Remembering Their Father, Martin Luther King, Jr.

03 April, 2018

On April 4, 1968, a movement lost its leader when the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tennessee.

But four children also lost their father.

Yolanda was 12 years old. Martin was 10, Dexter was seven and the youngest, Bernice was just five.

Many people in America still mourn the civil rights leader, fifty years later. His three surviving children deal with the loss on their own terms.

‘‘That period, for me, is like yesterday,'' said Dexter King, now 57. ‘‘People say it's been 50 years, but I'm living in step time. Forget what he did in terms of his service and commitment and contribution to humankind ... I miss my dad.''

His children hold on to the few memories they have of him. For years, they have had to publicly mourn a man who was among the most hated in America at the time of his death.

Now King is beloved around the world. And his children are forced to share him with many people. For more than ten years, they have had to do this without the guidance of two important family members: their mother, Coretta Scott King, who died in 2006, and their older sister, Yolanda, who died in 2007.

As adults, the siblings suffered a public image of disputing over family property, including their father's Bible and Nobel Peace Prize. But today, the three say they are in a ‘‘good place.'' They have put their differences aside and come together as a family in times of difficulty.

FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2006, file photo, from left, the children of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Coretta Scott King, Dexter Scott King, the Rev. Bernice King, Martin Luther King III and Yolanda King participate in a musical tribute to their mother.
FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2006, file photo, from left, the children of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Coretta Scott King, Dexter Scott King, the Rev. Bernice King, Martin Luther King III and Yolanda King participate in a musical tribute to their mother.

Sharing their father's memory with the world

Their memories help all remember that at the center of this tragedy was a young family, robbed of a loving husband and father, who was just 39. His children are all older than King was when he died. The tributes to their dad, from the buildings and streets named after him, to statues in his home state and in the nation's capital, are points of pride. But, for King children they also represent the pain of loss.

Martin Luther King III smiles as he recalls the happier times: in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, helping his dad welcome new members, throwing a football or baseball together, taking swimming class at a local pool.

When he came home from battling racism, King's serious expression would change to smiles and he would become playful.

King III and his brother traveled with their father. They were alongside him in South Georgia. He was organizing people to attend his upcoming Poor People's Campaign in Washington.

King III is now 60. He says he still gets emotional around his father's death. If he listens too closely to King's ‘‘Drum Major Instinct'' speech, in which the preacher discusses wanting to live a long life, he cries.

For years after his father's murder, King III tensed whenever he saw a news bulletin. He would immediately think of the bulletins that announced his father's murder, his uncle's drowning death, and his grandmother's murder at church. All the losses took place while he was still a child.

‘‘I was afraid, because I was like, ‘Is this going to be something else that happens to our family?''' he said.

‘I wish I knew him more'

Bernice King, the youngest, was once envious of her siblings, who had many more memories of King. Shared stories from her mother, sister and brothers, as well as home movies, helped humanize her father.

Nicknamed ‘‘Bunny,'' Bernice King said she treasures the few moments she remembers sharing with her father, like the ‘‘kissing game'' they would play.

The now 55-year-old Bernice said, ‘‘I'm glad I had that, because everything else, other than a few memories of being at the dinner table, I don't recall. I wish I knew him more.''

She admitted to struggling with having to share her parents with strangers over the years.

‘‘It's hard to have the private moments, " she said. "It's like everybody else has a part of him, and that's always hard to deal with. But I won't let it get in the way of what they have done and what they mean to the world.''

‘The worst had happened'

King was shot and killed at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. That night and the days that followed remain frozen in Dexter King's memory. He remembers his mother telling them something had happened to their father before she left for the airport. After Coretta Scott King left, their caregiver answered the kitchen telephone, started screaming and fell.

Dexter, then 7, knew the worst had happened.

When King's body returned to Atlanta, Dexter remembered running in the airplane, and seeing his father's coffin on the floor.

‘‘I asked my mom, `What's that?''' he said. ‘‘She explained, ‘Your dad is going to be sleeping when you see him and he won't be able to speak with you. He's gone home to be with God.'''

Dexter King spoke of his father's warmth and playfulness. But Dexter King said he and his siblings knew their father's work was important from watching him as a church and civil rights leader.

‘‘You saw the interaction and the energy, just the way people reacted to him,'' he said.

He was again struck by the people's reaction at his father's funeral. A seemingly endless sea of mourners formed a funeral march through Atlanta.

"‘There's Dad, and there's the leader the world owns.' Generally, I accept that," Dexter continued. "But he had a family. As kids, we did not choose this life. And I don't know that my dad chose it. It really chose him."

He said, "We're human, and in some ways, we're still grieving.''

I'm Caty Weaver. And I'm Ashley Thompson.


AP reporter Errin Haines Whack wrote this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

Words in This Story

Words in This Story

commitment n. a promise to do or give something

contribution n. something that is done to cause something to happen

sibling n. a brother or sister

tribute n. something that you say, give, or do to show respect or affection for someone

envious adj. feeling or showing a desire to have what someone else has

coffin n. a box in which a dead person is buried

preacher n. a person who speaks publicly about religious subjects in a Christian church or other public place

bulletin n. a quick announcement from an official source about an important piece of news

grieve v. to feel or show grief or sadness

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