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Race and Economy

How the family of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is working to protect his legacy

Lee Hawkins Apr 4, 2024
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"Many people would ask, 'What is your legacy?'" said Bernice King, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s youngest child. "I tell them, 'Look, I don't have to discover a legacy — I was born into a legacy.'" OFF/AFP via Getty Images
Race and Economy

How the family of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is working to protect his legacy

Lee Hawkins Apr 4, 2024
Heard on:
"Many people would ask, 'What is your legacy?'" said Bernice King, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s youngest child. "I tell them, 'Look, I don't have to discover a legacy — I was born into a legacy.'" OFF/AFP via Getty Images
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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated 56 years ago today. His four children have worked to carry on his vision through his namesake center in Atlanta, which focuses on promoting nonviolent social change.

When a determined Dr. King gave his prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to striking Memphis sanitation workers, it would be his last. In it, he urged his followers to keep marching, though conceding that he might not live to see the progress. His expectation was based on years of being violently attacked, having his house bombed and other assaults.

Dr. King was assassinated the very next day, on April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. King’s awareness of his mortality made him think about the future financial security of his family.

Our father was a public figure, but he was a private citizen,” said Bernice King, Dr. King’s youngest child and CEO of the King Center in Atlanta.

Fifty-six years since her father’s death, she and her siblings have fought to maintain access to her father’s words — especially her late brother, Dexter. She reflected on her brother’s work at a news conference following his death.

“Daddy protected his own intellectual property,” Bernice said. “He copyrighted and went to court over the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. And that we are following in his stead to adequately protect it so it doesn’t go off the rails, at least as long as we live and breathe in this first generation.”

Being King comes with the heavy responsibility of carrying the weight of her father’s name forward. “Many people would ask, ‘What is your legacy?’ said Bernice. “I tell them, ‘Look, I don’t have to discover a legacy — I was born into a legacy. We were born into a legacy. And we each have a defined role to carry forward that legacy.'”

The Martin Luther King, Jr. estate is worth nearly $10 million. However, there is no reliable way to account for the cost of the violence and trauma the family has endured.

Isaac Newton Farris, Jr., the son of Dr. King’s late sister, Christine King Farris, spoke about some of the painful moments that followed the civil rights leader’s assassination.

“The hardest death for any of us to deal with was the murder of my grandmother,” Isaac Newton said. “She was the big mama in terms of our family. She was looked at by all of us as a loving, giving person.”

When asked if he was ever afraid as a child, Isaac Newton responded: “I was, because there were a couple of instances, a few times when literally the police came to my elementary school and just to say to the principal and to the teachers, ‘Look there, you know, there’s been a threat made against the family and not just Dr. King. You know, the threat is beyond them, and it is affecting the kids.'”

The family was often under FBI surveillance, especially in 1963, after King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Still, Isaac Newton doesn’t hold the government wholly responsible for the family’s trauma.

“We looked at it more as elements of the government; J. Edgar Hoover was an element of the government, but so was the Supreme Court. So was the Supreme Court that ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education. So was the American Congress and American Senate with no Black senators, and only five Black Congressmen that passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act,” he said.

For the King descendants, inheriting a brand that promotes nonviolent social change and racial unity has come with some pretty heavy burdens — but it has an inimitable place in the ongoing story of the United States.

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