When footage of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, under the knee of a white police officer, was beamed around the world, Bernice King wept. She was five years old in 1968 when her father, Martin Luther King Jr, was killed by an assassin’s bullet on a hotel balcony in Memphis. She was a year younger than Floyd’s daughter Gianna.
“You feel the pain of the loss,” she says over a video call, a framed photograph of her father on the mantelpiece behind her. “Because you know what it did to you, too. And you can only imagine what it’s doing to that little girl.”
It is easy to trace the lines from the US’s latest reckoning on race and police violence to the civil rights struggles of the 60s. Floyd’s death started the largest wave of protest in the US since King’s murder. But for some, the connections are as much lived reality as a point of historic reference.
Bernice’s elder brother, Martin Luther King III, was 10 at the time his father was killed. In June this year, he bowed his head in front of Floyd’s golden casket during a memorial service. He also reflects on the children left behind. “When you are grieving, you appreciate all the love that the world provides for you,” he says from his living room in Atlanta, in front of a large image of his mother, Coretta Scott King. “But, at some point, most people go back to their homes and you’re all alone, grieving by yourself. And you have to figure out how to navigate through the terrible pain.”
‘He didn’t have a large quantity of time, but the quality of time was remarkable’ … the King family in 1966. Photograph: MBR/AP
In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, as buildings burned in cities across the country, familiar arguments invoking King’s legacy of nonviolence and civil disobedience were used to question the validity of mostly peaceful protests. Republican senators quoted King’s words out of context and memes circulated with images juxtaposing peaceful marches in the 60s and looting in 2020. A pundit on Fox News said the unrest was “definitely not about black lives”.
King’s children are used to this rewriting of history. Since his death, he has been repositioned in the mainstream American imagination as a unifying figure who defeated the segregationist south with peaceful nonviolence, driven by dreams of a future where his four children would “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”.
There is truth in that depiction, but it also nullifies King’s radicalism: his demands after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts were passed in 1964 and 1965 for universal income and a higher minimum wage; the brutality he and thousands of others endured as they put their bodies on the line; the surveillance he was placed under by J Edgar Hoover’s FBI; and ultimately his assassination, which the King family believe was connected to a higher conspiracy. King was not popular among the broader American public at the time of his death.
“I think most people focus on ‘I have a dream’ and they don’t even focus on the entire speech,” says Martin. “You know, what got him killed was not talking about riding in the front of buses. He talked about a living wage … he talked about a radical redistribution of wealth, which definitely was frightening to those pursuing money.
“But the message has been sanitised by mainstream media, because if you keep him in that sanitised version then you never realise the part of him that talked about a revolution of values. The irony of it is here we are today and we still need a revolution of values.”
Bernice says: “Anyone who talks about being a transformed nonconformist; anyone who talks about it being your duty to disobey unjust laws; anybody who talks about a nation that continues to spend millions and millions more on military defence over programmes of social uplift [as one] approaching spiritual death: that’s extremely radical to me.”
‘Dad would never have condoned violence ever. But he didn’t condemn it’ … Martin Luther King III. Photograph: Lynsey Weatherspoon/The Guardian
Perhaps the apex of this distortion has come during Donald Trump’s presidency. In January, the president – who recently declined to praise the late civil rights crusader John Lewis – used the annual holiday celebrating King to boast about low unemployment among black Americans. During Trump’s impeachment trial in the US Senate, his lawyer Kenneth Starr referenced King’s pursuit of “freedom and justice” as he defended the president against corruption charges.
Bernice raises an eyebrow when I ask about this. “I’ve lived most of my adult life with people taking my father’s legacy out of context, so I’m beyond getting angry,” she says. “I frankly don’t spend the same amount of time as most people do focusing on what Donald Trump says or doesn’t say, because that is fodder to him.”
But how do they believe their father would have interpreted this moment, with its complicated entanglement of nonviolent protest, direct confrontation and a militarised police response?
“You know, Dad would never have condoned violence ever,” says Martin. “But he didn’t condemn it, either. Saying ‘a riot is a language of the unheard’ is saying: ‘I understand why people are forced or pushed to riot.’ People are so frustrated. People are so dehumanised and have been so abused that they have resorted to this.”
The point was driven home to Martin when, shortly after Floyd’s death, his 11-year-old daughter, Yolanda, informed her parents that she was too scared to go outside alone and play in case a police officer entered the back yard.
“That broke my heart – that our daughter would be afraid of those that are supposed to protect and serve,” he says. “We now have to sit down with her and figure out how she can differentiate between some policemen who are not good and the many who are good.”
How does he think her grandfather would have felt? “He would be greatly disappointed that his granddaughter is having to filter this, when he and his team worked so hard to eradicate it.”
