Martin Luther King, Jr., was a leader who represented hope and possibility to millions, but to his youngest son, Dexter, King was simply "Daddy."
Dexter was only 7 years old when King was assassinated and he's spent the rest of his life coming to terms with the past and protecting his father's legacy. Read chapter one of his book, Growing Up King: An Intimate Memoir.
Chapter 1: Sleeping Beauties
I felt inadequate to the task at hand, the scene before me, though my role seemed simple enough. Yoki had already shown me a picture of Prince Charming in a book of fairy tales, so I knew what he was supposed to look like. I'd seen myself in a mirror. Didn't see the correlation, didn't think I could ever look like that or act like that. But my older sister kept on insisting I was the Chosen One, who must bend down and kiss my baby sister Bernice, lying on one end of our seesaw, acting dead, like Sleeping Beauty. Yoki was saying, "Let's do this." I was steadily refusing.
"Nope," I said. "Nope, nope, nope."
The corners of Yoki's mouth curled. "Yes … that's what you mean to say. Right?"
She was about to unleash a verbal volley accompanied by a twisting pinch of arm flesh if I wasn't quick enough, which, by the warm, so-called Indian summer of 1967, I usually was.
I was six and a half years old when I asked Yoki, "Why me?" while fixing a pleading eye toward my older brother, Martin III, who stood behind me in the backyard of 234 Sunset, Vine City, Atlanta, Georgia, behind the house where we grew up.
Marty wasn't about to buck Yoki's authority; he grew deaf, looked the other way, whistled.
I'm in my forty-first year now, but thinking of what it was like back in 1967, when I was a boy but six years old, makes me smile. A wry and cautious smile. Yoki was eleven. An eleven-year-old girl isn't to be trifled with by her younger brothers. "You ask too many questions," she said, her calm that comes before a storm; we knew this, and she knew that we knew. Yoki was my terrible older sister Yolanda. Now I know she isn't so terrible. Now I feel I must call her Yolanda. It has more formality, something expected of Yolanda, Martin, me, and Bernice. Ever since I was seven, I've felt I must be formal. But I didn't feel it in '67. Then she was my crazy terrible sister; Yoki-poky, as Daddy called her when we were children and didn't have the responsibilities or memories we have now. Formality, seriousness, certitude — all these are difficult poses to maintain, even if you're a person with perfect equilibrium, with all the drama life throws at you.
Speaking of what life throws at you, just then a green walnut came whizzing over the fence, crashing into our swing, cracking open its unripe cover, its powerful astringent scent filling the air. Could just as well have been a peach, apple, fig, or pecan — each of those species bloomed in the backyards of the small houses in Vine City. Walnuts made more of an announcement when arriving via this kind of air mail. Marty and I looked at each other. We were being paged.
One of the neighborhood boys was summoning us without risking an audience with Yoki. Smart move. We'd relocated to Vine City from the Old Fourth Ward in 1965. I spent my first four years in the Old Fourth Ward, up from Auburn Avenue, on Johnson Avenue, in a house the color of the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz. A liquor store now stands where the backyard of the house used to be. What's now Freedom Parkway was once our front yard.
Granddaddy's house in Old Fourth Ward, where the package store now stands, was on a hill, three blocks away from Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he was pastor, two blocks down from 501 Auburn Avenue. Granddaddy's name was Martin Luther King, Sr. He had two sons. The younger was Alfred Daniel King, Sr., Uncle A.D., named for my great-grandfather A. D. Williams, who'd also been pastor at Ebenezer, and who was the father of Alberta Williams King, my paternal grandmother, whom we called Big Mama. My father was the elder son, Martin Luther King, Sr.'s copastor at Ebenezer, among other things.
His name was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When my mother became pregnant with me, the family was moving to Atlanta from Montgomery, Alabama, where my father had been pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He'd become famous or infamous there, depending on one's slant, as one of the architects of the Montgomery bus boycott. That action was spawned by Mrs. Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her seat on a city transit bus, a watershed event of the Civil Rights Movement. We moved to Atlanta after that.
The move helped my grandfather. His eight-hundred-seat church and his clout in Baptist circles were enhanced having my father rejoin him as co-pastor. But as far as joining him in the more affluent western suburb of Collier Heights, my father wasn't hearing it, in spite of my grandfather's insistence. We'd live in Vine City, with the plain folk.
A freeway was coming, as was Bunny. We moved because we needed more space and the freeway construction would displace us. The freeway became known as Freedom Parkway, which now takes you by the Carter Presidential Center. Back when the freeway was being planned, it was to be called Stone Mountain Freeway, taking you to Stone Mountain, where images of Confederate generals were blasted into the granite. But both the name and the route were changed. We needed a place, so we moved to the modest, roomy brick house on an undulating street, Sunset, at the foot of the Atlanta University Center, the consortium of five historically black colleges and universities.
