Interview: Bernice King Shares Her Story

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s youngest child and current CEO of The King Center tells Where about her childhood and why she thinks Atlanta is the best city in the U.S.

In 1968, one of the world's most admired civil rights activists was assassinated, leaving a five-year-old Bernice King without her father. In her mind, Dr. King had a normal childhood but her family's legacy and her own ongoing accomplishments are far from the norm. Dr. King sat down with Where to share what it's like to be the daughter of global icons, and how she spends her rare downtime in the city where it all began.

What was it like being the daughter of two civil rights icons?

I don’t know the opposite. I’ve only known growing up in this family. Unlike my siblings, I was only five when he was assassinated. So I was pretty much protected from a lot of what was going on in society at that time. I had never experienced any kind of racial event or hostility personally, whereas my siblings had. After he was assassinated, when I started first grade a year later, I remember how kids would come up to me at The Galloway School in Buckhead, and kids would come up to me and say, “You’re the daughter of Martin Luther King.” And I was like, “And?” I had no idea of the magnitude of his contributions to society.

Bernice King, Martin Luther King Memorial, D.C.
Dr. Bernice King stands in front of her father's memorial in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy First Kingdom Management, Inc.)

When did that hit you?

I think it hit me at two separate times. When I was 16, I was on a youth retreat with Ebenezer Baptist Church and I happened to be the president of the youth group. Growing up there was a documentary called “King: A Filmed Record...Montgomery to Memphis.” I would watch it all the time in the basement but it was not really, at least consciously, awakening me to the magnitude of my father’s work. But this particular time, I recommended the film because it was black history month when we went on the retreat. We were at a cabin and near the end they show the funeral scene. I just started crying. I ran out of the cabin, went up into the woods and started crying for a long time. Some people came out after me and took me into another entrance and laid me across the bed, and for two hours I was just like, “Why did you take him?” talking to God, and then “Why did you leave me?” talking to him...a series of “Why?” I saw in the film and was able to better comprehend the work that he was doing to help to dismantle segregation in America and especially in the South. After that two-hour period, anger started really setting in. Obviously since that day of being conscious of that anger, I’ve continued to try to work through issues of anger and am in a totally different place today.

It was about a year later—and I don’t know how to describe this to people because it’s not, per se, audible, but it’s not necessarily an image or a visual—I heard a voice say, “You are going to preach like your father.” I didn’t understand it. Here I was, a 17-year-old teenager and everybody that I saw in ministry seemed to be much older. I didn’t see certainly any younger women. There was one woman in our church who had been licensed by my grandfather (pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church) to preach. She must have been in her 40s. So, it didn’t make sense to me. I did share it with my mother, and we just kind of went on. I think at some point my grandfather was told, as well.

I went on through high school and then to Spelman College. I accepted my call on the eve of my 25th birthday. I was in law school and theology school, a dual-degree program at Emory University working on my J.D. and my master’s of divinity. In between that time, going to law school and theology school and graduating from Spelman, I had an opportunity to go to Moscow, Russia. This was before the fall of communism. I went as a part of a youth delegation representing the United States.

We had an opportunity to speak, which was a very interesting experience. They asked for my speech and wanted to censor it, and the young lady that was with me was very adamant that, “She was invited to speak and she is going to say her speech.” ... What they didn’t like is I was coming on their soil and I was being, I believe in a constructive manner, critical of both our government and theirs. They wanted me to take the part out about theirs and that’s an imbalance.

Moscow
The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed in Moscow, Russia (©Rosa Dik/Flickr)

The amazing thing for me was when we were coming back one evening from where we had gathered in a stadium, and I heard in the distance over the speakers on the subway [platform] “We Shall Overcome.” And I said, “Oh my God, it follows you everywhere. You can’t escape it.” Because, you know, between 16 and college, maybe even into some of my theology and law school days, I was somewhat running from the whole King shadow and legacy. I was still connected to The King Center and did some things there, but there was part of me that was just kind of running from it all. In particular because I had received this call and I knew [my dad] was a minister, obviously. The inevitable comparisons and feeling like what’s going to happen to my own identity in this process? So, when I heard that [song in Moscow], I said “Wow, he’s had such a global impact.” On top of that, we visited a Baptist church [in Moscow] and at the end of the service, [the minister] greeted us and received us. He told me, “I have met your mother and been to The King Center.” … “What?!” It was at that point that I realized [my dad’s] global influence and impact.

At 16, I really came to grips with the fact that my dad was a powerful man who did some substantial stuff. At 22, I saw it was beyond the South and the black community. It had reached as far as Russia! That started my whole journey into understanding who I am and who I’m connected to. I mean, I knew it but I think it was more here as opposed to [globally].

