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Health and civil rights: an iconic family counts the costs

David Brancaccio and Ariana Rosas Apr 4, 2023
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Children of Martin Luther King Jr. with their mother Coretta Scott King in February 1964. A new APM Studios podcast delves the health toll the fight against racism took on Dr. King's family even after his assassination. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Health and civil rights: an iconic family counts the costs

David Brancaccio and Ariana Rosas Apr 4, 2023
Heard on:
Children of Martin Luther King Jr. with their mother Coretta Scott King in February 1964. A new APM Studios podcast delves the health toll the fight against racism took on Dr. King's family even after his assassination. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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This week marks 55 years since civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, while helping striking sanitation workers. Dr. King’s death left a deep and indelible impact on America and sparked mass protests across the country.

For the King family, however, the assassination would only be the first of many tragedies to come. Now, a forthcoming podcast explores the connection between intergenerational trauma and future health outcomes. Host Lee Hawkins, a veteran journalist and author of the book “Nobody’s Slave: How Uncovering My Family’s History Set Me Free” takes a deep dive into the King family and their history of early deaths.

“I thought that it was important to interview the King family about the impacts of that, and the fact that so many people died early as a result of heart attacks,” Hawkins said in an interview with Marketplace’s David Brancaccio. “Dr. King’s daughter, Yolanda, died at age 51. His brother, AD, had five kids. Three of them died of heart attacks, including one that died at age 20.”

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: 55 years since the terrible events of Memphis, you’ve been reflecting on the stresses experienced by Dr. King’s extended family. Really, even into new generations, trauma preceded the assassination, and new traumas followed for family members. It just goes on.

Lee Hawkins: Yes. And the fact that Dr. King’s brother drowned just a few years after his assassination, and then his mother was also assassinated while she was playing the organ at church — in Ebenezer Baptist Church. And at the time, the King kids were just children. And so to lose Dr. King, their uncle, and also their beloved grandmother really was something that put a lot of stress on the kids from a young age. And as a result of that, there were a lot of health implications.

Brancaccio: Yeah, I mean, post-traumatic stress, the word stress is in there, but it’s really trauma that is most evocative word in that phrase.

Lee Hawkins: I think so. And as you’re seeing racism is now being deemed a public health crisis, the effects of accelerated aging are being studied in the context of racism by experts all over the country. And I thought that it was important to interview the King family about the impacts of that, and the fact that so many people died early as a result of heart attacks. Dr. King’s daughter, Yolanda, died at age 51. His brother, AD, had five kids. Three of them died of heart attacks, including one that died at age 20. When that happened, there were many other King family members who went in to get tested and they found out that many of them had heart complications. And now it could be genetic as well because Dr. Martin Luther King, when they did the autopsy on him, he it turned out that he had a heart of a 60-year-old and he was only 39 years old. And so it raises serious questions about the impact of racism.

Brancaccio: And this research that’s actually going on in this field. I think you did a podcast with experts pulled together by the famed Mayo Clinic. I think the overarching theme was racial health equity, but you heard biological evidence that trauma, post-traumatic stress and other stresses can age people more quickly.

Lee Hawkins: Yes, indeed, it can. In the scientific community, there’s a real push to start to collect data about people’s patient profiles and get ahead on the possibility to prevent some of these illnesses. We do know that chronic stress from childhood, adverse childhood experiences, having four or five or more of those can significantly increase the likelihood of a person dying 20 years earlier. So to be a young child and go through that, it wouldn’t be surprising for someone to have a long-term effect and impact after all of that trauma.

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