It was a split-level house with a full basement; you entered the main floor by walking up exterior stairs aided by wrought-iron banisters painted white. The house is larger than it appears from in front. From that position you can't get the depth of it. Your idea of a thing is often based on the angle from which you view it. The house isn't narrow, yet it's much deeper than it is wide.
As you enter, on your right side facing in is the dining room; on your left is the living room, filled with memorabilia, family pictures, a sofa. The kitchen is beyond the dining room. There my mother or the ladies who helped her, Mrs. Dorothy Lockhart or Mrs. Newman or sometimes Mrs. Rachel Ward, caused a racket of pots and pans. Mrs. Ward and Mrs. Patricia Cook Latimore sometimes looked after us when Mom and Dad had to do important business. The family room is beyond the kitchen. The four of us made a hubbub of children and toys in there. The hallway splits the house in half, running perpendicular from the front door straight from front to back, connecting four bedrooms and a study, my parents' bedroom at the end of the hallway to the left, the study to the right. The first room to the left was the boys' room, the second to the left was the girls' room, and in later years, vice versa; to the right was the guest room. Connecting our rooms was a play room; a door was between us. It was the doorway to fun, conflict, happiness. We bolted and flitted around these dimensions at incredible speeds, as children do. From here we plotted childhood.
There was sibling rivalry among us. We jockeyed for the attention of our mother and father, the way sisters and brothers sometimes do. There was a little jealousy on the part of the others whenever the next one was born.
Bernice, whom we called Bunny, was the baby, four going on fifty-two in '67, precocious, but quietly so. She never experienced jealousy pangs, but she had her own cross to bear. It wasn't so much that she was tomboyish … that was fine by Marty and me. We'd throw her in there if we needed to round out a side, or boost her up into trees, and she'd try her best to keep up. Occasionally she might bark a shin, earn a bruise some other way. Marty was the world's foremost tattletale, the one who'd say, "I'm gon' tell Mama," if a boy happened not to be quick enough to break his baby sister's fall. After spankings delivered by Mother, or, worse, Granddaddy's leather belt or ham hands, we still had a backyard in which to retire and ruminate.
Martin seemed to always know the trouble would blow over. He and Yolanda were such amiable children. Bernice was more pragmatic, or so it seemed at the time. She'd look at me and in her quiet baby talk take up for Martin. So even when we had falling outs, soon we all were as thick as thieves again, welcoming the neighborhood children into our domain.
Our home at 234 Sunset was kind of home central, the neighborhood headquarters. All the kids came by to play. My mom treated them like hers, which wasn't always reassuring for them. Coretta Scott King was a disciplinarian, took no guff from hers or any others. Froze you with a look. "Time out" was a call we made in football, not what fell from her lips in our direction. Under her eye or not, we'd play "hide-and-go-seek," as we called it, football, softball, kickball, tag, marbles in the red clay; we'd spin tops, ride homemade skateboards, "pull" friends along by pedaling bikes standing up as the friend rode on the passenger seat. We had a swing set, seesaw, and slide. I loved the slide. I loved playing on the gym set. I loved it all, really. We had a hoop too. Ours was, in these regards, a typical family home … or so I thought back then.
This area in northwest Atlanta known as Vine City got its name from the heavy kudzu vines that grew all over the place; Vine City was a "Negro" enclave, in the era of segregation into which we were born. The Magnolia Ballroom was on the corner. James Brown and popular "Negro" entertainers would come to perform there. Often we'd pretend to be James or the Famous Flames, his backup singers, doing choreography, hitting spins and splits, feigning fainting spells with an old bedspread thrown over our shoulders.
That apartment building over there … Former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson's family had lived there. Next door were Reverend and Mrs. Hall and their children. Across the street from our house were the Davis children. We played with them all the time. Miss Toomer lived over there. Next to her were the Martins. Julian Bond's family lived next to the Martins. We grew up with his kids, Phyllis, Michael, Cookie, Jeffrey, and Horace Mann Bond III, otherwise known as Manny, who got his name from his grandfather. A block over was the new John F. Kennedy Middle School, where we played, and where I later went to summer school.
The whole area was known as lower Vine City— cheek by jowl with the AU Center of Morehouse College, Spelman College, Morris Brown College (it stood closest; we could almost read the football-field scoreboard from our driveway), Clark College, and Atlanta University. Vine City became the " 'hood" later, after Daddy was killed and integration patterns became widespread and "Negroes," black people, could move, if not to where our hearts desired, then to where our purses allowed. Many did move, leaving memories, the luckless, the Aftermath . . . leaving only a few committed to their memories, or bound by lowering prospects in Vine City. The pendulum swings both ways, though, if you can last, if you can hold on, hang in — if you can remember.