Although none of King’s children knew their father as adults, his life’s work inspired Martin and Bernice to continue the struggle. Bernice is a pastor and in 2009 was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) founded by her father (although she did not take up the position). She spoke at Lewis’s funeral last month and in June she delivered a eulogy for Rayshard Brooks, an unarmed black man killed by police in Atlanta.
“Rayshard Brooks’ death will not be in vain, because justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” she told a congregation at Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, from the pulpit where her father regularly delivered sermons.
‘His death will not be in vain’ …Bernice King speaking at the funeral of Rayshard Brooks at Ebenezer Baptist church, Atlanta, in June. Photograph: Curtis Compton/Getty Images
Bernice gave her first public speech on racial justice at the age of 19. In 1985, aged 22, she was arrested with her mother and Martin as they protested against apartheid outside the South African embassy in Washington DC. She spent the night in jail and recalls being comforted by her mother in a basement holding cell as she quivered with anxiety. “She said: ‘Baby, you’re going to get out of here; imagine the thousands of people who don’t.’”
Thirteen years later, Bernice delivered a sermon at the White House during Nelson Mandela’s visit to the US. She has since delivered sermons and eulogies at many major civil rights commemorations and she appears as a pundit on cable news.
Her activism has sometimes been criticised by progressives; in 2004, she marched in a protest against same-sex marriage. She has since said she is not homophobic and has “love for everybody, period”.
Martin, who served as SCLC president for seven years, will on Friday lead a recreation of his father’s 1963 March on Washington, alongside the Rev Al Sharpton. Among many other public appearances, he delivered an emotive speech at the 2008 Democratic convention, when Barack Obama became the party’s first African American presidential nominee.
“I could not help thinking how proud my father would be: proud of Barack Obama, proud of the party that nominated him and proud of the America that will elect him,” Martin told the convention in Denver, Colorado. In 2014, he continued in his father’s tradition by appearing at a rally for Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.
After Floyd’s death, Martin’s daughter was too scared to play outside in case a police officer entered the back yard
As the oldest surviving sibling (Yolanda, King’s first-born, died in 2007), Martin has the most lucid memories of his father. He recalls days at the local YMCA where he and his brother, Dexter, were taught by their dad how to swim; afternoons on the lawn where he taught them how to throw a baseball. “He didn’t have a large quantity of time,” Martin says. “But the quality of time was remarkable.”
But, even as children, they were aware of the dangers their father faced. Martin recalls picking up the house telephone to hear “an ugly voice making threatening remarks”. He travelled with his father on a number of occasions and vividly remembers the snarling police dogs in St Augustine, north Florida, when they visited the city as part of King’s campaign for desegregation. He can still see the face of one woman involved in nonviolent protests, her face bandaged and her nose broken.
He remembers the night his father died in 1968. Bernice was asleep, but the other children were comforted by their mother. “She said: ‘Your father is going home to live with God. When you see him, it will be as if he is asleep, but you won’t be able to wake him up. He won’t be able to hug and kiss you as you so often experienced.’” It remains one of the most traumatic moments of his life.
The King family endured further tragedy in the immediate years after. Their uncle, Alfred Daniel King, died the year after his brother in an incident determined to be an accidental drowning. Their grandmother, King’s mother, Alberta, was murdered at Ebenezer Baptist church in 1974.
‘You have to figure out how to navigate through the terrible pain’… Coretta Scott King
(fourth right) with her children –
(from second left) Yolanda, 12, Bernice, five, Martin, 11, and Dexter, seven – at the casket of Martin Luther King Jr. Photograph: AP
Bernice, who learned of her father’s significance to the world from her mother’s teachings, experienced the trauma a little later, in early adulthood. “You have issues of abandonment and distrust,” she says. “I think for me that has expressed itself in different phases of my life, where I’ve had a lot of walls up.
“I’ve developed, under the core of me, this whole issue of: ‘Are you going to stay with me? Are you going to leave me?’ In my 30s and 40s, it took a lot for me to build relationships that I trusted.”
Although their father was killed more than half a century ago, Martin and Bernice still mourn him. The 50th anniversary proved particularly difficult to navigate. “I don’t even know what triggers it, but there are still times that I grieve,” says Martin. “I’ve heard many of his speeches so many times that often I’m hearing them but not really listening. But if I’m really hearing and listening, that’s when I will grieve.”
For Bernice, it can also be triggered by acts of racism and violence. “Just looking at the state of our world and kind of wishing that he and my mom were here, I have those moments over and over again where I just tear up and cry,” she says. “It never leaves you.”
Originally published: 2020-08-27 00:00:44