Rev. Bernice King is looking back on her father's great legacy. ET's Kevin Frazier spoke with the youngest child of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to reflect on her father’s life, her work with The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change and next year marking the 60th anniversary of her father's "I Have a Dream" speech.
Monday, Jan. 17 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a "holiday" that Bernice admits is still hard for her and her siblings, nearly 54 years after their father's death.
"I'm unfortunately wired to be task-oriented first and so I can't spend the day going through the motions I have to go through. But I'm not always in tune with what's happening in my feelings from the time," she shares. "I think if I did, it would probably hinder my ability to be effective 'cause it’s still hard. I mean, you got to realize, we really haven’t been able to 'bury' our parents. I work with the institutions in [which] they are entombed [in] side-by-side crypts and so [their presence is] right there on a day-to-day basis. They're very much alive because people continue to refer to my dad constantly, in just about almost every issue in the universe."
Rather than dwelling, Bernice explains that she prefers to focus on what she's accomplishing in her father's name, although she no longer serves on the frontline of activism as she once did. She says she concentrates on working on "the message, the education and the advocacy," and notes that if there's ever an issue that calls for her presence at the frontline, "you know you’re dealing with something for real."
Next year marks the 60th anniversary of her father's famous speech, as well as the year Bernice herself, turns 60. The combination is a heady one for the 58-year-old.
"I don't know what that celebration would look like, but I see my role and responsibilities as to bring to fruition some of the things that he spoke about," she shares.
She references her father's 1964 speech after he won the Nobel Peace Prize, where he talked about the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence becoming a subject of study and serious experimentation. The work of the King Center is to manifest those ideas into real programs, such as their Nonviolence365 Education & Training experience.
"To me, the most important thing is having a philosophy and methodology to bring about social change [with] these issues that we're talking about right now because, the way we’re going about it is too combative, it’s too polarized," she says. "It’s too 'us' and 'them' and it’s not enough of 'we.' It’s not enough of, how do we envision a win-win outcome. We got to shift our focus that way 'cause otherwise we’re gonna end up in an endless reign of chaos, that’s what he was saying. What are we going to get from here, chaos or community?"
Her father's legacy has affected people in more ways than just their approach to activism, of course. Martin Luther King Jr.'s rise to prominence in the civil rights movement and his unshakable devotion to equality have been recreated for TV and film many times over, with several renowned actors portraying the civil rights activist over the years.
With a list that includes Paul Winfield, James Earl Jones, David Oyelowo, Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson, it's no surprise that Bernice admits she can't pick a favorite portrayal of her late father. Not even her brother, Dexter Scott King!
"You know, playing Dr. King has to be kind of eerie, I can't even imagine. I wouldn't want to be in those person's shoes. They're good actors, you know, they learn the character. When you start learning Dr. King you're taking on some weight into your life, something serious," she says.
Bernice's older brother, Dexter, portrayed their father in the 2002 television movie The Rosa Parks Story, which was an interesting moment for the family, she reveals.
"That was funny to me," she notes, laughing. "It had to be hard too. I never had that conversation with him, but it had to be hard because he looks like our father. He's the one that really looks like spitting image, and to be able to step into those shoes that has been very intimidating, you know? So I'm going to ask him one day, how did he feel being in that role. But at that time, it was a little funny to me to see him in that role."
Bernice is also preparing for the arrival of Black History Month, although she notes that she tries not to "confine" her energy to the sole month.
"What I can say is relevant March, April, May, June, July -- the rest of the year. And so, we have a lot of work to do, and all of the efforts now that I'm concerned about, under the banner of CRT [Critical Race Theory], is extremely troubling," she says. "I think we are sleeping on it, not paying enough attention to it and we've got to start paying attention. Because we already only [learn] a smidgen of what transpired... But there's an enormous journey there that the nation does not know. And that means we don't know the history. We've been saying these words, but now, a lot of this stuff is becoming serious. If you don't know your history, you're bound to repeat it, so you're going to have every community being raised in ignorance."
"That's the serious danger... that's why I'm glad there [have[ been more stories told, like Women of the Movement," she adds. "We got to do more of that in the marketplace until we can figure out what the master plan is to undo some of what has been done... We got to use [these] vehicles to start educating them and exposing people to all of this enormous history and tragedy, and how it has impacted us today and what we can do to transform things."