She was the first-born child of this country’s greatest civil rights leader. She would grow up to be an important social activist in her own right, a successful film and TV actress, an author, and a highly sought-after inspirational speaker. Yet, despite the fame and success, she was the most unassuming person one could ever hope to meet.
Yolanda King, nicknamed “Yoki” by her father, Martin Luther King, Jr., collapsed suddenly of cardiac arrest on the evening of May 15, 2007 on her brother’s doorstep in Santa Monica. She was 51. Over the course of her multi-faceted life she had befriended tens of thousands of people, a number of them world-famous, yet she always found time to return this writer’s phone calls, or to send emails and cards. She was a woman of enormous gifts who lived her life fully involved and in the moment, yet never for an instant did she forget her humble roots.
In late October 2004, after several delays, I had the privilege of sitting down with Yolanda in her Culver City townhouse for an in-depth interview. Placed strategically around her modern living room were constant reminders of who she was and where she’d been – a portrait of her father behind the overstuffed sofa in which she sat, a biography of Dr. King on the coffee table, and, on a nearby table, a surrealistic bronze sculpture of the civil rights leader that suggested the oneness of all. However, one didn’t need any prompts to know who Yolanda was. The resemblance to her parents was striking… her mother’s sparkling eyes, her father’s lips and prominent brow. Sitting across from her, I knew I was looking into the face of American Black history.
I preceded the interview with a prayer, not something I had ever done before, and judging by Yolanda’s surprised reaction, not something any of her interviewers had done before either, but it set the tone for a remarkable and revealing look into her complex life.
Since creativity was a huge part of her world from a very young age, I began by asking about its origins. She described in vivid detail the little skits she performed with her siblings in front of her family in the den of their Atlanta home, complete with costumes and props. Her first play was about a queen who received visitors from other countries. “Of course I was the queen,” she said, “and there was no plot. They all came and presented her with gifts and they talked about their country and their culture. Interesting that the very first real creative impulse that came out was an effort to ‘edutain,’ to blend education and entertainment, and also to talk about in some way our common humanity, our connectedness… in a very simplistic way.”
Not long after, when she was eight, her mother, Coretta Scott King, wanted to promote Yolanda’s budding talent and enrolled her in theater classes. “My first teachers were the parents of Julia Roberts. They had a children’s theater and school company in Atlanta at that time, totally integrated in 1963, which is when my parents enrolled me. That was unheard of, that white kids and black kids did anything together.” She remained a student in the Roberts’ theater company until she graduated from high school at 16, and became a lifelong friend of Julia’s older brother, actor Eric Roberts.
Yolanda’s passion for acting intensified. She began her formal education in theater studies at Smith College in Massachusetts and later at New York University, where she earned a masters degree in fine arts. She would appear in a number of movies during her acting career, including playing Rosa Parks in the mini-series King and Reena Evers in Ghosts of Mississippi. Yet, despite her obvious talent and respectable achievements, the really juicy lead roles did not materialize for her, and her acting ambitions always seemed to come in second to that “other” career, helping to keep her father’s vision alive.
Normalcy Amidst Chaos
Born in Alabama just two weeks before the Rosa Parks bus incident in late 1955, Yolanda grew up in the most tumultuous period of this country’s civil rights movement. When she was only four months old, her parents’ Montgomery home was bombed. But that was as close as anyone got to harming the King children. “Throughout my entire childhood, there was just the constant possibility of something happening. My parents totally shielded us from it,” she said. “I grew up so normal… not paranoid or afraid. My friends whose families were in the movement – Medgar Evers’ children, for instance – were taught if they heard a loud noise to hit the ground because it was so dangerous. We grew up feeling an incredible sense of security and safety. I just take my hat off to them. They were able to transcend it and create this haven of safety when indeed it was not, really.”
Yolanda spoke warmly about her and her siblings’ relationship with her dad: “My father was a buddy-daddy. He played with us. That’s what he did. He didn’t spend time talking about his work, what he was doing, or what we should or should not do. I remember playing ball in the house, which my mother just totally could not stand. My father was the ringleader. She would say, ‘Martin, you need to stop. You’re going to break something.’ He’d say, ‘Okay Corey,’ and as soon as she left the room, he started back up again. He was just a big kid with us. Just a lot of laughter and a lot of fun.”
Most Americans saw Dr. King as serious and passionate; they rarely got to see his lighter side. “Once he was off the stage and off the public arena, he was a cutup,” Yolanda revealed. “He could have been a stand-up comedian, that’s how much he loved to joke and laugh, and would tell jokes and would tease you. We all had nicknames. I was Yoki-Poki cause I was slow. My brother was Mighty-Boppy. It was just like these cute, affectionate kind of things.”
Yolanda learned at an early age that she had to separate her father from his public persona. More often than not she was left at home with her sister and two brothers while the Kings did their work. “I was very upset with my parents until I became older and wiser… because we didn’t get a chance to participate in most of the important campaigns and marches of the movement. I had to read about it like other people did… because my parents, in an effort to protect us and create this cocoon of safety, kept us away from all of that.
I saw the march on Washington on TV, just like the rest of the world. Needless to say, I was so upset about that! Particularly since some of my friends who were also the kids of movement people did participate. I remember going out to do ‘get out the vote’ rallies, like go from community to community, and it was the first time I had ever been out with him. I remember people trying to grab him and touch him, and I was just so jealous. That was one of the demons I had to exorcise personally.”
