I Saw Dr. King Through His Daughter’s Eyes
I was attending a sorority meeting one chilly Saturday morning when my cell phone rang. It was a friend asking if I would assist one of his colleagues with some of her speech presentations.
“She’s great but she’d like to update her portfolio with some fresh, new material,” he explained. “And who is this colleague?” I asked as I tiptoed out of the meeting room. “Yolanda King,” he replied. “You mean Yolanda as in Dr. Martin Luther King’s daughter?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. May I give her your number and have the two of you hook up?”
Days later, I received a call from Yolanda Denise King. She was smart and captivating, yet kind and thoughtful. I asked a ton of questions about her work and we finally agreed on a meeting at her home in Los Angeles. Born in Montgomery, Alabama, Yolanda was the first child of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King and had been in the midst of the quest for human rights and peace all her life. As an actress and motivational speaker, she had spoken at the United Nations and performed or lectured in 49 of the 50 states as well as in Europe, Africa and Asia.
As we climbed the stairs and entered her living room, I felt an eeriness because there were photos and memorabilia of her father I had not recalled seeing in the media over the years. I could actually feel his presence in her home — not as the world’s most noted and quoted civil rights leader and Nobel laureate, but as somebody’s Daddy.
For the next several hours, Yolanda and I sat in her living room with our shoes off and talked. “I loved it when Daddy would come home, pick me up and put me on top of the refrigerator. Then I’d jump down into his arms,” she reminisced with sparkling eyes. She also talked frankly about what it was like growing up as a King kid with larger-than-life parents and an overwhelming sense that people were expecting things of her she couldn’t deliver. Combined, her parents held 80 honorary doctoral degrees — 40 each. “I wasn’t as brilliant as my father or as beautiful as my mother and as a youngster and I had to learn how to look as though I knew answers I didn’t know,” she said.
Then came the darkness of death — her father, grandmother and uncle were all taken suddenly. What followed were feelings of pain and uncertainties about personal safety. Yolanda also reflected on her father’s life and some of the most memorable events that defined the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. — the famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the numerous nonviolent marches, the Nobel Peace Prize, and his tireless efforts to bring about peace and justice for all. “Bringing about peaceful change for the good of humanity was a huge challenge but it was his life’s calling,” she said. “This was something he had to do and his living was not in vain.” Yolanda, who passed away in 2007, spent her years trying to lift others to higher ground by encouraging them to find inner peace and to use their talents and strengths to improve their own lives and the lives of others.
Through speaking engagements, television appearances and motion picture roles, she carried forth her father’s dream of equality, peace and justice by encouraging people of all races and backgrounds to reach beyond their differences to embrace their common humanity. “I am a card-carrying member of ‘The Dream,'” she would often tell audiences. However, despite the phenomenal talent and insight that Yolanda possessed and shared with so many, I don’t believe the world ever truly got to see the best of her. Like her father, she left us far too soon. She wanted more people to understand and embrace diversity.
Through the performing arts, she wanted to tell the world that before we can achieve peace on earth, we must first find peace within ourselves.
My most cherished gift from Yolanda arrived one Christmas Eve. It’s a book of essays she co-produced titled “Open My Eyes, Open My Soul.” The book features viewpoints on diversity from famous and unknown persons around the world. Essayists include Stevie Wonder, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali, college students, homemakers, teachers, physicians and the list goes on. The writers reflect on times in their lives when they reached across barriers to connect with others who may have been of a different race, religion, social status or nationality to find that common thread. And by opening their eyes and souls, they made connections that changed their lives.
In describing the book’s purpose, Yolanda wrote: “We envision a world where there is peace and unity among all people, where brotherhood and sisterhood become a reality and The Dream is no longer a dream.” Like father — like daughter.