MLK’s Daughter Talks About Her Parents’ Legacy and Her Sibling Rivalry

Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act became law, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King are posthumously presented with the Congressional Gold Medal.

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“There is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors,” said author and political activist Helen Keller. “And no slave who has not had a king among his.” And perhaps this has never been more befitting than when applied to the famed African-American family whose name, history and legacy are synonymous with both.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King are posthumously receiving a Congressional Gold Medal—honoring that unparalleled legacy—during a ceremony on Tuesday commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In the past the medal—which represents the nation’s highest expression of appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions—has been bestowed upon other notable figures such as Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and Colin Powell.

The Rev. Bernice A. King, current CEO of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, spoke exclusively to The Root to discuss the Congressional Gold Medal, her parents’ legacy, recent family challenges and controversies, and what it means to be a King.

The Root: Your parents are being honored on the same day but with separate Congressional Gold Medals. What do you want the public to know about your mother’s legacy in particular?

Bernice A. King: Many people don’t know that my mother was the driving force that kept my father’s legacy at the forefront of American consciousness. Dr. King was a great man, a scholar, philosopher, theologian, orator—a leader with character and integrity. But in 1968 there was no guarantee that he would be in the annals of history the way that he is today had it not been for her solidifying his legacy.

She founded the King Center. She continued his vision. So I’m happy to see this honor being bestowed upon both of them. My mother’s legacy is not separate from his. It is an extension. She saw herself as his partner in both life and death. So we see this honor as being representative of that oneness.

It was her primary goal to institutionalize his work, and she was the architect of the King legacy as we know it today. The King Center was a way for her to codify the methodology and ideology of the movement and give it longevity. Even with respect to the holiday in January, she worked to define it beyond memorializing him.

She created the idea of a day “on,” as opposed to a day “off.” She wanted it to become a holiday of community service so that people felt connected to his work and understood that the struggle continues. She believed that sacrifice is not something that is unrewarding. And ultimately, she wanted his legacy to expand into the realm of human rights. The journey began with civil rights for African Americans, but that was only just the beginning.

She weaved his legacy into the fabric of American history. And it was a concerted, strategic effort on her part. Now people may see that as having been inevitable. It wasn’t always that clear or that simple.

TR: Are there things about your father’s legacy that the public doesn’t know?