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I Was Just Thinking: Dr. King’s Only Grandchild Picks Up Torch

By Norma Adams-Wade

The weight of legacy can crush. But that weight also can inspire. I was just thinking of 12-year old Yolanda Renee King, the only grandchild of the monumental civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Already, the child is under the microscope and it’s a bit overbearing to speculate about the weight she faces in the future. The youth, Yolanda Renee King, bears the name of her late aunt, Yolanda Denise King–the eldest of Dr. King Jr. and Coretta Scott King’s four children. The elder Yolanda was an actress, motivational speaker, and theater producer. Relatives said she appeared to be in good health but died suddenly, reportedly of a heart ailment, in 2007 at age 51. The younger Yolanda already is drawing much media coverage, usually appearing at public events with her dad, Martin Luther King III. Most recently, the youth spoke at the Aug. 28, 2020 Commitment March on Washington that the Rev. Al Sharpton organized with help from leaders including King III.

Yolanda Denise King

The march highlighted goals including police reforms to halt killings of unarmed Black men and women and banishing increased racism in the nation. The march also commemorated the 57th anniversary of Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington where young Yolanda’s grandfather delivered his historic “I Have A Dream” speech. I also was just thinking of the weight of living up to so many towering figures in history and learning to navigate the cruelties and demands that society can dish out. I thought of Dr. King’s children and how they endured bombings, a certain part of society hating their parents, and the uncertainty of not knowing if they would see their father again as he traveled championing racial equality in the face of brutal resistance.

The elder Yolanda was the same age that the younger Yolanda is now, 12 when Dr. King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Reports say that the elder Yolanda was a tower of strength throughout that shattering tragedy, doing what she could to console her younger siblings. Another almost forgotten occurrence of history is that Dr. King’s mother Alberta King, the youngest Yolanda’s great-grandmother, was also assassinated. She was playing the organ at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta during a Sunday morning service on June 30, 1974, six years after her famous son was killed.

Marcus Wayne Chenault Jr., a 23-year-old Black man who hated Christianity, sprang up from the pew and fatally shot a deacon and Mama King, 69, and wounded another female church member. Chenault was given the death penalty, but the King family opposed capital punishment so the sentence was changed to life in prison. Chenault died of a stroke in prison in 1995 at age 44. I interviewed Martin Luther King III during one of his visits to Dallas in 1999. At the time, all of Dr. King’s children were unmarried adults and there were no King grandchildren. I asked King III for his opinion about the possibility that Dr. King’s legacy would end with his children if his lineage did not continue.

Yolanda Renee King

“It takes a very special individual to understand your work, to embrace that legacy…That’s probably part of why none of us have families currently beyond just ourselves…,” King III said. Of course, now, King III has his dad’s only grandchild. His brother, Dexter, finally married in 2013 but has no children, and remaining sister Rev. Bernice King is an unmarried Baptist minister. The younger Yolanda is carrying her weight and moving forward. At the August 28 march last month, she gave hints of a committed future: “Great challenges produce great generations,” She said, speaking from the Lincoln Memorial where her grandfather spoke 57 years ago. “And I want to ask the young people here to join me in pledging that we have only just begun to fight… We are going to be the generation that dismantles systemic racism once and for all, now and forever.”

Norma Adams-Wade is a veteran, award-winning journalist, a graduate of UT-Austin and Dallas native. She is also one of the founders of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and was inducted into the NABJ Hall of Fame.

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