Yolanda. With her feet propped up against a desk in an idle office of the King Center, she says, “I don’t know what my role will be, but I will be helping, I know that. I want to become a member of the board (of directors) and go from there. Yolanda and I talked about me being president of the center when Mother is gone. I can’t remember what I said, but the gist was I didn’t think so. I don’t like to be at the top. I’d rather work in the background. . . . “
Although Bernice says she would rather “work in the background,” the path she has traveled and her future goals are a prelude to leadership. She has attended four Democratic National Conventions, has made several speeches before various groups, has addressed the United Nations and she plans to become a lawyer: “I want to help those black brothers and sisters who don’t get a fair chance in the criminal courtroom.”
“Bernice wants to attend a major university, a fully integrated one, where she can pursue a masters degree in divinity while she gets her law degree. “I need to get a taste of that. Sometimes I build up prejudices, dislikes for whites (and that’s not right), we’re all the same, we’re all human.”
Bernice says she feels no pressure from being the daughter of Dr. King. “I am trying to establish myself. I’m Bernice and accept me as Bernice.”
Dexter has also felt the pressure of being a King. “There is pressure,” he says. “My father was placed here for a special reason and I am the fruit of his labor. I have something personal to do that I cannot run from or I’ll be running forever.”
Named after the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, his father’s first pastorate, at 23 Dexter is the least known of the King siblings. But he is the possessor of most of Dr. King’s outward characteristics: facial features, resonant voice and the melodic cadence of speech that stirred the nation to action. “There are those who have even said I am his reincarnation. . . . But I feel that no one, including myself, can be another Martin Luther King Jr.”
Dexter is a senior at Morris Brown College. After he gets his business finance degree, he wants to pursue an MBA or law degree. “I’m preparing myself academically, mentally, emotionally and physically. . . . No one will listen,” he says, “unless you set an example and prove yourself worthy of a leadership role. That’s one of the things that made my father so effective, in the sense of touching so many people universally.
Dressed in a light blue jump suit, with sunglasses, sandals, pipe and portable phone, Dexter does not exactly incite visions of community service or social justice. But in a small waiting area of the center’s board room, he methodically voiced how he will contribute to the fruition of his father’s work. “The Poor Peoples’ March on Washington in 1968 is where my father left off. That was an economic approach toward helping poor people. . . . I want to utilize entrepreneurship, the business spirit to carry on in that perspective.”
Several weeks after Dr. King’s assassination, Mrs. King says, she overheard a conversation between “Bunny” and Dexter. “Daddy’s going up to heaven and his spirit’s alive,” Bernice told her brother. Dexter remembers those moribund days and recalls what Andrew Young told him that eased some of the anguish of Dr. King’s death. Your father did not die in pain, he told the youngster. The Lord took him in a peaceful way. “That made me feel a little better,” Dexter says. “The strength of the family has surpressed or cancelled any hatred . . . . You cannot let anyone cause you to stoop so low that you hate them . . . .
Yolanda, Marty, Dexter and Bernice were innately influenced by a man who provided the spirit of a movement destined to affect Americans for: generations to come, who spoke words such as these, in 1963, from Letter From Birmingham Jail: “When you suddenly find your.· tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your 6-year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a 5-year-old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean? … ‘ “
“Each of us has a role,” Marty says. “All four of us are destined to be involved.” Although Dr. King’s death left a tremendous void, he also left behind a mighty legacy: his ideals; his accomplishments; and Yolanda, Marty, Dexter and Bernice.