The War Over
King's Legacy

The Truth
About Memphis

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Now in their 30s and early 40s, the youngest past the age at which their father led the March on Washington, they have emerged respectably, if unspectacularly, accomplished, still seeking to make their own mark. "Most people spend their life trying to be special," says Yolanda; "I spen[t] my time trying to be like everyone else." Yolanda is an actress, working often with Malcolm X's daughter Attallah Shabazz. Martin III, after a fizzled stint in Fulton County politics, recently took over his father's old organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, which has waned since the King years. (When Ralph Abernathy resigned as SCLC president in 1977, he said the organization's problem was that it had to compete for funds with the King Center.) The Reverend Bernice--they all call her Bunny--is an associate minister at the Greater Rising Star Baptist Church. Dexter, who closely resembles their father, runs the family's affairs.

As children they attended public and private schools, and except for Yolanda, who went to Smith College, they followed their father at the historically black colleges of Atlanta. All keep steady public-speaking schedules. All have been in therapy over the years, according to Yolanda. Like the four children of the late Malcolm X, none has married. "It's the heavy burden of the legacy," says Dexter. "I know I have kept loved ones at bay, potential mates, not wanting to bring them into an unsettled environment. I don't have a lot of friends because friendships require nurturing. That's a luxury to me. I frankly have a lot of appreciation for those who have tolerated me."

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and his son Dexter greet parishioners at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church after Sunday services in 1964. (Flip Schulke/Corbis)

Even more than the Kennedys, they have grown up bearing heavy expectations, because their father died with his mission so far from complete. Who better than they to relaunch a stalled movement? "Everybody imposes their idea of what it must be like," says Martin Luther King III, who called himself Marty through college, in part out of self-defense. "I didn't want special treatment, and I didn't want to be put in the position of having to lead until I was ready to." Strangers, meeting one of the four for the first time, often begin their introductions, I remember where I was when your daddy was assassinated. The youngest of the siblings barely knew their father; even the oldest struggle to see past his enshrined image. "I hear his speeches all the time," says Yolanda, "and all the buildings and streets named after him. I've learned to separate Martin Luther King Jr. from Daddy. They're two different people."

In her modest brick house in Atlanta's Vine City neighborhood, Coretta Scott King takes unapologetic stock of the King legacy since her husband's death. "I kept making speeches that nonviolence can transform South Africa, nonviolence can bring democracy to the Soviet Union," she says, her feet elevated to relieve her phlebitis. "A few years later, all this was just dismantled." She has faith that there will be another movement in the United States, seeded in part by the teachings of the King Center. "We've put a lot of stuff out there; a lot of people have gone forth. I'm very pleased with what I have done in terms of being faithful to the legacy."

Mrs. King is, on this morning, characteristically regal, impeccably made up (friends once said that the 1965 march to Selma was the first time they ever saw her in flat shoes) and formidably direct. She believes she has never gotten credit for her quiet successes: scores of acolytes trained in nonviolence, a model housing-redevelopment project in Sweet Auburn. "I hear people talk about how the Kings were so elevated in Atlanta. We've never been elevated in Atlanta. Martin Luther King was never elevated in Atlanta. He couldn't get a movement off the ground here."

She has lived in this house since 1965, when Dr. King thought the family should dwell among the city's poor. The old furniture, some of it in plastic slipcovers, is still in place, awaiting the day she gives the house up as a museum. The effect, compounded by all the plaques and statues, is of a home stuck in a tragic time. Though she dated after 1968, she never remarried. "We didn't care for the [men] who came around," says Yolanda. None of the family friends emerged as a father figure to the children. Martin III lives here with his mother, and an Atlanta police officer accompanies her when she appears in public. Though she knew the dangers, she says she was never scared in the Movement; after two recent break-ins, however, she is ready to give up this house. One of the burglars was later arrested for killing elderly women in the area.

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