Photograph courtesy of Billy Howard
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
Bernice, who as a child played softball and other sports, had become emotionally dependent upon her mother’s strength and nurture. In fact, it was her mother’s steady presence and ability to pinch-hit on occasions as a surrogate dad that made her father’s absence bearable. “Say what you want about Martin, but not about my mother,” she remarks, her voice ringing with authority.
“My mother gets a bum rap in Atlanta,” Bernice continues. “My mother gave up her [singing] career for the [civil rights] movement. When my father died the money he left us would have dried up within a year were it not for my mother. . . . We might very well have ended up on welfare,” she says, defending the family’s efforts to protect the intellectual properties of Martin Luther King Jr.
According to close family friends, Coretta spent a considerable amount of time with daughter Bernice when her daughter’s life was unraveling at the seams. In 1985 Bernice lost focus in her life once more after she graduated from Spelman College and entered law school at Emory University. After a rocky start — being placed on academic probation — she managed to graduate in 1990 with both a Master of Divinity degree and a Doctorate of Law degree. The same day of graduation she received her ordination.
Bernice reflected on this aspect of her life in a 1996 televised interview with Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a correspondent for The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.
“I felt like a failure of sorts. . . . I was in law school at the time, and so I was devastated by the law school experience and had already been placed on probation, and I felt like, ‘My God, my world is caving in.’ This is the first time I had to deal with this kind of challenge, and I started questioning my abilities as a person, whether or not I even had a purpose. . . . “
She went on to explain that when she found her own purpose in the ministry she came to terms with her father’s sacrifices and his ministry. “I had to understand what my father was doing, and as I do what I do in the ministry, I am beginning to understand the sacrifice and the suffering.”
Bernice says that growing up as a child of a single parent has allowed her to discover her vocation — relating to kids from single-parent homes.
“I didn’t have a father to deal with about boyfriends. I didn’t have a father to show me how a man and woman relate in a family setting. Therefore I have given over my life to mentoring young people. I’m adamant about young people who have been denied a father/daughter relationship.”
Her ministry differs from her father’s, she told Hunter-Gault, in that “my ministry is more geared toward the psychological and the issues of healing in an individual’s life.”
Earlier this year Bernice’s name was bandied about as a mayoral candidate. But she says she has no political aspirations. “I’m not diplomatic enough,” she says. “‘I’m too honest.” Indeed, says Pastor Broussard, “she is honest to a fault.” (Unlike her brother Dexter, Bernice has not made public statements affirming the innocence of her father’s convicted killer, James Earl Ray; in a talk on the the death penalty, however, she speaks of her need, as a minister, to forgive Ray and regard him as a brother.)
She openly admits to struggling psychologically with her own self-image and relationships with men, so much so that on a trip last May to Cancun, Mexico, she says she felt her faith tested. There she encountered women dressed lewdly in “Freaknik fashion,” parading around before men. The spectacle challenged her self-esteem.
“The trip reaffirmed that I didn’t feel good about Bernice,” she says. “I was trying to be accepted by men. I had to deal with the fact that I don’t look good by their standards. But I have to be myself.”
Then she elaborates on the significance of her resisting the “temptation” in Cancun. “These are the experiences I share with the kids that allow me to get into their heads.”
It’s a hot, humid Sunday Morning, and Pastor Byron Broussard is leading the youthful congregation in singing contemporary gospel music and reworded, pop-funk tunes like the Ohio Players’ “Fire.” “Fire! The church is on fire! When I pray, it stays, it stays with me for days. It’s really something, y’ all.”
On stage left, near the front of the worship hall, nicknamed the “love center,” is Bernice King, keeping beat with the snare and bass drums. She is dressed in a black-and-white jacket, black stretch slacks and gold earrings with black inset stones. Her makeup is liberally applied, her lips, rosy red. She lifts her hands to the air and stretches her arms out straight; she pounds clenched fists waist-high and prays on knees with her head low to the floor.
On this day in church there is no sermon, just singing, dancing and grooving to the music. King approaches the podium, speaking in a thunderous voice reminiscent of her dad’s, but only to make a brief announcement. “Next week we want to bless the pastor with a special love offering,” she reminds church members, referring to them as “saints.”
Three years ago Bernice King took a job as assistant to Pastor Broussard at Greater Rising Star Baptist Church, on Campbellton Road in southwest Atlanta. At the time, there were no positions at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where her great-grandfather, A.D. Williams, her grandfather, Martin Luther King St., and her father all preached. “Nor did she indicate a special interests in coming,” says the Rev. Joseph Roberts Jr., Ebenezer’s current pastor. “I think that is healthy. Church pastorates are not dynasties.”
For outsiders to insist on comparing her ministry to her father’s is misguided, says the Rev. Joseph Roberts Jr., pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church since 1975 and successor to “Daddy King.” Roberts says he has counseled Bernice: “You are not under any obligation because of your history to lead the people or do the ‘We Shall Overcome’ thing.”
And for the public to ask more is also inappropriate, Roberts insists. “The world tends to take people like the King children and ratchet them up into a new form of neurosis by laying on them the burden for rising and ascending,” says Roberts. “It is really unfair.”