My brother, my sisters, and I would walk down to Sunset and Simpson to a parlor we called Flavor Palace. Flavor Palace had the best ice cream anywhere outside of the deep country, a place with which we were familiar, where ice cream was rarer but homemade, hand-cranked, tastiest with a little vanilla extract and lemon juice added. At Flavor Palace it was almost as good as homemade. They also made Polish sausage sandwiches with onions and jalapeno peppers. I salivate now just thinking about them. We stopped there often. The proprietor, Mr. Patterson, a brown-skinned man with the thin, sculpted mustache favored in those days, often gave us a free taste. I never made a correlation between his generosity and my father's being in jail, but there may have been one. Jalapenos and onions on top of a Polish. He fixed one up and handed it to me. I fished for my meager coins and he said, "No, no, you do good for your fahdah, now . . ."
Egan Homes was around the corner. If you heard somebody lived in the Egan Homes, you felt he was trouble. "Don't mess with them niggas what live over there in them Egan Homes," was often said or implied by the very same Negroes who lived in Egan Homes! They were talking about themselves, to be agreeable; those were accepted words in the better homes in our gardens.
But I knew people who lived in Egan Homes. After people said don't mess with them, I asked why. I knew you had to go by there to get to Washington Park unless you took the long way. You had to learn to suppress your fear. If you did, you found that while some Egan Homes people might be trouble, some might not be. Some might help you out.
Egan Homes is long gone now. Razed, and replaced by a new mixed-income development, part of urban renewal.
My father would take us down to the Ollie Street YMCA all the time. Everything in Atlanta is renamed by people who live near it. "Booker T." was Booker T. Washington High School, where Dad went. It's right over there. Everything in Atlanta was "right over there." We stayed in our communities. The Ollie Street Y was where my father took us for recreation. I learned to swim there. He taught me. He was good at it and enjoyed it. And the YMCA is still there today.
At Washington Park, we had cookouts. As children, we didn't know we were "Negroes," or if we did, we didn't know exactly what that meant. We didn't realize we lived in "segregation," didn't know there were better pools than the one we crowded into at the Y, or that we and our friends would be considered "have-nots" if our father wasn't the co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. We weren't aware that we could and would be turned away from public accommodations, educational institutions, or turned away from desirable living spaces by the real estate restrictive covenants. We weren't aware that we were shunned by society, murdered over mere glances, made to feel less than human. We were children, and children are more than human; we were blessed, but sooner or later we'd grow up and have to face this prison of segregation, unless Daddy won his struggle. There was this great social upheaval, this "great getting-up morning" going on that would redefine our lives and existences, and those of the people around us.
Like I said. We were rehearsing Yoki's play as the alley and our friends beckoned to us. In a nearby house, Lou Rawls's "St. James Infirmary" wafted up from a "record player." Yoki also had a "record player," on which spun large-mouthed 45s filled by yellow prong adapters; "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" by the Temptations, Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness." My father preferred Mahalia Jackson singing "Amazing Grace," or Aretha Franklin singing "O Mary Don't You Weep." He often tapped his foot and bobbed his head to secular music, and he didn't deny it to us — he couldn't, not in Vine City. Music was everywhere. Like Yoki.
Yoki was five years older than me and forever putting on plays and musicals. We were her troupe. It was not often that anyone else got a starring role with Yoki around. At my shoulder was Martin III, Marty then; he was restless, sighing heavily, looking away, mumbling. Yoki was telling me what I must do to make things right before we could leave.
"You're supposed to lean over and kiss her. On the lips."
My face continued to betray me, and my lack of enthusiasm.
Bernice was lying with lips chapped, eyelids closed, then fluttering. She was pleased to be Sleeping Beauty. Usually her role was Yoki's handmaiden, subject to taunting. Yoki was a stern taskmaster, particularly for Bunny. We often teased Bernice, saying she'd been left on our doorstep by mistake, or was adopted. Now I was in Yoki's sights, subject to her derision, but it wasn't enough to make me kiss a girl, particularly my little sister, for no good reason at all.
"Why do you want me?" I whined.
"Why?" Yoki repeated. "Why do you always ask why? Because I said so, that's why. Because that's the way the play goes. You're supposed to kiss Sleeping Beauty; that will break the spell cast by an evil witch and everyone will live happily ever after. Don't you want to live happily ever afterward, you stupid boy? Don't you know anything?"
"But she isn't Sleeping Beauty. She's Bunny."
"Not right now. She's Sleeping Beauty right now," Yoki countered.
"Well . . . why can't Martin kiss her? Why does it have to be me?"
Yoki's voice dripped with venom. "Because I said so."
". . . But it don't make no sense," I whispered.
"Don't make any sense," Martin said. He was trying to get back to playing. If we were lucky, once Dad got home he might take us over to the Ollie Street Y. If we were really lucky, Uncle Ralph and Aunt Jean's children would go with us too. But we had to get past Yoki first.
"Go on, get it over with," Martin whispered, smiling at Yoki when she looked daggers at him. So I leaned over and kissed Bernice. On the cheek. I still feel her tiny cheekbone rise beneath my lips. "Don't smile too quick, Bunny," Yoki chided. "Let the kiss take effect."
