Martin Luther King Jr.’s children reflect on the weight of his legacy

As their father’s legacy is officially enshrined in granite on the Mall, the children of Martin Luther King Jr. have come to pay homage to their daddy.

He is the man whose powerful shadow they could never escape, whose message they were expected to further and whose image they feel called to protect.

“I try . . . to focus on the blessing of having been in this kind of a family,” Martin Luther King III said Wednesday in an interview at the Willard Hotel in Washington. “This is the only life I’ve ever known.”

The weight of having an iconic father has had its impact, Martin and his younger sister, Bernice, said in separate interviews. From the day their father died, when Bernice was 5 and Martin was 10, people have been looking for him in his children. Would those who carry his DNA carry on his cause? Is the question even fair?

Martin argued Wednesday that it is not. “If I woke up every day attempting to be my father, I would fail miserably,” he said. “I think he was anointed. He was chosen by God, and there are few men or women in our world that will be chosen by God to make the kind of impact that he made.”

The three surviving King children, who have had strained relationships with one another, each took up a part of their father’s persona. Bernice, the youngest, became a minister. Martin, the eldest, has been a social activist. Dexter, who looks most like his father and served as family spokesman after his mother’s death, has receded from public life.

“It’s obviously a very big burden,” said Clayborne Carson, a King scholar and historian at Stanford University, who was chosen by the family to edit King’s papers. “If you pick the best [out] of all of them and put them all together, it comprises pieces of what Martin Luther King did, but of course he was one person.”

The way King’s children have managed their inheritance — which is nothing less than the legacy and estate of one of the nation’s greatest civil rights leaders — has long brought criticism. After the deaths of their mother, Coretta Scott King, in 2006 and their eldest sister, Yolanda, in 2007, a family feud played out among the three surviving siblings in a court battle that put the family’s disagreements and finances on public display.

Bernice, 48, and Martin, 53, filed suit against Dexter, 50, alleging that the family’s money — $32 million for an archive of their father’s papers that was sold to the City of Atlanta — had been improperly managed. Dexter in turn sued Bernice, asking that she release a collection of intimate letters that her parents wrote each other.

In 2009, a judge appointed Terry M. Giles, a businessman and lawyer, as outside custodian over King Inc., which was set up by the family in 1995 to control its intellectual property. Giles, who lives in Houston, said that working with all three has been an “absolute joy” and that the Kings are now “all in alignment on what the company has been doing and how it is progressing.”

The financial issues have been smoothed over, but Martin said that the personal losses the siblings have faced continue to be difficult. “We’re doing okay. I wouldn’t say great,” Martin said. “While we are excited about what we are getting ready to do, it would have been great if Mom were still living and Yolanda were here. ”

Bernice, who said she speaks to Dexter less frequently than Martin, said that the past 12 years had been a strain. Yolanda, who died of a heart attack, helped hold the family together. “The loss of Yolanda was especially hard for Dexter,” Bernice said.

This week, Martin and Bernice will host forums, give prayers and listen to speeches calling on their father’s message.

“It started with the example and teachings of our mother,” Bernice said in a phone interview Wednesday. “She constantly taught us about service to humanity, and she would recite over and over again the scripture that my father taught us. ‘He who would be the greatest among you must be the servant.’ We kind of advocated that and accepted that as our life’s journey.”

Dexter, who lives in California, could not be reached for this story. Martin said he did not know whether his brother would be in town this weekend. “Dexter spends a lot of time in thought,” Martin said. “He’s — at least when I’ve talked to him on the phone — he seems to be doing pretty well.”

Martin said that he is focusing on overseeing the King Center in Atlanta and plans to digitize the 1 million civil rights-era documents housed there and create an online portal for teaching nonviolent protest tactics. Bernice, who recently stepped down as an elder at Bishop Eddie Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, said that she will be launching a ministry that addresses racial and economic disparities and brings unity to religious denominations.

David Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of King and a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said that criticism of his heirs is warranted. “For a good number of years, they were undeniably a negative drag on his legacy and reputation,” Garrow said. “There are repeated instances of trying to profit from the reputation of their father.”

Garrow’s assessment comes in part from the way the family has closely held the trove of their father’s writings, which were meticulously gathered by their mother. Other scholars have also bemoaned the lack of access to King’s papers, which his family — through an outside firm — has sued more than once to protect. According to news reports, Dexter brokered an $800,000 licensing deal with the foundation that raised the funds for the King memorial, using the money to benefit the King Center.

The family members see themselves as “guardians of the King legacy,” Martin said, noting that it was his father who began to copyright his own work. “People may not know that he litigated the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Someone got copies of the speech and tried to market it. . . . We have tried to continue in his tradition.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has worked with the King siblings, said that their mother “raised them to be the embodiment of his father’s legacy” and that they have had an impact in their own right. Bernice and Martin III were in Jena, La., in 2007 for a major civil rights march, and Martin went to jail with Sharpton in St. Louis protesting a lack of minority jobs.

Contemporaries of their father have also often come to his children’s defense. “I think considering what a heavy load they were carrying, considering the responsibility they had to carry their father’s name and legacy that was placed upon them, I think we owe them a debt of thank-you,” said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who once headed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Lynn Cothren, who was an aide to Coretta Scott King for 23 years, said that what she wanted was for her children to be happy. “She married Dr. King and knew what she was getting into,” he said. “It’s different when you are born into a situation. What she wanted for them was to be [their] best self.”

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.
Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.
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