Amusement Parks And Jim Crow: MLK's Son Remembers
In this three-part series, Karen Grigsby Bates talks with children of Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to see how they've coped with the burden and privilege of their legacies.
Most Americans think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a brilliant young minister who was one of the architects of the civil rights movement, and who was martyred for it in 1968. But to the revered leader's eldest son, Martin Luther King III, the famous man was just "Daddy." And like millions of other daddies across the country, he got pestered by his kids when they wanted something.
Martin Luther King III chuckles, remembering how he and his older sister Yolanda used to clamor to go to Funtown. They frequently drove by the segregated amusement park with their mother, Coretta Scott King, as they dropped off their father at the airport for one of his many out-of-town speaking engagements or rallies.
Martin Luther King III recalls, "Many of those times, we were told, 'You're not able to go now, but Daddy's working on it, and one day we will be able to go.' "
Like a lot of black parents in the segregated South, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King tried to protect their children from the myriad indignities of Jim Crow. When the family did eventually get to visit the amusement parks that Martin Luther King Jr. and his associates worked to desegregate, Martin Luther King III remembers that his father went with them.
He "rode on all the rides, and just enjoyed himself thoroughly," Martin Luther King III says. And they dressed, of course, in the accepted armor of respectability worn by protesters and integrators alike: their Sunday best.
Martin Luther King III recounts this and other stories from his childhood in his new children's book, My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King III had been thinking about writing about his child's-eye view of his father for almost a decade, but the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington became a personal deadline. The book, written for young children, has just been published, three weeks ahead of the anniversary.
Now Martin Luther King III and his wife, Andrea, have a 5-year-old daughter, Yolanda Renée. She was named for Martin Luther King III's oldest sister, who died suddenly in 2006. In the book, young Martin Luther King III tells readers about the games he played with his father.
Martin Luther King III also retells stories of accompanying his father on marches from time to time. On one, they were confronted by a police officer "with a huge dog that growled at me. I was terrified." That is, he was scared until his dad took his hand and told him they would be fine.
"I felt safe. My dad was not a tall man, but he always made me feel like he was a giant. I was never afraid when I was with him," Martin Luther King III writes.
Long after his father's death, Martin Luther King III has had to deal with others' expectations that he would take up the cause. King is deeply grateful that decades ago, his mother relieved him of some of that pressure.
"You don't have to be your father," Coretta Scott King told him. "Just be your best self, whatever that is. We are going to support you."
But Martin Luther King III did partly follow in his famous father's footsteps. He graduated from Morehouse College, his father's alma mater, and he participates in a fair amount of social and civic activism. (Two recent examples: he's been arrested in front of the Sudanese embassy for protesting the genocide in Darfur, and has demonstrated in favor of immigration reform.) He's a co-founder of Bounce TV, a broadcast channel aimed at African-American viewers.
And in a few weeks, he will be in Washington, D.C., at the 50th anniversary of the march. And there will, inevitably, be a recap of his father's globally-known — and now copyrighted — "I Have a Dream" speech.
As one of "my four little children" that Martin Luther King Jr. hoped would be judged not by his skin but by the content of his character, Martin Luther King III will be at the anniversary of the March on Washington as a witness for his own child. And to remind people of the different America his father helped create.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Between 1954 and 1968, more than three dozen people lost their lives in the civil rights movement. A few of them were household words, others were footnotes in history. Some of the people who paid the highest cost were the children of what many call the movement's martyrs.
As part of NPR's focus on the pivotal summer of 1963, NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates spoke with people who lost parents in the battle for racial equality. Today, in part one, she speaks with a child of civil rights royalty.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: If you say civil rights martyr, most people immediately think of this man...
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Like anyone, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its purpose. But I'm not concerned about that now.
BATES: Martin Luther King Jr. uttered those words during a speech in Memphis Tennessee on April 3, 1968. He was there to help black sanitation workers as they struck for safer working conditions and fair wages. Less than 24 hours later, terrible news raced across the country.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)
SENATOR ROBERT F. KENNEDY: Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) Lord, hold my hand and don't let me...
BATES: The King funeral was nationally televised. The country was riveted by the sight of King's children sitting in the front pew of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta next to their grieving mother. Twelve-year-old Yolanda, 10-year-old Martin, seven-year-old Dexter and their five-year-old sister Bernice became symbols of the cruelty of that loss.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JACKSON: (Singing) Lord...
BATES: In 2008, an adult Martin Luther King III addressed the Democratic National Convention in Denver and told delegates how pleased he believed his father would have been with the party's nominee, Barack Obama. Dr. King may not have been with them physically, but...
MARTIN LUTHER KING III: You know, we are all children of the dream, and he is here in all of our hearts and minds.
BATES: Now 55 years old, Martin Luther King III lives and works in Atlanta. He's one of the founders of Bounce TV, a broadcast channel devoted to African-American interests. He has been involved in social activism, but he's resisted being a carbon copy of his father.
MARTIN LUTHER KING III: I learned not to try to measure myself by what my father did, because if I was awaken every morning and try to be Martin Luther King Jr., I would fail miserably. I have to be the best Martin Luther King III that I can be.
BATES: He's been lauded for lending his famous name and presence to several causes, from stopping genocide in Darfur to reforming U.S. immigration policy. But he and his siblings have been criticized for copyrighting their father's "I Have A Dream" speech and charging for its use. After Coretta Scott King and their sister Yolanda died a few years ago, the remaining Kings publicly squabbled over the management of the King Center. That kind of confrontation was atypical for Martin King, who says he's been shy and cautious since childhood. He resigned as president of the center last year but remains on its board. In 2008, Martin King and his wife Andrea became parents. King has just published a children's book, "My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King." It's dedicated to his five-year-old daughter, Yolanda Renee.
MARTIN LUTHER KING III: It's really written for young children to get a context and an understanding that, yes, Martin Luther King Jr. was a civil rights leader, but he was a dad first.
BATES: In the book, young Marty King recalls riding past a popular segregated amusement park as the family drove to the airport to drop Dr. King off for one of his many trips.
MARTIN LUTHER KING III: We must have passed by Six Flags a hundred times and many of those times we were told, well, we're not able to go now, but daddy's working on it and one day we will be able to go.
BATES: Meanwhile, they had their own fun at home. In this passage, King reads about one of his favorite games: his father places young Marty on top of the refrigerator.
MARTIN LUTHER KING III: (Reading) I imagined swinging from the ceiling fan as if I were flying in my own airplane. Then I would let my daddy catch me as I fell into his arms.
BATES: Where, he says, he always felt safe. His father's spirit will be very much with Martin King on August 28th, when he'll speak in Washington, D.C. at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
MARTIN: Karen covers race, ethnicity and culture for NPR's Code Switch team. Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, she talks with the daughter of Viola Liuzzo, the only white woman murdered in the struggle for civil rights.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I was six. I couldn't understand why somebody would kill her. She was trying to do something good.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.