Martin and I made our escape into the alley and whatever devilment we were up to. As we ran, the scent of honeysuckle mixed with the occasional open garbage can to sweeten and make pungent the late summer air; gravel secured our feet to the red clay; we raced by kudzu-choked fences in varying states of repair.
Yoki didn't bother calling after us. The play was given the following evening at home for our parents and a few of our aunts and uncles; so it was, and always has been. But even long after we grew up, we kept doing plays under her direction, the last time when she turned forty. She wanted to do what she loved, what was in her blood, and to make Daddy proud of her. We all wanted that.
I was born worried. I was born anxious. I was born on January 30, 1961, in the Hughes-Spaulding Hospital, a private hospital for "Negroes" in Atlanta. My father was in Chicago at the time, but rushed home as soon as he got the word. "Negroes" was then the term for Americans of discernible African descent. What to call us, what to do with us — these questions were not for children but rather for their parents who wanted the best for them one day. "Negro" households in Atlanta not on public assistance utilized that one hospital, Hughes-Spaulding.
Atlanta has always held a special spot. At one time it was called Terminus; railways began and ended here and ran throughout the South, so it's always had a pivotal position. But it was basically a big old landlocked town, and still is. It's also a cliquish, insular town, and it can be hard for outsiders coming in. It can be difficult for insiders who don't conform.
Atlanta remains a difficult town to crack the code on.
In terms of the black/white so-called race relations, Atlanta has always been just smart enough to be smarter than most. I don't know if it's because of what happened during the Civil War, General Sherman burning it down. Since then Atlanta had the sense to recognize it needs to be peaceful, though there have been lynchings of blacks and bombings of Jewish synagogues here and there; there have also been efforts to stem the tide of hatred by being civil in that southern, intimate way, by being "down home." The raw, murderous violence of Alabama and Mississippi didn't seem to cloak Atlanta. But in my youth, it was rigidly, bitterly segregated.
Before the '60s, before the Civil Rights Movement and social reformation, "Negroes" in Atlanta — never "blacks," not then; calling somebody "black" back then would get you a look, maybe even a punch in the nose — weren't as affected by the segregation dooming the poor in other places; in Atlanta, "Negroes" had infrastructure. It was by comparison small and circumscribed, but it was there, not rich compared to the Augusta Country Club and the riches that spawned it. But "Negroes" did have social clubs, financial institutions, schools, churches, some land, so in that respect there was hesitation with change; there was a risk of losing what little you had. You felt like you finally had acquired something you didn't want to lose.
Blacks in Atlanta weren't as downtrodden as in the Mississippi Delta, or in Lawndale on the West Side of Chicago, or in the rice paddies of the Sea Islands off the Carolina coast, or in the black belt of south-central Alabama, where my mother's parents lived, or other places South and North. "Negroes" in Atlanta were not as anxious as they were in other places, where people were trying to gain access, rights, a crust of life, because they didn't have anything to lose, they were trying to get a little something. In Atlanta, "Negroes" already had a little something; in some cases they had nice somethings. This made it more impressive to me, later, to realize that my father, in spite of his privileged position, would take up the civil rights struggle, battle against the system of segregation. Because he really would have had it made, relatively, in old Atlanta. Could've gone with the flow, succeeded Granddaddy as pastor at Ebenezer, conducted weddings, funerals, encouraged generosity from the Ebenezer flock, attended National Baptist conventions, risen to be an H.N.I.C....Head Negro In Charge of what little we had, and we had a nice if not an idyllic life.
I don't know how it was in Daddy's mind. I've been asked many times, as have many if not most other black people, "What do you want?" I can't answer for him. He was, if nothing else, a man of his own conscience. The '60s were idyllic to me. How they were for him, I don't know. He could've limited his battles to Ebenezer, local politics, as my grandfather did. But he didn't; wasn't that kind of a man. Greatness was thrust upon him, and for some internal reason or external destiny, he did not turn away. Because he was the man that he was, I was born six weeks premature.
My mother was traumatized during her pregnancy with me. All of us were born and raised in struggle. In January of 1956, Yoki was ten weeks old and they were living in Montgomery when a bomb was set off at their house. My father spoke of having an epiphany at the kitchen table in this same house a few days before that. The bombings — the one at my parents' house was not the only one — were owed to the violence of vigilante whites, poor whites, after the bus boycott led by the Montgomery Improvement Association, for which my father served as president. He held some of the smaller meetings at his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church; Uncle Ralph's — Rev. Ralph Abernathy's — First Baptist Church held larger mass meetings. My father had talked about being "paralyzed with fear" during this time.
But at the kitchen table in the house in Montgomery, he had an epiphany; he said all the fear left him, and he gave himself and his Cause over to the hand and grace of God.
It wasn't until this bombing in Montgomery on January 30, 1956, that it dawned on him: it wasn't just him but also his family who were involved in this Cause. Yet only he had the epiphany.
