The War Over
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At 70, she has given much of her adult life to raising money for the King Center, which gets about two thirds of its $3 million budget from private sources.
Even before her husband died, Mrs. King was always the disciplinarian in the family. She says she never sheltered her children from following their father, even toward possible martyrdom. "It's like the position Dexter is taking now [in support of James Earl Ray]. I've thought about what might happen to him and just said, 'OK, Dexter, you've got to be careful, because this is dangerous stuff you're dealing with'." The children all credit her with making their lives relatively normal, both before and after Dr. King's death. When kids teased them that their father was a "jailbird," they took it in stride: "Uncle Andy," "Uncle Ralph" and the rest were in jail as well. Martin III, who in 1964 marched with his father in St. Augustine, Fla., facing hecklers in white hoods, later remembered thinking the ordeal a "family experience... I didn't know it was for a cause." On the night her husband was killed, Mrs. King allowed one of the adults in the house to sleep in Martin III's room to comfort him, but she quickly muscled the family back to routine. "We went back to school immediately," Yolanda recalls. "I didn't mourn until I was 30."
The children all faced different challenges. Yolanda, born three weeks before the Montgomery bus boycott, always wanted to act, a calling her father considered frivolous and she herself later fretted was "unworthy." She entered the city's first integrated children's drama program, taught by Julia Roberts's parents, and escaped into roles: later, at Smith College, when goaded to defend her father against Seven Sisters Malcolmites, she realized, "I didn't have enough information to defend him, because I hadn't read the books. You just kind of think you know, 'cause you were there."
Martin III, the first son, felt daunted by his older sister's sharp mind and the booming expectations of his grandfather Daddy King. Soft in features and manner, Marty labored to become the man of the house, the enforcer. "They hated me," he says mildly of his siblings. "I hated myself, now that I think of it." Bernice, the youngest, followed her father into the ministry, but also got a law degree in order to have an identity of her own "that won't be overshadowed by Martin Luther King Jr." Always a quiet kid, she remembers at 16 suddenly welling with rage after seeing documentary footage of her father. Angry at God, she rejected the church and contemplated suicide. Now she realizes that "what probably triggered it was that I had a boyfriend, and I just needed a father's advice about relationships: 'I need my dad now!' "
Of his younger son, Dexter, Dr. King once said, "He doesn't have the... virtue of quietness." Dexter is the "visionary" among Coretta's children, the most driven, the son who "used to ask a million questions," she says. As a kid, he used to take things apart to see how they worked; later, at Morehouse College, as a deejay and sound engineer, he specialized in putting things together. His mother had been a classically trained singer before her marriage; he was determined to have the musical career she sacrificed. Friends called him the Count because of the Dracula hours he kept, not all of them spinning music. Phillip Jones remembers how he met Dexter: "I had a girlfriend at Spelman College, and Dexter seemed to be going over there when I wasn't there. We ended up becoming best friends."
When Dexter took over the King Center in 1994 (he'd been named president in 1989 but resigned after four months, in frustration with either the board or his mother), his siblings were relieved, says Coretta.
In Dr. King's travails in the American legal system, the case of King v. Mister Maestro, Inc. is not one of the most luminous. But as the family defends itself against charges of un-King-like profiteering, the case has become a primary exhibit. In 1963 Dr. King litigated to prevent 20th Century Records from releasing the "I have a dream" address. Instead, he struck a deal with Berry Gordy at Motown to produce his major speeches. "Dexter and his family are doing nothing [outside] the template that King created for himself," says Jones. "Dr. King, when he was alive, had a record deal, he had a literary agent, he had a publishing deal, he earned royalties." The first book under the Time Warner deal, "A Knock at Midnight," a collection of Dr. King's sermons, is just out. Memoirs by Dexter and Coretta are in the works, as is a King "autobiography," compiled by Stanford historian Clayborne Carson. Dexter and Jones imagine a $50 million, interactive King Dream Center, brought to you by sponsors like Pepsi and Microsoft. "In this new media paradigm," says Jones, "the only way to get [King's message] out there is to do a business deal, where people in the publishing community can package it, put millions of dollars in to market it and make money off it. That's how it works now."
This can seem a pale agenda for the King legacy: too unquestioningly megacorporate, too apolitical. Yet in their own way, the four children all keep alive different pieces of their father. Dexter recalls the young Martin who ruthlessly overhauled the financial fiefdoms at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, challenging the deacons, just as Daddy King had grabbed authority at Ebenezer; Yolanda evokes the theatrical performer; Bernice, the minister walking beside doubt, and Martin III, the pensive King with the overpowering father. As Bernice says, "His blood is in me--that means part of who he is is in me, it's in Dexter. When you bring all of us together, you get close to who he is."
Thirty years after his death, they are the embodiment of his legacy, reminders of what he accomplished, as well as the challenges he left. "We're not perfect, we've made our mistakes," says Bernice. "But we're not crazy, we're not locked up, we're not doped out." They are the beneficiaries of the dream. And they are also its test.
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