Bernice King, CEO of the King Center, is shown at the Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Jan. 19, 2015. In a new interview, she spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the meaning of the King holiday 30 years after it was first celebrated. Kent D. Johnson/KDJohnson@ajc.com
By Ernie Sugg, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
This year marks 30 years since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first observed as a national holiday.
The King Center for Non-violent Social Change, which lobbied for the holiday under the leadership of the late Coretta Scott King, is the custodian of the holiday and has scheduled more than a week’s worth of activities that kicked off last Wednesday and conclude with a 2 p.m. march on Jan. 18 through King’s old neighborhood.
Pausing from her hectic schedule, Bernice A. King, King’s younger daughter and CEO of the King Center, sat down to talk briefly with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the holiday and the meaning of her father.
King would have been 87-years-old on Friday, Jan. 15.
Q: How is this year’s celebration of King Day different or special?
A: Well, the Rev. Billy Barber is coming. (Barber, the architect behind the Moral Monday campaign that started in North Carolina and grew nationally, will be the keynote speaker at the annual commemorative service.) I had an opportunity to hear him speak in Selma during a Bloody Sunday event. He was amazing. We are looking forward to him coming and firing us up.
I was thinking about last year with Gwendolyn Boyd (last year’s speaker and first Black president of Alabama State University), when she said, “Bring it. Bring it.” I said, “Now, ‘Who is going to top that?’” I think Barber is going to top it. Another one of the great highlights is having Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who heads the U.S. Embassy in Havana, since we now have restored diplomatic relations with Cuba. I think it is very important to get him.
Ultimately for us, me, I think nonviolence triumphs in the end. It is not one way. It is the best way for creating respectful relations and relationships where you can work together. So DeLaurentis, and Barber, being here is going to speak volumes on the King holiday.
Q: One of the themes you are working with is housing, particularly fair housing. Why is that so important to you?
A: Fifty years ago, Daddy went to Chicago to bring attention to the deplorable housing conditions that, at that time, Negroes were living in. And to focus attention to open and fair housing. That is when the whole economic agenda for him and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference began to unfold. If you think about violence, in particular physical violence, oftentimes there is a correlation between that and some of these economic inequities. If you look at Ferguson (Mo.) … the unemployment rate there, the opportunities there, and the financial services that they lack in that area all contribute to an environment of frustration. People need to live in circumstances where they feel they can prosper and do well.
Most people want to do it legally, but if something else comes along that is a lure that can give them the opportunity to enjoy life in a way where they don’t have to hustle and struggle working three to four jobs, they are going to take that route, unfortunately. I see a kinship between economic injustice and violence. This is the beginning of looking at this.
Q: You mentioned Ferguson. Take a look at America roughly since Ferguson with the police shootings and killings of unarmed Black men or the massacre at Mother Emanuel in Charleston, S.C. What have you seen through the prism of your work at the King Center and through your father’s legacy?
A: I have embraced it very meditatively. I believe we have one of the best ways to help to turn the tide. What we know from my father and what we seek to educate and train people in can transform many of these communities that are dealing with strife and tension. I hold true to that. Every time it happens, I say to myself, “God, I wish there was a way to reach this set of people.” It is so enormous that you can’t get to everybody. So I am meditating, trying to figure out what is the strategy for meeting the right people with this so they can reach others. Inevitably, it is going to come back to Dr. King.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, my father said: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” What he was saying is no matter how much hate increases in the universe, it will never win in the end. Love will always prevail. I know no matter how violent we become, how much fear and hate and hostility we might dish out, ultimately nonviolence is going to arrest us. We can’t talk about peace and still rage war. We can’t address violence with violence.
Q: Speaking of violence, last week President Barack Obama made his strongest pitch toward curbing gun violence in America. You, like many other families, particularly Black families, know personally the horrors of gun violence, having lost two family members to it. (Aside from her father’s assassination in 1968, Bernice King’s grandmother was shot and killed at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1974.) What are your thoughts on what the president is proposing?
A: I think it is necessary and essential to put some further restrictions and controls in place. I also think that he is the president that was given a lemon and having to make lemonade. We have been dealing with gun issues for a long time, since Brady (James Brady, the White House press secretary who was wounded during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan). And my mother was heavily involved. Had we followed some of the things that he was talking about today some 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in today.
One of the things I would like us to consider is there ought to be a restriction on the number of guns you can buy. It makes no sense to me that if we are concerned about guns getting into the wrong hands, then the more you have, the more likely that that is going to happen. It almost speaks to the inhumanness of humanity. I respect the person’s right who feels like he needs one, but I wish we lived in a world where we really didn’t need them.
Q: It has been 30 years since the first national holiday was observed in 1986. Today, 30 years into this holiday, are we where you thought this country would be when it started?
A: I was 23 at the time and I don’t even know how conscious I was. But we are certainly not where I hoped we would be. Living in this environment of King and these teachings, you always hope that more and more people embrace truly the message as something that they incorporate into their lives. That is always the hope. You are always looking for more people coming to that enlightenment and understanding. If anything else, that was my hope. So I am troubled and saddened and have somewhat of a heavy heart, because I never expected us to live in a world where little children can be senselessly killed.
And where little children are finding their way to guns, killing other kids. I never imagined the innocence of childhood being robbed that way.