Dexter Scott King knows he bears an eerie resemblance to his martyred father, and sees you when you're staring at him.
It's been happening since he was a boy growing up in Atlanta, where schoolteachers gaped upon introduction and fellow students stopped and stared in the hallways. On the sidewalk, passersby twisted their necks to get a good look.
He feels your deep disappointment. He realizes that he's fallen well short of his dad, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Daddy earned two degrees, yet the son who looks most like him is a college dropout who could barely focus on his textbooks. Daddy spent time in jail while leading a great nonviolence movement, yet Dexter carried a gun as a police officer and jailer. Daddy married arguably the most desirable black woman in Atlanta, yet his strapping 6-foot-2-inch son could scarcely hold a date.
Which is why people constantly ask, "What's wrong with Dexter King? Why isn't he doing more with the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change? Why isn't the boy married?" Up to now, he's endured such questions with a stoic silence, but this month he released a book, "Growing Up King: An Intimate Memoir."
"I wanted to share an intimate story about my life growing up in a very prominent household," says King, 41, and "give people a candid, intimate feel for what it was like. There were many burdens and pressures, but also there were many pleasures. Certainly the pleasure outweighed the burdens. I wanted to convey the message that no matter what you're challenged with . . . you can overcome your adversity."
He isn't shy about acknowledging that he also wanted to answer some of the harsh criticism he's received in the handling of his father's legacy -- from the selling of King's intellectual property to proclaiming the innocence of convicted assassin James Earl Ray.
The book, a simple string of poignant memories, is pivotal because Dexter King is the new face of the King family estate, having replaced his mother, Coretta Scott King, in that role. He is the first in the family to open up about what it means to be a King, living as a boy with famous surrogate uncles such as actor Harry Belafonte and politician Andrew Young, but also with constant death: his father, his father's brother A.D., his grandmother and a cousin. It was a family, he writes, that trembled with the question, "Who would be next?"
To grow up King partly meant growing up in fear. The rest of us see the images: photographs of flames pouring from a firebombed house, a man being nightsticked by police before being sent to jail. But how does that feel when the man in those images is your father, your husband?
It felt horrible to Coretta Scott King, her son writes. Dexter was born six weeks premature in January 1961, after her husband was sentenced to four months in Georgia's Reidsville State Prison. She was so worried he'd be killed that she went into labor after King received a presidential reprieve.
There were good times, normal times, of course. Dexter remembers the time his big sister Yolanda forced him to play Prince Charming and kiss his other sister, Bernice, who was pretending to be Cinderella in the back yard in Vine City. He recalls playing on skateboards, hiding Daddy's cigarettes, riding twin bicycles through the Sweet Auburn neighborhood with the civil rights leader who just happened to be his father.
One day the boy was reminded of just who his father was. He was playing in the back yard with his brother, Martin III, and his cousin Issac when they stumbled on "a treasure trove of plastic toy guns," he writes. It wasn't long before they were pretend-shooting.
"Daddy must have been watching from a window; must have stood watching us for a long time," Dexter writes. His father strolled outdoors and sat heavily before the boys. He gave a speech about guns that resonated deep.
"Suppose somebody shot somebody you loved?" King asked his son. Dexter writes, "I looked at him as if to say, 'No, that could never be.' "
Dexter was watching television with his brother on April 4, 1968, when a bulletin interrupted: "Dr. King has been shot in Memphis, 6:01 p.m." They scampered back to a bedroom to tell their mom, who was already on the telephone with Jesse Jackson.
Returning on a cargo plane from Memphis to Atlanta, Dexter studied the shiny black casket. Little Bernice, the youngest of the King children, also stared, then turned to her mother and asked, "How's he going to eat?"
"I have this picture, taken during the funeral, of Dexter looking over his dad's coffin with a shocked look on his face," says Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University. "I sometimes wonder what it must've been like for him."
In his book, Dexter recounts living in a strange world that embraced him and rejected him. There is little evidence that he participated much in the civil rights movement, even in the process that led to the national holiday in honor of his father.