In April of 1960, after having dinner, my parents were returning the southern writer Lillian Smith to Emory University Hospital, in DeKalb County, where she was getting cancer treatments. After dropping her at the dorm they were stopped by police. My father was a black man; a white woman had been in the car. My father was recognized by the DeKalb County police and arrested because he had not changed his driver's license from an Alabama license to a Georgia license in the three months since they left Montgomery. Daddy answered the summons, was fined $25 for "driving without a proper permit," given a suspended twelve-month sentence by Judge Oscar Mitchell, and released on probation. This occurred at the time of the Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch-counter student sit-ins to protest segregated public facilities, on the heels of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott sparked by the arrest of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Shortly after this event, sometime in June, my mother discovered she was pregnant with me.
These were heady, dangerous days. But my father, pleased my mother was pregnant for the third time, was undeterred by his arrest. My mother did her usual thing and exploded in size; she was one of those women whose entire body, not just the belly, became larger when she got pregnant. By October, she was five months gone, and showing like nine.
This was when my father agreed to be a part of a lunch-counter demonstration at Rich's department store, protesting segregated eating facilities — the only time he joined any such local demonstration in his hometown of Atlanta. He did it against his father's wishes, to support idealistic student leaders like Lonnie C. King, Marian Wright, now Mari Wright Edelman, and John Porter. They'd ask for service at a snack bar at the downtown Rich's, which, like most department stores in southern cities, "welcomed" black patrons through a back entrance to come spend their money as long as they didn't use rest rooms, drink from water fountains marked "Whites," try on hats, or get refreshments.
My father was first to be arrested, then the students; tactically, they didn't accept a $500 bond from Judge James Webb. Dad was carted off to Fulton County Jail along with seventy-five "law-breakers," mostly student leaders from the Atlanta University Center. They would agree to be released only if the charges against them, based on unjust Jim Crow laws, were dropped. After reaching a settlement with the affected parties the students were released on their own recognizance.
People say that's when Senator John F. Kennedy got involved, but actually that's when my father's friends and admirers got moving. One of them worked for the Kennedy-for-president campaign. His name was Harris Wofford. He started calling around — Atlanta mayor Bill Hartsfield, a local lawyer named Morris Abram, anybody he could call that might be able to help. Mr. Wofford had great admiration for my father and Mohandas Gandhi. He was a learned, sensitive man who had gone to Howard University Law School after graduating from Yale.
Mayor Hartsfield was about to broker a deal to let the students and our father go anyway. But Daddy was kept in jail. Monday morning, a DeKalb County deputy sheriff came, put him in manacles and leg irons, and took him from jail in Fulton County to DeKalb County — which in those days was going from the dragon's back into its mouth. Murders of civil rights workers by rogue law enforcement officers and other vigilantes were routine occurrences; such deaths had been common for the hundred years since the Civil War. DeKalb County was a Klan stronghold. My distressed mother, with me floating in her belly, went to the hearing at the DeKalb County courthouse with Granddaddy and my Aunt Christine. Members of the faculty at Morehouse College and AU Center students went as well.
Judge Oscar Mitchell found my father guilty of violating his probation over the misdemeanor involving the "invalid driver's license," then sentenced him to four months' hard labor at Reidsville State Prison, which was isolated far downstate. There was pandemonium in the courtroom. Immersed in this was Mother, me in her amniotic sac, feeling each twitch and strain, feeding off her moods.
Yoki was four, Marty was about three, but they weren't there. Mother was shocked when Judge Mitchell announced the sentence; my father's sister, Aunt Christine, broke into tears. So did Mother, and she wasn't given to crying. Staid male professors fell prostrate and wept.
Mother said she felt helpless and out of control and desperate despite the fact my father's family was with her. They were not inside her. I was. She was emotional, weepy; Daddy had not seen her like this, and said so. "You have to be strong now, Corrie," he said. Mayor Hartsfield, in Atlanta and Fulton County, backed off from Judge Mitchell's sentence, saying it "didn't happen in Atlanta." Hartsfield was mayor when the chamber of commerce came up with the slogan that billed Atlanta as "The City Too Busy to Hate." At the time, Georgia wasn't too busy.
Governor Ernest Vandiver crowed about Daddy's dilemma.
Phone lines buzzed. My father's friends — like Stanley Levison, Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, Jackie Robinson, and a horde of less famous but equally concerned folk whose common denominator was being American and feeling for my father — they all made calls or had aides-de-camp making calls to see what could be done for Dad. Of these, Harris Wofford was best positioned to effect change, being connected to the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign. He spoke to Sargent Shriver of JFK's staff. Shriver balked — the first law of political campaigns is to say anything but do nothing. In the end, Wofford convinced Shriver at least to run it by Senator Kennedy, presidential candidate, that maybe he should call the wife of Martin Luther King and offer her comfort. The woman was pregnant, alone. There was all sorts of palavering first. But, cutting through all the political intrigue, JFK wound up calling Mother on impulse, against advice and all political logic, not because it might get him votes. In that climate, it might easily have cost him votes; his advisers were not shy about pointing it out. But JFK called my mother anyway, because Harris Wofford had the right phone number to give Sargent Shriver; it flashed in JFK's mind that calling Mother was the decent thing to do. I believe that was his motivation, and also why things turned out well for him in the election. You get back what you put out. My mother was at home, preparing to go see Morris Abram, a Jewish lawyer who was a family friend. At this point, Robert F. Kennedy, head of JFK's presidential campaign, probably wouldn't have had JFK call Mother for all the tea in China.
