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.

The Rev. Bernice A. King speaks after receiving the 2013 National Council of Negro Women’s Dorothy Height Distinguished Leadership Award during a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 22, 2013. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

BAK: There has obviously been an oversaturation of my father’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and as a result, people don’t know the depth and breadth of his writings and work. I am always so impressed by the fact that the leader of this movement—now more than 50 years ago—still connects to a 21st-century generation. But I think it’s because he was speaking about human issues that transcend race and civil rights in its American context. His push for a living wage and the Poor People’s Campaign was focused on the inequitable distribution of wealth in our society. Matters of race and racism had clear inflections in that debate, but poverty is an issue that colors between all lines.

The triple evils he outlined—racism, militarism and economic injustice—are not separable. They weren’t in the 1960s; nor are they today.

The real work now is to get people to understand that part of his legacy. And we see movements globally—from Occupy in New York to students in Brazil and workers in Asia—in which young, inspired souls are ignited by his message. That is the fire he wanted to spark. As he said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It affects the climate and atmosphere of our culture.

People must understand that violence often occurs when we ignore economic injustice—people seek other ways of feeling empowered. Few of us focus on that part of his legacy. But my father left a model and the blueprint for us to further that conversation. Let’s do it now. The work was interrupted by an assassin’s bullet, but it wasn’t over. It continues.

TR: Recent controversies over the ownership of the King Bible and Nobel Prize have caused familial strife that has played out on the public stage. Can you offer any context or insight? Are you and your siblings closer to resolving these matters?

BAK: Let me first say that there are ongoing legal proceedings, so I am limited in my ability to speak about those issues. But I’m fully aware that there is a tendency in all of us, as a society, to romanticize people and their families, especially when their work is bigger than themselves. At the risk of sounding cliché, you can’t have rainbows without rain, or roses without thorns. It’s unrealistic for people to have great expectations of us and not allow for basic human normalcy. Our conflicts are reflective of our humanity. We are a family like all others and subject to the same struggles and unfortunate consequences with which all God’s people contend.

Out of these recent battles, I believe there will be something great that is birthed. I don’t know exactly what, but I believe nonetheless. Our parents fought for freedom, justice and equality. We are beneficiaries of that legacy, but we did not live it. This has been given to us, and we are tasked with raising the expectation.

Will we live it up to it? I hope so. I can do my part. And I believe my brothers will do theirs as well.

There is probably a lesson in all of this: We are Kings, but we are not perfect. We don’t pretend to be. We are all on the journey together. We are all still seeking to live up to the dream.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.