Friday, January 19, 2024

Insight: A dream still to be fulfilled

By Ed Pierce
Managing Editor

I’ve had the great fortune to cover many prominent newsmakers for articles but one person I sat down with more than 36 years ago took on added relevance earlier this week when I spotted a copy of my interview with her in a box of some of my newspaper clippings in the basement.

On Saturday Jan. 30, 1988, I was assigned by the daily newspaper I worked for to interview Yolanda King, the daughter of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., before her speaking appearance at the University of New Mexico. She was in Albuquerque to deliver the keynote address at the university’s launch of its annual Black History Month and graciously consented to speak with me for 15 minutes before her speech.

She told me her family was pleased that in 1986, the Federal government had made her father’s birthday a national holiday and pause to remember his work on behalf of equality for all Americans. At that time, many state legislatures had not agreed to observe the holiday and she said her family was optimistic that one day that would happen, which it did in 2000.

During the interview, Yolanda King praised efforts across America to celebrate diversity, especially Black History Month.

“Some may question why there is a Black History Month,” she said and added, “but I believe the study of our history should not be relegated to a once-a-year observance.”

She said that Americans need to study black history to continue growing as a unified people.

“Working together, we can all move forward toward a more positive future,” King said.

At the time, Yolanda King was 31. She was the oldest of four children in her family and told me she felt a close bond to her mother, Coretta Scott King, and her father.

Although she was nervous before her speech that day, she told me that the thing that gave her the most anxiety was when she would be watching television, and the program would be interrupted by a breaking news bulletin.

“Those always bring me right back to that night in April 1968 when my family was watching television and we saw the breaking news bulletin that my father had been shot by an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee,” she said. “It’s always hard for me to see those and I cringe each time they appear on the television screen.”

Yolanda King was born on Nov. 17, 1955, and was an infant at home in Montgomery, Alabama being cared for by her mother when white supremacists exploded a bomb in the back room of their house one afternoon in 1956. Neither she nor her mother were hurt in the blast, but she told me that as a young child she quickly learned how racism demeaned her human spirit.

“Once my class in elementary school was going to go to an amusement park, but I couldn’t go with them because I was black,” she said. “I talked to my mother about not being allowed to go with them and she told me that my father was working to change that. It was then I realized how important his work in civil rights was.”

She began to accompany her father at speeches he gave around the country at the age of 8, and through those experiences, Yolanda told me that she came to realize the depth of the burden, the stress, and the responsibility that her father and her entire family shouldered in leading the movement for equality in America.

“Just like me, he also was nervous before giving speeches to large audiences,” she said. “One thing I will always remember about him is that he always carried a handful of peppermints in his pocket and would put one in his mouth to calm himself and ease his nerves whenever he was speaking. It’s something I find myself doing too and when I do, it reminds me of him and what he stood for.”

Just 12 when she heard the news about her father’s death from a televised breaking news bulletin, it would eventually lead Yolanda to a lifetime of activism. Upon graduation from high school in Georgia, she enrolled at Smith College in Massachusetts and obtained a bachelor’s degree. She then earned a master’s degree in fine arts from New York University and pursued a career in acting, appearing in 10 different movies, including the film “Ghosts of Mississippi” about slain civil rights activist Medger Evers.

After her mother’s death in January 2006, Yolanda was devastated but continued to speak at public gatherings about the legacy of her father and her family’s struggle to overcome the stigma of racism for all Americans.

She died at the age of 51 on May 15, 2007 from a heart condition in Santa Monica, California but each year as we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I stop and reflect on meeting his daughter that day long ago and her last words to me during that interview for my newspaper article.

“So much is still needed to be done,” she said. “We as a people still have not reached the promised land and his dream is only still a dream.” <

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