Eighty years ago, a Black boy was born in Atlanta, Georgia and would eventually become one of the most important figures in American history. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy continues to influence social consciousness throughout the world today. As we prepare for the inauguration of the first African American President of the United States, our thoughts will reminisce back to a time when basic human rights were still a luxury for many Blacks. While there is still a long way to go, we wonder if Dr. King was still alive, how he would feel about where we are today.
What better source for the answer than his own daughter. Bernice King may have only been 5-years old when her father was killed, but she has grown up in the heart and soul of his legacy, much of which has been devoted to giving back to the community. ESSENCE.COM spoke with King about her passionate response to her parent’s mission of service, what her father would have thought of a Black president, and why it’s time for Black America to finally get it together.
ESSENCE.com: You’re a part of an annual commemorative event today at the Ebenezer Baptist Church where your father and grandfather once preached in Atlanta. What do you have planned?
Bernice King: It’s interesting how things work but this year we have Rick Warren as our main speaker along with special tributes throughout the service. There will be music, dancing and greetings by elected officials. After that service, I’m looking forward to addressing the crowds outside the church about how people can give back to their communities, hoping that this is the beginning of a commitment people will make, not just for the year, but for life.
ESSENCE.com: What does this day mean to you?
King: The biggest thing for me is that the work that my father put it was not in vein and that there is an enduring value to what both he and my mother did, so much so that we remember it every year. I feel humbled and honored to be connected to this family. I don’t take that lightly. Yes I know I am they’re child and I can’t escape that but I also realize it’s a blessing, a privilege and a responsibility.
ESSENCE.com: You were so young when your father died. Do you have any memories of him?
King: Not really, but I do remember playing this kissing game with him. Whenever he would come off the road, each one of us had a spot on his face and he would call out our names and allow us to kiss him on those different spots. But by the time I was born, the nation became interested in the movement and he was gone very often.
ESSENCE.com: Was it hard to share him with rest of the world?
King: it was very difficult but I can speak specifically about my mother. I didn’t have a normal situation because of the incredible calling that they both shared and being very well known and recognized. We couldn’t go to certain places and I don’t think people understood, those moments when a family is together are sometimes rare. It was so hard for us to have those times. I remember I had to learn how to manage that and not become too selfish and truly understand the magnitude of their calling, but it doesn’t mean it was easy. There were times when I just wanted my mom and dad.
ESSENCE.com: There are gatherings around the country today, celebrating the life and mission of your father. How can people best remember him?
King: Well, the King Center recently formed a partnership with Allstate Insurance Company to bring more awareness to their “Beyond February Give Back Day.” They’ve been doing this since 2007 and we decided to connect with them because every year on the holiday, the emphasis is that this is a day off and not a day on. We saw this as a wonderful opportunity to partner and get people to go beyond volunteering just on King Day or the month of February for Black History. The real desire is to get back to a place where people live volunteerism, where they are conscious of it on a daily basis.
ESSENCE.com: We’re going through some tough economic times. Some people may wonder how to give back when I’m in a situation where I need help myself. What can they do?
King: When you think of the world, there is always somebody who is worse off. So part of that is making a choice to do in spite of your circumstances. When our mother first had her stroke, it was around the time of Hurricane Katrina but I was consumed in my situation and had a lot of self-pity. I went to church and my pastor asked those who had come from New Orleans, displaced by the storm and had no contact with their loved ones, to stand. Suddenly I realized, wow, at least my mom is here. So it’s making a choice to realize, we’re all here together and helping others can sometimes help you.
ESSENCE.com: How can we help each other specifically in our Black communities?
King: Our problem is that we have become completely self consumed. Part of the reason I believe God utilized President-elect Obama with the platform of change is because we have become comfortable with the way we are. Some of us lost hope and we’ve just settled in. Now, it’s a matter of saying, ok we have to begin to get each other’s backs like we used to in the time of our parents and become a village again by forging relationships, particularly with our young people. In the 1970’s we focused so much on being free and segregating that we failed the responsibility of making sure that each generation understood the sacrifice of the previous generation. We can continue to give excuses, but imagine if Daddy, Rosa Parks, or the thousands of other freedom soldiers did the same.
ESSENCE.com: How important is community service to you?
King: It has always kept me aware that the world is not about me. I grew up where my Mom stressed service of humanity, so from a young age, I’ve been involved in many things including working with the homeless. Right now, I’m focusing on The Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Atlanta. I kind of see myself as their big sister, spending time and inspiriting the young ladies and developing a scholarship program for them. But I give whatever the Lord allows me to give and that’s what I mean about getting to a place where you become a giver, where it’s not always scheduled.
ESSENCE.com: What would your father think of finally having an African American president?
King: He would see this as a great and significant achievement for everything he fought for, but not an end all. A lot of people see this as a fulfillment but I think we need to put things into context. The movement wasn’t about electing a Black president. The movement was about addressing the social inequities that we have that we still have not found a way to overcome, especially when you look at the gaps between the Black community and the White community that are still very great.
ESSENCE.com: Will you be attending the Inauguration tomorrow?
King: It’s going to be an exercise in endurance with all of those people but I think it’s going to be a day of awe. To celebrate the accomplishment of America lifting itself up and moving beyond the external designation of race and celebrate that together will be awesome, especially to see it in the place where my father cast his vision. I’m looking forward to observing and being a part of it.