Thank god for my mom, because she helped to ground us. Growing up there were no whistles and bells, nothing extra special. We were normal kids and she ensured that. The only difference I would say is, one, she constantly invoked our father’s name in the home whenever we had dinner, which was our time when we would talk. And two, she embodied what they talked about—the whole nonviolent philosophy and methodology, she truly embodied that and lived that out with force. Not just telling us about it but living it and demonstrating it. We grew up with a mom who was on a mission to build [The King Center] and institutionalize his legacy with the holiday and everything. So a part of all of that was always active and was always focused on serving others, and so that was part of my upbringing. Because of that, when I was in elementary school there was a [student] who came from a family that didn’t have much. I would have a little allowance ... and I remember distinctly either sharing my lunch with him or giving him the money so he could get lunch, because sometimes he didn’t have anything. But that just came from the way in which I was raised. I’ve always been conscious of others’ conditions and situations, sometimes forsaking myself in the process.

Where did you and your family like to eat in Atlanta when you were growing up?

We were part of a big family, meaning my family with my mom left after my father [was assassinated], my dad’s sister’s family with all of my cousins, and my dad’s brother’s family. All of us were part of Ebenezer and on Sundays, because my grandfather, who everybody called “Daddy King,” [was the pastor], we would all go out to dinner. I mean, every Sunday we would go either to Morrison’s Cafeteria or Piccadilly...religiously! We probably should’ve owned Piccadilly. And it’s still around, it’s amazing.

What are some other restaurants you frequented?

Paschal’s Restaurant, and this was the original one on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. ... We ate a lot of Southern food, but as I got older my family would go to different restaurants in the city for birthdays. There was not one specific restaurant we would frequent, because we would try different ones for birthdays. My mother loved parties. I’m not talking about just dance parties. She loved to have social gatherings and she loved to host. If we had a birthday, she wanted to make sure that we had an opportunity to enjoy and would go out and get a birthday cake. She would not miss a birthday. I go back and look at home movies now, and I tell you, we sure ate a lot! I saw so many pictures of us around some table. We constantly celebrated birthdays. She just made it special like that. She wanted to ensure that she kept doing what they did when my father was around. And part of that was because the movement that they were in was very intense, and she wanted the home to be a refuge, a haven for my father and to make sure that we were somewhat protected from all that was going on. So those times when we would have those celebrations were critical. My dad would come home—most of this is what I’ve been told by my siblings and mother—and he would become this little kid. She allowed him that space and room, because everything that he was under. And he would just play with us like he was one of us.

 

This Is It!
This Is It! is a local BBQ and seafood chain. (Courtesy This Is It!)

What are some of your favorite restaurants in Atlanta now?

There’s a specific one—This Is It! on Camp Creek Parkway. I love PF Chang’s in Cumberland, Chops Lobster Bar and The Capital Grille. I love the turkey burgers at Vickery's in Glenwood Park, and also the [burgers] at Yeah! Burger in West Midtown. I also like Ray’s in the City. Oh, I have to say this one. This restaurant has been here for over 30 years, which means it’s a staple. It’s Red Snapper on Cheshire Bridge Road. Oh. My. God. It’s all good!

How would you describe Atlanta to someone who’s never been to the city?

Because I travel to a lot of places, I would say it’s warm and friendly. I’ve been to a lot of places where people are not as cordial, they don’t say “hi” or strike up a conversation—it’s kind of cold. I would say [Atlanta] is clean. I’ve been to a lot of cities that are just dirty. I think we’ve done a tremendous job of keeping the city clean. It’s progressive. I think Atlanta has a lot of problems. I’m not going to deny the fact that we still have some racial issues. But I think Atlanta has learned how to rally together when necessary to not let too many moments like that linger. I think that’s so important. Society needs an example like that.

I think it’s the best of the city and country feel. You can come here if you love city life and get that in Atlanta. If you want to live somewhere and have land and enjoy greenery, you can get that as well. And that’s what I love about Atlanta. You don’t feel like you’re in some small city that has no significance in the scheme of things within our nation. It’s at the center of a lot of things—economically, from a civil and human rights standpoint, entertainment hub, becoming a [tech hub]. It has a wonderful blend of what life has to offer. For some reason, and maybe it’s because I’ve been here forever, I could try to live somewhere else but I don’t know what it is that I just...Atlanta has that home feeling. It’s amazing to me, because we don’t have a body of water, but the number of people who have moved here. I mean, [Atlanta] is a magnet for so many people. It’s amazing to me...I say, “Lord, if we had water!” I think it’s the greatest city, at least in America. I won’t say the world because I haven’t been to enough places in the world, but I’ve been to enough places in America to say it’s the greatest city here.

