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Martin Luther King’s Daughter Keeps His Legacy Alive

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In this Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013 photo, Bernice King stands in the King Center next to banners hanging in memory of her father, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
National Journal
Jordain Carney
Aug. 27, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

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.

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