"Dexter has had to live with being finger-pointed in class, examined at every social event, every date, and asked why he didn't make an A, why did he make a C; who is he dating," says Jackson, a former aide of the civil rights leader. "The first thing he had to deal with was the murder. The second is the danger. Not only was his father shot, but his grandmother was shot. Every step you take, you have the foolishness of that to deal with."
He attended the Galloway School in exclusive Buckhead, and teachers swooned: "Your father was such a wonderful man." But they soon noticed something was wrong when Dexter constantly interrupted them by asking silly questions. (It wasn't until he was 28 that he was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder.) His high school grades dipped.
His social life wasn't much better. Girls rejected him, he says. "You're husband material, not boyfriend material," said one. A father told him he didn't want his baby to be around when Dexter got shot.
At his dad's alma mater, Morehouse College, things got worse. He didn't study. He became a disc jockey, staying up all night spinning records at parties. He failed courses and finally dropped out.
In 1982, he went to work for the Atlanta Police Department. To some, he didn't seem to have a clue about his father's lifework. He went to the King Center, established to preserve and advance the civil rights leader's legacy, wearing his holstered gun. "How could you come here, in this building, with a weapon?" Dexter recounts an administrator saying to him once.
It wasn't long before he gave that up and started cruising through life, literally, on long drives in the borrowed cars of family members. One summer, he was driving a Pontiac Trans Am on an interstate connector in Atlanta. When a tractor-trailer spun out of control, Dexter's car hit a retainer at 65 mph, Dexter writes, ejecting him through a closed window and into a ditch.
He was knocked out of his shoes. Later, he recalls, someone told him the assassin's bullet knocked his father out of his shoes and laid him flat on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel.
"I was the only one in my family," Dexter writes, "who had been given a reprieve when faced with certain death. I was miraculously delivered from the clutches of 'Who would be next?' And I was intent on finding out why I was saved."
He reluctantly agreed to take control of the King Center in 1988. It was then that Dexter King became a public figure, and villain, even among people he trusted. King Center board members spurned him. His failures in school created doubt.
"I had eight to 10 board members telling me, 'Look, you're not qualified. You don't know jack, and we're going to show you don't know jack.' "
Coretta Scott King threatened members with expulsion and marshaled outside help to seat her son. He quit after eight months. It is a mark that follows him. In 1995 Dexter returned to the board and remains there today, to the delight of some and the chagrin of others.
Jackson says he has tremendous respect for Coretta Scott King and her children, and while he understands some of the criticism he does not agree with it.
"You need to have room to develop," he says. "The father took over [the Southern Christian Leadership Conference] when he was 28. It was a challenge. Dr. King had his father. He had his mother. He had all this aid, all this cushion to grow. Dexter didn't."
David Garrow isn't as tolerant. The author of two critically acclaimed books about King, including "Bearing the Cross," says the younger King has become an anathema to some because of the way he has managed the intellectual properties and the image.
Dexter took on the U.S. Park Service, which sought to control his family's home on Auburn Avenue, as well as Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the elder King preached. He wanted to build a controversial theme park in Sweet Auburn before the 1996 Olympics. He charged steep fees to struggling intellectuals for using his father's copyrighted speeches.
"The truth is that David Garrow was very upset when he was passed over for the job of editing the King papers," Dexter says. "Ever since that time he's been an enemy." Garrow has denied that his criticism has to do with being passed over, saying it is based entirely on the actions of the King family.
"The biggest point is my father started all this," he says. "We're not doing anything different than what he did. My father licensed his work. He copyrighted all of his works. We have a responsibility to protect it."
Some believe Dexter is keeping his father's works from potential authors, while selling his image for use by corporations such as Alcatel, Cingular and AOL Time Warner to enrich the King estate.
Dexter King answers: "We turned down so many requests, you wouldn't believe, because we don't believe they're tasteful. There are burdens and blessings to being a King. This has been a burden. If he wanted his works to be in the public domain, I would have had no problem with that. Money he felt he earned as an author and a writer, he said, was to help his family."
So why did he absolve James Earl Ray, an act that dumbfounded even his friends?
The book doesn't offer any deeper revelations than what Dexter and his family said at the time they called for reopening the murder case. He doesn't trust the government that hounded his father to give a straight answer about his death.
"Look, all we wanted as a family was to find out the truth over who killed our loved one."