Shotgun houses Auburn Avenue
Shotgun houses line Auburn Avenue in the King Historic District. (©Yvonne Boyd)

What activities do you recommend for visiting families?

I certainly recommend they come to the King Historic District (Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site), because this is the birthplace. This is where they can learn about the origins of Dr. King, and see where he was born (King Birth Home), where he worshipped (Ebenezer Baptist Church), The King Center that is now the official living memorial to his life and legacy, and the final resting place for he and my mom (King Tomb). Just tapping into what the whole Auburn Avenue corridor was about, in terms of the economic history of black America. I think it’s an important place for families to learn that part of our history and not marginalize it. To me, it’s wonderful. That connects you back into the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Everybody loves Georgia Aquarium. The World of Coca-Cola. Zoo Atlanta. It also depends on the kind of family you are. There are a lot of arts we have in the city…the High Museum, of course. I see a lot of movies at CineBistro and Phipps Plaza, because I love those new seats. It’s a treat.

Six Flags Over Georgia is a wonderful place in the right season. I love Six Flags. I have not been able to go go in recent times. I did go last year, but I was having problems with my knee, but I did find one ride that I could get on. I love rollercoasters. I’m a daredevil—no pun intended, because there’s a Dare Devil Dive ride there. I like going with groups. It’s not fun with one or two people. You know, everybody’s just enjoying themselves and screaming. The only part I dread is long lines. I don’t mind lines because if there’s no lines it takes some of the excitement out of it. I don’t like just going to an amusement park and I have it to myself. I couldn’t imagine that, that would be boring. There’s that party factor, too. You got to have some crowd, but there’s a limit to the crowd.

Centennial Olympic Park
The Fountain of Rings at Centennial Olympic Park with SkyView in the background (©Gene Phillips/AtlantaPhotos.com)

Centennial Olympic Park downtown is a neat place to go, and I’m looking forward to getting on that Ferris wheel, too (SkyView). That’s good for families, too, if they can tolerate the heights.

What are Atlanta’s must-see civil rights sights and attractions?

The Hammonds House, Herndon Home, Paschal’s Restaurant. Some people still go by our old home [where I grew up] on Sunset Avenue. I look at it more broadly than maybe the average person, but when you talk about Booker T. Washington High School being the first black high school. My great grandfather fought to have that school opened. The activism has been a part of our family for a long time. My father later attended that high school, so it has some history because that’s where a lot of the black kids went to school back then. Outside of The King Center and King Historic Site, the new Center for Civil and Human Rights and Morehouse College. A lot of black leaders matriculated at Morehouse College, and Spelman College for black females. I just wish they would do something with Paschal’s [original location], because there’s a lot of history that came out of Paschal’s. Also, the Apex Museum, Auburn Avenue Research Library and Wren’s Nest.

How do you see Atlanta set itself apart from other Southern cities?

Back to the whole progressiveness and diversity. Its openness and courage to not let things linger. There’s still some things, I’m not saying there aren’t. But the courage to try to move forward and try to find a way together, and it not be just one set group of people or one ideology. I think we’ve had the courage to really embrace the diversity from a lot of other Southern cities. I think that’s why people say "Atlanta and the rest of Georgia." 

Where is an unexpected place in Atlanta someone might find you?

Whole Foods. I don’t even know if people think I go to the grocery store. I’ve had people say, “You mean you do your own shopping?” I mean, I do have people who do it for me, but I go myself sometimes.

 

Dr. Bernice King's Perfect Day in Atlanta

9 am: Bon Matin

Breakfast at Le Petit Marché. I love the shrimp and grits, and they have this French toast...woo! 

10 am: Fun in the Sun

Walk the Atlanta BeltLine and then go to Six Flags White Water. Or I would rent a canoe and go down part of the Chattahoochee River.

1 pm: Attractions Galore

Lunch at American Roadhouse in Virginia-Highland, then we'd go to Centennial Olympic Park. There are so many things there, from the College Football Hall of Fame to the Center for Civil and Human Rights to Georgia Aquarium.

5 pm: Play Time

If a family is visiting, I would take them to the new Riverside EpiCenter. They have an eight-lane bowling alley, arcades, a theater, rock climbing wall, basketball courts and more.

7 pm: Southern Cooking

Dinner at This Is It! on Camp Creek Parkway. I would encourage them to really get that sweet potato soufflé. Oh my God, it's good!