“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?
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.
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 on Facebook.