Her Darkest Day
April 4, 1968 began normally enough. Coretta took 12-year-old Yolanda shopping in the afternoon to buy her an Easter dress. But that evening, while washing dishes after dinner, Yolanda sensed something was not right. The TV began showing film of a speech given the night before by Dr. King. “I remember thinking that Dad looks like he’s far away,” she recalled. “I could see that in his eyes – he was just looking through the crowd.” Yolanda then went to her parents’ bedroom and found her mother earnestly talking on the phone. “She was talking to, as I found out later, Jesse Jackson, who was saying to her, ‘You need to get on the first plane smokin’. And the bulletin came on the television: ‘We interrupt this program.’ That’s when they said that he’d been shot, and it was like…” Her voice trailed off as she sighed. “It’s been 36 years and still, every time one of those special bulletins comes on, my heart stops. I guess it’ll always be that way.”
In a flash the country had lost its most famous civil rights leader. Yolanda and her family now had to find ways to cope with the wrenching loss. “It was pretty tough,” she said. “I really didn’t deal with it until I was much older. I pretended he was not gone, he was just away. I dreamed about him for three years afterwards – consistently – and he was always coming back home. And then the dreams changed, and it went from him not coming to us, but us going to him.”
I asked Yolanda what kind of a relationship she had with her dad at present. “I am so constantly in touch with my father, that sometimes it feels like he is here… ‘cause I have conversations with him, I hear his voice. And I ask him questions, what should I do about certain things? About four years ago, I was in Egypt and I had the first experience with actually being in communion… directly connecting with his spirit and actually hearing his voice. It was so dramatic. Since that time his spiritual presence is very much a part of my life. I tell people I never feel alone. I just feel really protected and guided.”
Yolanda told me about the time she had an audience 10 years prior with the Dalai Lama in India where he was living in exile. When she walked into the room something quite unexpected happened. “I became a total basket case,” she gushed. “I’d never experienced anything like it before or since. He reminded me so much of my father… I became this stuttering, mumbling imbecile. It’s like I went back to my childhood. I just became this little girl. It was just the strangest thing. I mean I didn’t even know this man. But his aura reminded me so much of my father, and his presence and spirit.” Months later, when the Dalai Lama visited The King Center in Atlanta, Coretta also met him. “She told me after,” Yolanda recollected, “I see what you mean. There is something about him that is very comparable to your father. It’s very much a spiritual aura.”
Achieving the Dream
For the last several years Yolanda performed a show called Achieving the Dream, where she played eight different characters who bravely faced up to the challenges of discrimination in American society. She took it on the road, not only in this country but overseas as well, sometimes performing solo, but oftentimes performing a full production with help from singers and dancers. “What I have seen is that my sharing the story makes it real for young people. That’s important ‘cause I think it’s necessary for young people to know the bridges that have brought us over and have brought us this far. But also I think it’s also important for older people to not forget. Things are so complicated [today] that I think there’s a tendency to forget that we really have made tremendous progress. Achieving gives people that kind of overview, and that sense of connectedness.”
What did she think was the greatest achievement of the civil rights movement? “Obviously the legalized barriers of segregation, legalized discrimination have been removed. And as a result there are people building bridges and doing wonderful things all across this country who 10 years ago, 15 years ago, forget it. I get a chance to participate in events all around this country where people are just trying to better their community. It’s one of the blessings of my life to be able on a regular basis be involved in efforts that are just simply designed to uplift. And so I get a chance to see people who 15 years ago even were not working together.
I have seen… how it’s changed over the years in terms of the people who invite me, the kinds of audiences, the kinds of sponsoring groups that are inviting me. The initiatives, the people literally coming together across racial, religious, socio-economic groups, just the range and diversity of entities and organizations that come together around the King holiday, around just these ideas of diversity and inclusion. It’s extremely encouraging. I know people say, well, we’ve got so far to go. Yes, we do. But my God we’ve come a long way, and I have seen it in my lifetime.”
Yolanda shared a personal story about a trip her family and friends took in 2002 to celebrate her mother’s birthday, a cruise around Stone Mountain. “Dad refers to Stone Mountain in the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech which talks about let[ting] freedom ring from all these different mountain tops. He cites it specifically because, in his day, Stone Mountain was a place where the Klan every weekend would burn crosses and do their little gatherings, and Black people did not go [there] after dark. Now we’re sailing around Stone Mountain, a group of Black and White and Red and Yellow, because we celebrate my mother’s 75th, this wonderful, diverse group of people, and Stone Mountain is now populated by more Blacks than Whites. Just an example, a tangible example.”
In January 2006, my wife and I attended the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Auditorium at the new main library in Santa Monica. Hundreds of people of all colors attended the event, and Yolanda was the star attraction. People milled around her like she was royalty, and though respectful of her, their need to be close to her made it difficult for her to move freely. She smiled through it all, however, obviously accustomed to that kind of attention. Near the end of the event, as she was being escorted to her waiting limo, we were able to catch her eye. She pointed her finger at us in recognition, smiled warmly, and blew us a kiss. Sadly, that was the last time I saw her.
The King family struggles with their loss. Just 16 months earlier, Coretta Scott King, the matriarch of the family for so many years, passed away from cancer after suffering a debilitating stroke the year before. Now, the job of keeping The King Center going in Atlanta and helping bring Dr. King’s vision of a “Beloved Community” to fruition falls heavily on the shoulders of the remaining children – Martin III, Dexter, and Bernice. The presence of their older sister will be sorely missed, for Yolanda was the most vocal, and the most public of them all.