Bernice King was born five months before her father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963. She was barely 5 years old when he was killed in Memphis, Tenn., but she has lived her life working to uphold his and her mother’s legacy.
“She is a self-confessed introvert that has one of the most public leadership responsibilities and roles one can possibly have,” said Ingrid Saunders Jones, chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women, at a Newseum event last Thursday.
King said that people often don’t understand that despite her public role and her “task-oriented” nature, she’s a shy person. “The easiest thing for me is to be Bernice; the hardest thing is to be Bernice King, because Bernice probably would want to leave this stage right now, go somewhere in a back room and hide,” she said.
King, 50, is the youngest daughter of King and his wife, Coretta Scott King. She received the National Council of Negro Women’s 2013 Leadership Award at last week’s event. During her acceptance speech, King touched on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, citing Dorothy Height, who worked with the original march’s “Big Six,” as an inspiration. “Although 50 years ago women did not have a prominent place in the ‘63 March on Washington, we thank God for 50 years later because women are all over as it relates to this commemoration,” she said.
King, who was named CEO of the King Center in Atlanta last year, has spoken across the world, including in her mother’s place at the United Nations when she was 17. She graduated from Spelman College with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. In 2007, a year after her mother’s death, she started the “Be a King” scholarship in her memory. King also has a master’s of divinity and a law degree from Emory University. She received an honorary degree from Wesley College.
King stressed the impact her parents had on her belief in leadership. “As my father said, he had a dream that his children would one day live in a nation where they would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. You almost cannot escape it, being his daughter, being his offspring,” she said. “And so my goal in life is to be a leader of character, to be a leader of integrity, to be a leader of congruency. And I thank my mother especially, because she was the one who was the model not just in the home, but the model in the community.”
King’s mother carried on her late husband’s legacy after his assassination in 1968. King noted that “she herself embodied, perhaps in a strange way even more than my father, what they stood for.”
But King has not been without controversy. In 2008, Bernice King and her brother Martin Luther King III sued their brother Dexter King, alleging that he was mismanaging their father’s estate. The lawsuit, which was eventually settled out of court, caught plenty of media attention. (Her sister Yolanda King, the oldest child, died in 2007 at the age of 51.)
Bernice King has also been outspoken in her opposition to same-sex marriage, including participating in a 2004 march in Georgia. Her stance received national attention because her mother was an outspoken supporter of LGBT rights, and linked her late husband’s civil-rights legacy to gay rights.
On Thursday King weighed in on what political party her father would belong to if he was still alive, a potentially controversial subject. “My father was nonpartisan. I don’t know if most people knew that.”¦ I would assume in light of most of his perspectives and views and what they did that he would be a party to the Democratic Party,” she said.