This article originally appeared in our October 1997 issue.
One after another social commentators have watched Martin Luther King Jr.‘s children and wondered if one day one would assume the mantle once worn by the "king of peace" himself. His eldest son Martin Luther King III didn't turn out to be the one. He got elected to the Fulton County Commission, only to get booted out of office and vanish from view, as the low-profile leader of Americans United for Affirmative Action
And neither did Dexter fulfill the dream. He took over as president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, but critics have said he seemed more intent on reaping profits from his father's intellectual property than in forging religion and politics into a potent weapon of social change.
Oldest child Yolanda became an actress and escaped to New York, where she lived for years before moving to Los Angeles. She hardly seems likely to return to Atlanta and carry on a family history of activism that dates back to her great-grandfather A.D. Williams, one of the patriarchs and first president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, in 1909.
Now it's down to the youngest child, Bernice, whom the world first saw in a photograph as a 5-year-old girl in her mother's arms at her father's funeral. Like her father, she, at 34, is a minister, and some of her father's old colleagues see his mannerisms, discern his cadences and hear his voice when Bernice speaks from the pulpit, even as she admonishes audiences to stop worshipping the past by honoring her father's name without adhering to his actions.
But Bernice doesn't always quite fit into the old-line activists' picture of how a perfect King should be, any more than her brothers and sister. For starters, she is protected, not public. Then, she isn't the same kind of preacher. The gospel of the Greater Rising Star Baptist Church, where she is an assistant to Pastor Byron L. Broussard, is a radical departure from the "social gospel" activism that Martin Luther King Jr. embraced. And if rumors of book advances in the $300,000 range and speaking fees as high as $5,000 prove true, she probably makes as much in a couple of years as he did in his career.
What's most unsettling, one critic says, is that she is always talking so openly and honestly about all those years she was downright angry with her famous father, even while capitalizing on his name.
Call the church where Bernice King works, and the receptionist doesn't bother to find out whether your reason for wanting to connect with the Rev. King is church-related or not. You get the number of a small management firm called First Kingdom Management and go through a business manager who also handles the media. "They want to protect Bernice at all costs," says the Rev. Timothy McDonald, who, as a personal friend of Bernice, has never bothered to go through the business manager to get Bernice's personal commitment to speak before group with which he is affiliated.
Forty minutes after the scheduled start of the interview Bernice King enters the church wearing a blue shirt and flower pattern shorts with a beeper strapped to her waist. She does not make eye contact or shake hands with the reporter, but aware of her informal dress, offers modest defense: "I got to meet my church kids later on after we finish."
The office set aside for the interview at the Greater Rising Star Baptist Church is a spacious room decorated with replica Queen Anne chairs and a black leather sofa, where Bernice sits. Her manager has slipped you a “limited consent form” to sign, restricting where you can publish information gleaned from the interview. Her assistant is close by. “You got 30 minutes,” the assistant says, as the interview begins.
Given the interview’s restrictions, after some informal chitchat it’s time to get to the question that intrigues King family watchers: “What about you and your dad?”
The youngest child of Martin Luther King Jr. pauses and searches for precise words to explain her life, a life that's has been riddled with paradoxes and conflicting emotions related to her father.
“I was mad at Father for years,” she candidly recalls, now looking in the direction of the reporter but not at him. “For a long time I had this vivid recall of a picture [hanging in our house] of Daddy with 8- and 9-year-old schoolgirls. I remember thinking, ‘He cared more about those girls than he did about me.’ ” The harder she tried to shake this image from her head, she says, the more it haunted her.
In Parting the Waters Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch writes of the birth of Bernice Albertine King, on March 27, 1963, in Atlanta: Martin “flew home to Atlanta . . . just in time to take Coretta to the hospital for the birth. . . . He paused long enough to pose with the mother and infant for a photographer from Jet.”
Bernice ran from her famous dad until she was 4 and said she was “scared” of him. When she was grown and could reflect on that, she said it was because he wasn’t around enough for her to really get to know him. In Hard Questions, Heart Answers, her book of sermons and speeches, she says that as a child, she “was shy and withdrawn” and “seldom asked questions about [her] father.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of 5-year-old Bernice sitting on her mother’s lap during her father’s funeral on that dingy, surreal day nearly three decades ago is one of a daughter glued to her mother’s bosom, looking perplexed about her father’s ultimate departure.
Bernice’s feelings toward her father came to the fore first in 1979 at a retreat for youth sponsored by Ebenezer Baptist Church. Timothy McDonald, then youth pastor at Ebenezer, decided to bring along several videotapes, including the civil rights documentary on King, From Montgomery to Memphis.
King’s youngest daughter had seen the video many time, but in the middle of this particular screening McDonald remembers Bernice breaking down and crying uncontrollably for hours, caught in the conflicting emotions of grief and anger. “I told her, ‘This coming to grips with you father’s death is good,’ ” he says. “ ‘It will be a stepping stone upon which you will build the rest of your life. . . . ’ ”
Bernice attended The Galloway School, a private school in Atlanta near Chastain Park, before graduating in 1981 from Douglass High, in northwest Atlanta. Her first semester of college, she attended Grinnell College in Iowa. She transferred and later graduated from Spelman College with a B.A. degree in psychology. At Grinnell she retreated back to the days of her adolescence: battling depression and, in her own words, suppressing "thoughts of suicide."
"At Grinnell College, for the first time in my life, I was in an all-white setting. It was a shocking experience," remembers King, looking away from the reporter, but now engaged in the interview, which — over the objections of her assistant — she extends to well over an hour. "I literally cried several days straight. . . . I just wanted to come home." Adds McDonald, "Among other problems, she had to deal with being separated from her mother for the first time in her life."
Next page: Finding a purpose