King's surviving daughter giving flurry of interviews as march anniversary nears
Bernice King is candid about some of the controversial episodes in her life
"People don't know me," she says. "People don't know my heart"
There is a secret about Bernice King that not everyone close to her wants you to know.
“She has a shoe fetish,” says Angela Farris-Watkins, a cousin. “She has shoes to go with every outfit. She likes all kinds of shoes: sandals, heels, open-toed and different colors. She buys shoes like bread.”
It’s not surprising that the youngest child of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would care so much about what she puts on her feet. She has been walking in the footsteps of one of history’s greatest moral leaders all of her life.
With the nation poised to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the daughter of the dreamer seems to be stepping out of his shadow.
A guarded woman who once contemplated suicide, the Rev. Bernice King is openly confronting some of the painful and controversial episodes in her life. She is engaging in a flurry of interviews with journalists to mark the commemoration of her father’s most famous speech. Now 50, she was born just months before her father told the world, “I have a dream.”
She also is lowering some of the walls that she admits she erected over the years to protect herself from stinging criticism directed at her and her family.
“People just don’t know me, period,” she says. “The first tendency is to make a judgment. Part of that has to do with people feeling like I’m stoic, standoffish. Some people feel like I’m arrogant. It’s unfortunate because people don’t know my heart.”
For some, she is freeze-framed as the bewildered girl who rested her head on her mother’s lap at her father’s funeral in 1968. For others, she is one of the King children, accused of aggressively seeking to profit off their father’s legacy while embroiled in legal feuds with each other. Still others see her as the daughter who invoked her father’s legacy while marching against same-sex marriage.
In one of her most candid interviews, King talked with CNN about all of those episodes in her life.
It couldn’t have been easy for her. She sighed loudly at times at some questions and once flashed a hint of exasperation. To be so publicly vulnerable is not easy for a woman who carefully plans everything, even if it’s just walking to her mailbox, friends and family say.
“If you’re out among the people, and everybody thinks you belong to them and you’ve never met them, you, too, would walk a little quieter,” says another cousin, the Rev. Alveda King.
‘I have walls for a reason’
On a recent afternoon, King is walking into the spiritual birthplace of her family, Ebenezer Baptist Church. She is running 40 minutes late, and a crowd of photographers and onlookers – including several Buddhist monks – gather to watch.
Before she poses for photographs, King asks about the type of pictures that will be taken and mentions some earlier photos of her that she didn’t like.
Farris-Watkins, a psychology professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, says King is a “Type-A person” who is not comfortable with spontaneity.
“You can say, ‘Let’s go and do so and so’ on the spur of the moment, and she will rarely answer yes,” Farris-Watkins says. “She would rather have planned that.”
Even small gestures have to be planned, Farris-Watkins says.
“I don’t care if she’s just going to the mailbox,” she says, “she won’t come out unless she is in makeup and dressed.”
Unplanned moments have not been kind to King’s family. Sudden bursts of tragedy are part of her history. It goes beyond her father. Nestled in the basement of Ebenezer is a picture of her grandmother, Alberta Williams King. She was shot and killed by a gunman in 1974 while sitting at the church’s organ one Sunday. Bernice King’s uncle, the Rev. A.D. King, was found dead in his swimming pool a year after her father’s assassination.
There have been more recent losses. In 2006, her mother, Coretta Scott King, died from ovarian cancer. And only a year later, her only sister, Yolanda, a warm and vivacious woman who some say held the King children together, died suddenly of a heart attack at 52.
“I have walls for a reason,” she says. “When you grow up with the kind of tragedy we’ve grown up with, you’re cautious. I was 5 when he was assassinated. Some of the distrust and walls come up automatically. It’s kind of comes second nature. That probably bothers me the most.
King has had to assume a resolute public face in the face of all these tragedies, says W. Imara Canady, a longtime friend and Atlanta regional office area director for the United Negro College Fund.
“Most of us get the opportunity to deal with tragedy privately,” Canady says. “I don’t know if she’s even had the space to grieve.”
Beyond the upcoming march commemoration, King is assuming a more public role for another reason: She was appointed chief executive officer of the King Center last year. She sees the King Center as an educational institution that teaches nonviolence, not an activist group that protests the burning issues of the day.
Still, she speaks bluntly about issues such as economic inequality and racial justice. She criticized the recent U.S. Supreme Court voting rights decision. The court voted 5-4 to essentially gut the mechanism in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that forced certain states to “pre-clear” or get prior approval from the federal government for any changes in voting procedures.
The Voting Rights Act was originally passed because of a bloody civil rights campaign that culminated in a march led by her father in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.
She says the court’s decision was a reminder that certain freedoms cannot be taken for granted.
“My mother used to say that struggle is a never-ending process,” she says. “You earn it and win it in every generation.”
Making money off the legacy
The upcoming commemoration of the March on Washington is a mixed bag for the King children. They have been criticized for demanding a licensing fee from the group that led the successful campaign to build a monument of their father on the Washington Mall.
Critics say they should not have charged any fee for those who wanted to honor their father’s legacy. Their point: Are the ancestors of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln demanding money for their monuments?
“But Lincoln has been gone for 150 years,” she says. “We’re first generation who lost our parents, not our great, great, great, great grandfather.”
She has heard such criticism for years. People have complained that the King children are more concerned about making money off their father’s legacy than extending it.
If her family doesn’t actively protect her father’s image and likeness in the marketplace, she says, they will lose the ability to do so. She says the King family charged a licensing fee for the monument, but the huge sums bandied about are not true.
Then she turns the question back on those who would challenge the King family.