The phone rang anyway. My mother spoke with Senator Kennedy; he said he knew it must be hard, he knew she was expecting; if there was anything he could do feel free to call. Mother said she'd appreciate anything he could do to get my father out of prison. Meanwhile, Bobby, JFK's campaign manager and soon to be attorney general, called Judge Mitchell to see why my father couldn't get bail on a misdemeanor. What the hell was going on? Bobby wanted to know.
Who knows what went through Judge Mitchell's mind, but Daddy was released, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) chartered a plane to bring him home from Reidsville. My Grandaddy King said at a mass meeting after my father was released that if he had a suitcase full of votes, he'd take them and put them at Senator Kennedy's feet in the election just a week away. We can thank a cop harassing my father and Judge Mitchell as much as the Kennedys: the long and short of it was that JFK's political intervention on my father's behalf during the final days of his campaign was a decisive factor in his election as president of the United States in 1960. Senator Kennedy won by the equivalent of one vote per precinct nationwide, and his campaign wisely made what hay it could in "Negro" precincts.
After the election, the Kings were seen as an influential family, even a royal family, in the well-lit backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, except our imperial conditioning was different. Where the Kennedys or the British royals were given latitude and a very long leash, the Kings were seen as these pious moral exemplar — a difficult posture for human beings to maintain.
I was born six weeks premature in January of 1961. Only my mother can know what she went through, mother of two at the time, pregnant with a third, dependent on Daddy, worried about his safety, whether something would happen to him because they had whisked him off in the middle of the night to Reidsville. They could as well have been taking him to Hell. He could have easily not even made it to that prison — could have wound up bloated in an earthen dam. It was known to happen. It seems incredible, but those were the harsh realities of the times. So, my mother was in a nervous state for the entire time she was pregnant with me. Everything I've read or heard of since implies that the emotional state of the parents, particularly the mother, is transmitted to the fetus. I felt what she went through. My mother thinks it had a bearing in shaping me, may have forced me out sooner, the urgency of the times.
My paternal grandfather also made his mark on me. He made his mark on all of us, on the whole city of Atlanta, long after he, as Mike King, at age sixteen, had hopped a freight from Stockbridge, Georgia, Henry County, south by southeast of Atlanta, back in the day. Later he argued with his father in order to stay in Atlanta at Bryant Preparatory School, where he was learning how to read and write. Neither of his parents could read or write. When his father, James, went to Atlanta and demanded Mike come back to the farm, because they couldn't make it without his labor, Mike declined. He'd stay on at the school and go about ministering the Baptist way in nearby East Point. Mike King had been born in 1899, to Delia Lindsay and James Albert King, whose father was a white Irishman. He courted and married Alberta Williams, the daughter of the well-known and respected Rev. A. D. Williams; was determined and felt the call to be a Baptist preacher.
Martin seemed a more appropriate name for such a calling, so he adopted it; such given-name changing was a fairly common practice among this generation of young black men making or trying to make a transition from fields to halls of learning. In his twenties, Granddaddy went to Morehouse, graduated, eventually inheriting the wind at Ebenezer from his father-in-law. He remained country strong. Two words best describe him: no-nonsense. Eventually he was overshadowed by the legacy of his son.
Daddy was not just charismatic away from home. His personal magnetism had nothing to do with the Civil Rights Movement on the level I'm talking about. I'd watch him when he wasn't looking, in different states of activity or repose. He insisted we have family time to discuss what was going on, and why he had to be away.
Him sitting at the dining room table with us was a good time for conversation. Sometimes his mind wandered and he seemed lost in thought, absently eating green onions. My father liked stalks of green onions with sweet, white, bulbous roots. They sat in a plate in water, like celery; before a meal he'd pick and eat them like fruit, especially before meals containing turnip or collard greens. He would say he was laying down a bed of straw before the cows and pigs — the rest of the meal — came home. This was ancestral. His father's family was from rural Georgia, my mother's family from rural Alabama. You can see a plate of green onions in photos of tarpaper shacks in the black belt of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia; they were staples of the sharecropper's diet.
I can still see him walking down the hallway at home in his slippers. He had a burgundy-colored satin-like robe he always wore to breakfast. Whenever he wore his robe, I was happy, because it meant he wasn't going anywhere for a while. That meant I could watch him or, if not that, simply be reassured he was there if needed. Every time I was in his presence, I felt deep compassion from him. Many times he felt like a playmate, like somebody who was Dad in terms of compassion and sensitivity, but was not so removed, because he enjoyed playing too, and could relate to a child's problems. We had fun playing softball. He'd pitch. If I swung and missed he'd be disappointed. "Aw, Dexter," he'd say, lobbing in another underhand toss.
