Bernice King was five-years old when her father, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated and just several months old when he delivered his epoch-making “I Have Dream” speech in 1963. As the country turns its attention this week to the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s pivotal speech, his youngest child is set to take center stage, leading a series of events focused on social change. King, the CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, spoke to The Daily Beast’s Allison Samuels about her father’s legacy, America’s future and the death of Trayvon Martin.
The Daily Beast: Fifty years after the death of your father, do you think the country has made progress on your father’s dream?
Bernice King: I have to be positive about where we are in this country as it relates to my father’s dream. And I am positive. There has been great progress and very real movement made since his speech and death. I think my father would wholeheartedly agree. I think he would be very pleased by many of the changes and the advances made across the board in terms of race relations, tolerance and acceptance--on some level. I stress on some level. He would insist on acknowledging the good that has come over the last 50 years because that is who he was as a man. But he would continue talk about the tremendous work that still needs to be done. He would continue to push for those who are without. There is much to do in order to move forward in this country and in the African- American community as a whole. The push for equality, fairness and the reduction of poverty is ongoing and doesn’t end. The fight for all people to be valued for who they are and not what they look like doesn’t end. Both of my parents understood that well.
What do you think your father would see as the most pressing issues facing us today as it relates to race? His friend Andrew Young has said that the courts have handed the civil-rights movement serious blows over the last few years—setbacks that neither he nor Dr. King could have imagined while marching in the 1960s. Is that a fair statement?
That’s very fair when you look at voting rights, affirmative action and various other laws being chipped away at on both the national and local levels. You can’t deny that those decisions by the courts have been very hurtful to the movement overall. But I look at them as wake-up calls to many of us who’ve fallen asleep at the wheel of contentment. My generation and the next generation must join in and make our voices heard. The next generation must step up and be ready to do what must be done to keep the fight going for better health care, a better environment, better housing and better education. We’ve let far too many issues, concerns and actions go by that needed to be dealt with. We needed a very real wake up call and now we have it.
Let’s talk about Trayvon Martin. How do you think your father would have handled the aftermath of the unarmed teenager’s death?
Obviously a child’s death upsets me and the idea that so much had to be done just to get an arrest really does make the point that this country and African-Americans have to be fully aware of what’s going on around us. We have to know and understand the laws and how they pertain to us and fight those that don’t support our rights. It’s also important to understand that my father would have reached out to both the Martin family and to [shooter George] Zimmerman in a situation like this. He would have extended his hand to both to begin the healing because we have to heal in order to move forward. Daddy fought for both justice and peace so he would have cared about both families and worked with both families to bring them to a better place in a very tragic situation.
George Zimmerman was found not guilty which outraged a great number of people. How do you feel?
I understood the reason behind people’s anger since I thought evidence was there to show that Zimmerman was responsible for this young man’s death. Manslaughter certainly seemed very reasonable. But with my law background I’m not sure the prosecution did all it needed to do make the case and I don’t understand why. There were many issues from that night that weren’t addressed and many statements about young black men that weren’t rebutted by the prosecution. That was bothersome, as was the District Attorney’s upbeat demeanor after the verdict. I thought it was totally inappropriate and made you wonder if there wasn’t some kind of arrangement in the end. I’ve never seen a DA so upbeat after losing such a high profile case.
A photo-shopped image of your father wearing a hoodie similar to the one Tryavon wore on the night he was killed went viral in the days after the verdict. Some King family members were upset with that image. Were you?
Yes and no. I obviously understood the ‘why’ of it but also felt it didn’t represent my father or who he was. He was a man who took his presentation very seriously. He wore suits and ties at all times in public. He was a man of his times and felt all parts of his presentation were important so it bothered me from that standpoint. Whoever put that image on the Internet was trying to make a connection, but the connection was already there. My daddy stood up for the underdog , those who didn’t get justice and those treated unfairly. That was his life’s work.
Where do we go from here, 50 years later?
We have to come together and work together in the good times as well as the bad. We to keep the common goal as justice for all in mind at times and we have to reach back and help those who need a helping hand no matter who they are. We have to think of ourselves globally and exchange ideas with other places and people. There are many things I hope to do at the Martin Luther King Center that will further those ideals.