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A Legacy of Love

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Corett Scott King remain an iconic example of Black love. Bernice King, 51, shares the impact her parents have had on her quest for a lasting love of her own. 
A Legacy of Love
Everett Collection

Like a lot of women, I hope to marry someone like my dad. My father just happens to be Martin Luther King, Jr. Being the daughter of a civil rights legend works for some areas, but hasn’t always been a plus on the dating scene. I will probably never say to a man “You’re just like my dad,” because he was one of a kind. His spirituality, his intellect and his commitment to changing the world are all traits I look for in the man I hope to one day marry. It’s not just someone similar to the public persona of Dr. King that I’m seeking, but also the man he was at home. He loved a joke and was a great dancer. In his speeches he was poetic, and that spilled over into his romance. When he first met my mother, he said, “I’m Napoleon at my Waterloo,” signaling his surrender to her.

Like many powerful women, I have been told several times that I have an unapproachable demeanor that keeps men at a distance. I’m trying to work on that. But outside of my own aura, men are sometimes intimidated by my legacy. I would have loved to have had my dad sitting in the living room drilling brothers I’ve dated through the years. And he actually does in a way. Men realize that they’re about to date the youngest child of Dr. King and that they may one day be compared with him. I appreciate that his memory scares away anyone wanting to play games.

I come from a lineage of couples—great-grandparents, grandparents and parents—who never divorced. We now live in a world where the divorce rate is so much higher than it was then, and I’m almost afraid to mess up the lineage. I’ve seen marriage as an enduring commitment, and I take it very seriously after watching my mother be married to my father for life, even after he passed.

My mother really wanted me to find someone before she died. She pointed out that part of her children’s challenge in dating is we are committed to a mission to make a difference in the world. It makes it harder because everybody is not like that. She emphasized to my siblings and me that we should date, and ultimately marry, someone with similar values. We were raised to embrace my father’s nonviolent philosophy, and guns were prohibited. I still wouldn’t feel comfortable with a gun in my house. One time I was going out with a police officer and in the back of my mind I kept saying, I can’t do this. He was nice but I knew his job would be a problem for me, and we eventually stopped dating.

I must also deal with the public perception of my life versus who I really am. In my earlier years, a friend asked me out, then stood me up three times. He finally revealed he was scared of paparazzi. I don’t even have paparazzi around me. In law school, I fell in love with Travis*, whom I met at a park. We almost got engaged after dating a few years. At the time I was evolving spiritually and was finally at a place to stop running from my legacy as a member of the King family. One day it hit me that the relationship wouldn’t last. People used to tease and call Travis “Mr. King” and it bothered him. I realized I would need someone who would be ready for what a life with me would mean and who had already found success on his own. My grandfather always told me, “You don’t marry individuals, you marry families.” And I know that anyone I am serious about has to be able to handle marrying into the King family.

My favorite picture of my parents is the February photo in the 2006 annual King Center calendar. She died on January 30, 2006, and when we flipped the calendar on February 1, the picture was of her kissing my father. His eyes are dreamy, as if he were welcoming her in heaven. My mother picked the pictures as if she knew she would see him soon.

I have seen God’s amazing ways of blessing us many times and am open to meeting my future husband in a nontraditional way. I even once went on a date with a man I had spotted in the pages of ESSENCE. It has been quite a journey and I have faith my own king will show up at the appointed time.

This article was orignally published in the August 2014 issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands now. 

*Subject’s name has been changed.