When he'd come back from a trip, we'd hide from him, trembling with excitement; he'd find us, have us jump off the refrigerator top into his arms. He called it the Kissing Game. We'd take turns, starting with the eldest. Yoki would be first; she'd jump off into his arms, completely trusting that he'd catch her, and we would follow, and then he'd say, "Where's your kissing spot?" Hers was a corner of her mouth. Martin would have his spot — the forehead. Then I had my spot — the temple. Bernice had her spot — a corner of her mouth. We'd jump into his arms, take our turns; there were four of us, he divided his time equally — what little time he had left. He tried his best. The only one who may have felt he didn't was Yoki. Yoki and my father had a special bond, but he gave us all our specialness. More than just having a spot on his face to kiss, he had an intimate spot in his heart for everybody; we felt it, it made us feel special. He knew how to relate on our level. The memorable thing is that he knew how to relate to us. He was a universal communicator, even to his children, and he knew how to embrace you in a way where you felt a part of some greater plan.
The one thing Daddy didn't like was to be disturbed when he was in his study, writing down his thoughts, scheduling, composing sermons, reading and making notes in the margins of his books. There was a contemplative thought process at work in him. He compartmentalized it. If he was working, then he worked. If he was playing, then he played. He didn't mix the two.
"Now, Dexter, when Daddy's working, don't disturb him. Daddy will play with you soon."
Most people might think, because of the way he was projected as such a serious person, that he was always so, but sometimes he was the opposite of that, or the balance of that; he needed an outlet, a way to break the tension. He sought refuge in his children, his family. He became us.
It seemed we were always going to an event, a church for a meeting, a picnic — there'd always be a banner or a sign or something with the letters SCLC on it. I used to think the letters meant "King Family Outing." Whether it was a Voter Registration Project or a strategy session, they were all outings to us.
I never knew a man with so many brothers and sisters as my father — and resulting aunts and uncles for me and my brother and sisters. Not only was there Uncle A.D. and Aunt Naomi, or Aunt Christine and Uncle Isaac, our own blood relatives and his inlaws, there was also Uncle Andy, Uncle Ralph, Uncle Harry, Uncle Bob, Uncle Junius. Uncle Ralph was Ralph Abernathy. Uncle Andy was Andrew Young. Uncle Harry was Harry Belafonte. Uncle Junius was Junius Griffen. Uncle Bob was either Robert Green or Robert Johnson. Everybody was related, even if not by blood. And if anybody got in trouble, my family showed up to support him or her, because that was our habit.
Some would question, Why are you there, why would you get involved with, say, a Ralph Abernathy, Jr., after his brush with the law as an elected official? Why would you show up at his trial? Well, we were like family. We don't leave our people behind. Ralph III and I grew up together. We lived in each other's homes. We were roommates in college. We'd go to outings, cookouts, retreats. Our parents took us to work-related events. Even though we were kids just running around, a lot did rub off on us, just through osmosis, being in the environment, the SCLC conventions where Aretha Franklin sang. We had no idea of the momentous nature of Daddy's work. He and his colleagues were about ending the system of segregation in American life, no small or simple matter.
When the Hyatt opened, the brand-new Hyatt, with the blue dome, I was riding in the futuristic glass-walled elevator feeling like I was on a spaceship above Atlanta. Architect John Portman was a pioneer in developing new-age spaceship elevators, and duplicated them in buildings he designed elsewhere. Child that I was, I felt like this had been put in place just for my father, to whisk him up on high. I knew he was famous. Going to those ceremonies and conventions and remembering the entertainment there always had the sense of electricity, music in the air — this always stood out to me. I always remember best the entertainment and the music.
I had no conception of segregation, of how unprecedented such mixed gatherings were, the meaning of a Nobel Peace Prize, which my father had received in 1964, the same year the system of formal segregation was abolished by law if not by practice in Atlanta. Daddy's point had won. He'd persevered. His cause was just and its righteousness prevailed, at least in Atlanta. I was almost four years old and just knew that all of a sudden we were at the Dinkler Plaza Hotel one winter's night. The way I remember it, there were thousands of people there — fifteen hundred, as it turns out: black, white, in between, all to honor my father. The new mayor, Ivan Allen; Dr. Mays; other dignitaries, businesspeople, but no entertainment. No Aretha Franklin. Not my kind of room.
We were introduced to the crowd as the children of the winner of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. Yoki got up and waved, though I didn't understand why; she hadn't put on a play. Marty got up and bowed from the waist. The way Mother remembers it, when my name was called, when it was my turn to face the crowd, I slid under the chair instead of standing up on it. The crowd laughed. Slid under the chair? Is that what I did? No wonder everyone laughed.