“Why does that matter? Why does it matter to you, whatever it is? We were deprived of our father. Had he been here, this wouldn’t be an issue. Our father gave a lot to America.”
Feuding with her brothers
Her relationship with her brothers, Dexter King and Martin Luther King III, has also been criticized. Over the years, the siblings have sued and counter-sued one another over their parents’ legacy.
When asked if she still talks to her brothers, she says, “Every now and then. We’re family.”
When asked to describe their current relationship, she says: “It’s OK.”
The tension among the King children is unfathomable to some. How can siblings who shared such a singular tragedy barely talk? She points to the children of South African leader Nelson Mandela, whose squabbling over their father’s legacy makes headlines overseas.
“My question would be for the people that can’t understand it is to look at their (own) families,” King says. “Every family – think about the Mandela family right now – every family has its challenges. We’re not immune. We’re not superhuman.”
She says some of the tension with her brothers may be rooted in gender.
“I’m the only female left in the family,” King says. “I was closer to my mother and sister. … Women and men are different.”
When asked if she thinks she will ever become closer to her brothers, she says: “I don’t know. I would hope so.”
The ‘mistake’ march
Her father made history with marches, but one of Bernice King’s most controversial public episodes came when she helped lead a march herself.
It was 2004, and she and Bishop Eddie Long – senior pastor of an Atlanta megachurch – were leading a march against same-sex marriage. Long, who once said that blacks have to “forget” racism because they have already reached the Promised Land, carried a torch during the march. It had been lit at an eternal flame at Martin Luther King Jr.’s grave.
The march was widely criticized by followers of her father. They pointed out that King’s marches were about inclusion – not excluding a group of people. They noted that one of his closest aides was Bayard Rustin, a gay man who was instrumental in planning the March on Washington.
Bernice King, who was an elder in Long’s church at the time, later left the congregation after Long settled out of court with four young men who had accused him of coercing them into sexual relationships.
King sighed loudly when asked about the march.
“If I had to make the choice today,” she says, “it would be different.”
She says she participated because the march revolved around several issues – strengthening the black family; black youth trapped in the justice system – that were not highlighted by the media.
When asked how she feels about same-sex marriage, she says, “I wouldn’t say I’m against same-sex marriage. I believe in freedom and equality for all people. I believe that when it comes to gay marriage, that’s a political and legal issue that has to be dealt with in that arena. I have privately held beliefs, but when it comes to that, it’s properly placed in the political and legal arena.”
Running from a calling
King doesn’t belong to a church now. She visits and still accepts preaching engagements. When asked which contemporary pastors she admires, she mentions three whose ministries are very different from that of her father: Bishop T.D. Jakes, Andy Stanley and Joel Osteen.
All three are megachurch pastors who are not known for being “prophetic” like her father. Their ministries are more focused on personal growth and powerful messages than speaking truth to power.
The Rev. Timothy McDonald III, who was Bernice King’s youth pastor at Ebenezer, says it makes sense that she would admire them.
“She was angry at one point in her ministry that her father was killed fighting for social justice and feeling that his death had been unappreciated,” he says.
“They’re the antithesis of Dr. King, and for her psychologically, that’s safe,” he says.
There’s no doubt about her favorite pastor, though.
“My favorite preacher is not with me anymore,” she says, “and that’s my father.”
McDonald says he could imagine when Bernice King was a teenager that she would follow her father into the ministry. She had that rare ability to electrify audiences when she spoke. She connected with youth.
“She ran away from it for a while,” he says. “We did a play one year and she played the part of the preacher,” he says. “She may have been 17. I said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll see where this goes.’”
She eventually was ordained at Ebenezer.
But when she was a teenager, she was still dealing with the loss of her father, he says. Once, the church youth group took a trip to a camp, where they watched a documentary on her father, he says.
“She broke down,” McDonald says. “She cried for I don’t know how long. Everybody was trying to comfort her. Later she said that was the first time she had really grieved about her father.”
Becoming her own person
Outside the pulpit, friends and family say, Bernice King is different from the solemn figure portrayed in the media.
Hints of that warmth came through in the photo session at Ebenezer. She was playful and warm. She displayed a radiant smile and a hearty laugh. (Her father had a beautiful rumbling baritone of a laugh and a mischievous sense of humor in private).
Her cousin Alveda King says she wishes more people could see Bernice King throw her head back and laugh. She and others describe King as someone who loves gospel music, can dance, and sends birthday cards and encouraging notes to people.
They say King lights up when she’s around young girls, such as during her visits to the Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy, an Atlanta school established in honor of her mother.
When King visits, the girls don’t see her as a remote stoic figure, her cousin says.
“Those girls, they cluster around her, they rub her hair and lean all over her and get in those pictures,” Alveda King says.
Canady, of the UNCF, says King has a rollicking sense of humor.
“One night for her birthday we ended up at a family’s friend’s house and we were playing Taboo all night long and laughing and joking,” he says. “She has this way of telling stories that will crack you up, and remembering things that you have forgotten that will have you in stitches.
“She had really learned in life not to take herself too seriously.”
Canady says people have written rules for Bernice King that they’re not willing to follow themselves: She’s not allowed to make mistakes; she’s not allowed to be different from her parents.
“She is not Martin or Coretta Scott King. She is her own person,” says Canady.
In her 1997 book, “Hard Questions, Heart Answers,” King wrote:
“I remember someone telling me when I was a teenager, ‘It’s better to be alone and be yourself than to be in a crowd and be someone else.’”
As she assumes a more public role, Bernice King seems to be finding a way to be herself, even when she is surrounded by a crowd.
Maybe now she is finally hitting her stride.