On April 4, 1968, a movement lost its patriarch when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on a hotel balcony in Memphis.
Yolanda, Martin, Dexter and Bernice King lost their father.
The loss has not gotten easier in 50 years, but his three surviving children each bear it 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.”
Bishop George Murry of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown will join his brother Catholic Bishops of the United States in honoring King’s legacy today.
“On this day, as we reflect on his life and work, we need to ask ourselves if we are doing all we can to build the culture of love, respect and peace to which the Gospel calls us,” Bishop Murry wrote in a letter. “What are we being asked to do for the sake of our brother or sister who still suffers under the weight of racism? Where could God use our efforts to help change the hearts of those who harbor racist thoughts or engage in racist actions?
“This anniversary gives us an important moment to draw inspiration from the way in which Dr. King remained undeterred in his principle of nonviolent resistance, even in the face of years of ridicule, threats and violence for the cause of justice.
“Dr. King came to Memphis to support underpaid and exploited African-American sanitation workers, and arrived on a plane that was under a bomb threat. He felt God had called him to solidarity with his brothers and sisters in need. In his final speech on the night before he died, Dr. King openly referenced the many threats against him, and made clear that he would love a long life,” Bishop Murry wrote. “But more important to him, he said, was his desire to simply do the will of God.”
King’s children said they cling to the few memories they have left 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 – a task they have been reluctant and, at times, angry to carry out.
Now that King is among the most beloved figures in the world, his heirs are forced to share him with the multitudes who have laid claim to his legacy.
For more than a decade, they have had to do this without two of the family’s cornerstones: their mother, Coretta Scott King, who died in 2006, and eldest child, Yolanda, who died in 2007.
As adults, the siblings have earned a reputation over their infighting, which has spilled into rancorous lawsuits over heirlooms including their father’s Bible and Nobel Peace Prize.
Today, the three say they are in a “good place” and have managed to compartmentalize their differences and come together as a family in times of difficulty.
Their recollections are a reminder that at the center of this tragedy was a young family, robbed of a loving husband and father, who was just 39. All are older now than King was. The tributes to their dad – from the buildings and streets that bear his name, to statues in his home state and in the nation’s capital – are points of pride, but also constant reminders of the void he left.
martin luther king III
Martin Luther King III’s eyes crinkle into a smile as he recalls the happier times: in the pews at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta helping his dad greet new members, tossing a football or baseball on the lawn of the family home, swimming lessons at the YMCA.
When he came home from the front lines in the fight against racism, King’s somber expression would give way to smiles and a playful mood. For them, he was not an icon, but a buddy.
King III and his brother also traveled with King. Months before he was killed, they accompanied King as he mobilized people in South Georgia to attend his upcoming Poor People’s Campaign in Washington.
“That was our time for camaraderie,” recalled King III, now 60.
King III said he can still get emotional about his father’s death. If he listens too closely to King’s “Drum Major Instinct” speech, in which the preacher muses about wanting to live a long life, he still gets moved to tears.
Bernice King, the youngest, was once envious of her siblings, who had many more memories of King. Shared stories from her mother, sisters and brother, as well as home movies, helped humanize her father.
Nicknamed “Bunny,” Bernice King said she cherishes the scant moments she remembers sharing between father and daughter, like the “kissing game” they would play.
“That stayed with me so vividly,” said Bernice, now 55.
“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 bothered me,” she said. “It’s hard to have the private moments. ... 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.”