Police were always around. I admired them. I admired their uniforms, their sidearms, their garrison caps and badges and official gold braid. I would stare. I couldn't tell if they stared back, because they wore dark glasses. Their expressions never changed. Besides admiring police from afar, I admired entertainers up close, whether it was Harry Belafonte or Bill Cosby, or any number of others who contributed to what the grown-ups referred to as "the Cause," or "the Movement." At times our parents would be called into active duty. Whether the campaign was in Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery, Albany (Georgia), Chicago, Memphis, didn't matter, because we were told they were going to fight for their country to be greater, for people to be treated fairly and equally under the law. This was for all of our futures, we were told. We understood our parents were doing good work. Sometimes we'd be teased, which affected Yoki more because she was older and more aware and was so connected to my father. When teased about our father going to jail, Yoki would tilt her head upward and say, "Yes, he did, but to help poor people."
There are photographs of us sitting at the table, playing ball in the yard, at the piano as Mother plays and sings. Daddy had invited a man to our house — Camera Man. He took pictures of us. I was fascinated by his equipment, his cameras, lights, flashbulbs popping. I thought, "I can do that." Camera Man took a photo of me sitting on Daddy's lap, Daddy calmly looking at the camera. I'm looking off to one side, mouth sprung, seemingly in awe of something, comforted and protected in Daddy's lap. Secure. I won't fall even if I fail. He'll lift me up. I know this. I can look over the abyss of whatever it is I'm in awe of in the photo — maybe it was only Yoki making a face at me — I know my father will not let me go. I can take the risk because he's there. I trusted him like I have trusted no man before or since. I had the security to be insecure. And then …
The photographs remain. He knew they would.
Camera Man had a name. Flip Schulke, a photographer for Life magazine, as Gordon Parks had been. Though my father was protective of us at home, didn't let reporters or photographers in, Schulke came by many times to document. I gave him a nickname. My father gave us names of affection: "Yoki-poky," "Dexter-wexter," "Marty-bopy," "Bunny-bopy." Bunny was Bernice, Yoki was Yolanda, Marty was Martin III, but Dexter was just Dexter. I felt special; I was named after a church, an old, historic church too, which had been pastored by a man named Vernon Johns before our father arrived. I was glad to be named Dexter, after the church. It set me apart. Everybody else was named for a person.
Yolanda Denise. My mother had liked that name. Martin was named for my father and my grandfather. Bernice Albertine — Bernice for my mother's mother, Albertine for my father's mother, Alberta. Martin and Yolanda were born in Montgomery. People came up to me all the time and said, "Yes, Dexter, I remember when you were a baby in Montgomery; you were named after the church there." I would never correct them and say, "Yes, I was named for the church, but I was born here in Atlanta. I'm a homeboy." I would let them get it out and then say, "Well, I think you're talking about my brother." Martin III and I were always kind of seen as a unit, interchangeable. Even today. People come up and swear it was me who came and spoke at their school or church, when it was my brother. People say things like, "You should've been named Martin — you look just like your father." I learned not to bristle when I heard this. I learned to say, "My brother and I agree that the Lord often works in mysterious ways."
We were all close as children. Yoki was five years my senior, seven years Bernice's. I don't remember her being as much a part of our circle as Bernice, Martin, me — especially Afterward …
Martin and I would tussle. He thought he was my father. Mom generally took us to restaurants, shopping, church, on outings. We drew attention, but that didn't stop our parents from giving us a semblance of normalcy. It was only a semblance, though. We couldn't do things together as frequently as normal families, because both parents weren't as available. At times we'd go with friends of the family; we might go with the Abernathy kids, Ralph III, Juandalyn, and Donzaleigh; or with Uncle A.D's and Aunt Naomi's children, Alveda, Al, Derek, Darlene, and Vernon; or with my father's sister, Christine King Farris, and her children, Angela and Isaac. Martin III was three years older than me. Isaac and I were a year apart. Isaac lived in Collier Heights, where professionals, particularly teachers and preachers, lived. My grandparents lived in a spacious house with a yard so big Mr. Horton had to use a Snapper riding mower to cut the grass. Aunt Christine, Uncle Isaac, Angela, and Isaac lived near our grandparents in Collier Heights. Granddaddy still wanted my father to move. Daddy said we were okay in Vine City.
My cousin Isaac and me, our relationship started out rocky. Fought like cats and dogs. Out of it came an ironclad friendship. Wasn't love at first sight, though. Maybe the problem was me attempting to be Isaac's parent, according to Isaac — trying to be to Isaac what Martin tried to be to me. Most in our family are headstrong. Wonder where we get it from. I think it mostly comes from my grandfather, Martin Luther King, Sr., who cast a long shadow. He was a strong-willed, bullheaded man, and he passed it down; the only one who was able to escape it and establish his own identity was his youngest son and namesake, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Excerpted from Growing Up King: An Intimate Memoir copyright 2003 by Dextor Scott King, Warner Books.