Pastor Broussard, 36, who has known Bernice since her days at Spelman, believes Bernice’s ministry is more similar to her father’s than some of her critics are willing to admit. He points out that Greater Rising Star, located in a low-income area, focuses on transforming the lives of working-class African-Americans and at-risk youths. “All preachers must someday face the choice of going to Cascade [one of the richest black neighborhoods] or staying in the west end [primarily a low-income area],” he says, speaking metaphorically. “It says much about Bernice that she has chosen the west end.”
Next page: A call to stop living in the past
Unlike many preachers, however, she is in demand all over the country as a speaker. Especially busy between January (the month of her father’s birth) and May (the month after his death), Bernice preaches and makes speeches at many places beside her church. She estimates that she makes 50 speeches a year, with a high $5,000 a speech, a fact that is irritating to some critics. “If she’s so angry at her father, why does she keep accepting thousands of dollars to speak on college campuses, invoking his name and likeness at every turn?” asks one.
For her book of sermons and speeches, Hard Questions, Heart Answers (Broadway Books, $20), and a memoir due out next year, she is said to have received at least a $300,000 advance, a figure which she and her management refuse to confirm.
In the book, dedicated “to my late father, Martin Luther King Jr., whose spoken and written words have inspired many of my thoughts,” King advocates that society address the issues today’s youth confront, such as drugs and teenage pregnancy; she speaks out against societal violence and those among the civil rights old guard who romantically hang on to memories of marches with her dad.
Atlantans en masse got a glimpse of such stirring preaching Jan. 18, 1993, on the occasion of the nationally televised commemorative program that the King Center puts on each year for the national holiday observing Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
The venue, Ebenezer Baptist Church, was packed with local and national dignitaries. Bernice looked tense and nervous waiting for her turn to speak. She’s know to panic before speeches, even break out into a cold sweat, her colleagues say.
The crowd awaited her message with anticipation. Finally, after nearly two hours, she climbed to the pulpit and began speaking to those assembled, as well as to a live international television audience. The sermon was wide-ranging, but one particular passage seemed an indictment of those who see her in terms of what her father did, see the past and not the present of future:
“My brothers and sisters, it is not enough to say that we marched with Dr. King 25 or even 30 years ago,” she exhorted. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘What are we doing now?’ In fact, some of us have not truly marched in 25 or 30 years. How do we expect change to occur if we are not willing to put on the whole armor of God and fight injustice wherever it raises its ugly head?”
For her part, she told Hunter-Gault that her ministry in the ‘90s differs from her father’s in the ‘60s, in part because the times were different. “I think so many people have allowed the conditions to consume them inwardly, unlike the ‘60s. . . . You know, the conditions have kind of just wrapped themselves around people, and they’re choking them to death. And so I’m trying to speak to that pain and that hurt inwardly.”
At Greater Rising Star one of Bernice’s primary roles is to coordinate the church’s youth ministry, including the four-times-monthly “hip” Bible study called J.A.M. church.
J.A.M. stands for “Jesus and Me,” an interactive Bible study that often uses lyrics of popular songs to attract the attention of youth long enough to share a biblical message. When she’s conducting the J.A.M. church sessions, running up and down the church room aisle, King looks like a sanctified Oprah Winfrey.
“Shh!” Bernice raises her index finger to her lips. Silence falls over the room. “I want y’all to listen to the lyrics of a popular song you may not have heard before. I’m going to pray that the Holy Ghost anoints the song.”
She strolls casually to a boom box and plays a tape by the O’Jays, using the song as a lead-in to a lesson on keeping one’s mind pure and focused on God. The 30 or so youngsters, aged 12–18, begin to smile and groove along with the music. After two hours of jamming with the kids, she throws the Bible across the floor, then calls the attendees into account for ignoring the lessons contained within the Bible while being offended by what she has just done to the physical Bible. She brings the discussion back to biblical references, ending the night’s session with a prayer.
Although Bernice may not be as oriented or inspired to change the world as her famous father was at 34, the youths she works with at Greater Rising Star say she is “there when [they] need her.” Further, they say she “stoops to their levels” and is more like a “big sister” than a pastor.
She spends many of her weekdays driving a number of anxious and confused girls to and from medical centers in pursuit of pregnancy tests. On weekends she and other church “saints” sometimes lead teenagers in “praise” demonstrations in front of businesses like Nikki’s, an adult nightclub located in southwest Atlanta, and the adult fantasy story, 9 1/2 Weeks. A recent release from her management firm credits her for “walking the picket line until 1 a.m. on several occasions.”
Timothy McDonald, who also heads the Concerned Black Clergy in Atlanta, says when the more socially activist CBC protests in front of a sex club “we come with our bull horns. That’s how Martin would have done it. They [Greater Rising Star Baptist Church] come with their church music and praise teams. They see the problem in terms of personal evil; we see it as social evil.”
Bernice believes what she can best offer the young people she mentors is her life’s experience as testimony. “I’ve been through it all,” she repeats. “I’ve come close to committing suicide. I’ve been rebellious. I’ve struggled with sex, self-esteem. . . . Now I want to relate all of this to what our youth are experiencing today.