A Conversation with Rev. Bernice King
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight a conversation with Bernice King. Her father, Martin Luther King, Jr., would have celebrated his 68th birthday today. The national holiday will be observed on Monday. He was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. Bernice King is a Baptist minister, author of Hard Questions, Heart Answers, a collection of her sermons and speeches. Charlayne Hunter-Gault talked with her earlier today.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Bernice King, thank you for joining us.
REV. BERNICE KING, Author, Hard Questions, Heart Answers: Thank you for having me.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: This is your father’s actual birthday, although we celebrate it next week. Do you have a favorite memory of a birthday with him?
REV. BERNICE KING: I’m told by my mother that he celebrated my last birthday prior to going to Memphis, and that’s special to me to know that he was able to be there. On my fifth birthday, it was a week actually prior to his actual assassination, and so every time April 4th comes around I know that one week prior to it, if it’s a Friday, I know the Friday before is my birthday.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You talked about your young adult years when you–what did you say, you ran from destiny, even once contemplating suicide. How did you get from there to there?
REV. BERNICE KING: It was a combination of a lot of factors, and what it boiled down to is I felt like a failure of sorts, that I was not leaving it up to some of the standards, and I was in law school at the time, and so I was devastated by the law school experience and had already been placed on probation, and I felt like, my God, my world is caving in.
This is the first time I had to deal with this kind of challenge and I started questioning my abilities as a person, whether or not I even had a purpose, because you had this call, on the one hand, and law school was kind of like an out for me.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Calling to–
REV. BERNICE KING: Calling to the ministry.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: When you were 17.
REV. BERNICE KING: Exactly.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What was that like? Just briefly, the calling, did something just come to you in the night, that you should do preaching?
REV. BERNICE KING: No. It was a spiritual tugging over time. I was doing probably some soul searching at the time because I became angered by my father’s death at 16. I had an encounter for the probably tenth, eleventh time with the “Montgomery to Memphis” documentary, and this particular time I just began to cry at the end of it, you know, endlessly for hours.
And it was at that time that I just allowed all of that that had been in me for 11 years to come out, and it resulted in a lot of anger towards him, towards God, and the Church, and the entire world. And so, you know, I started doing some soul searching and I made a decision I was going to, you know, forget the Church as much as I could. I mean, I was still 16 and under my mother’s roof.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So you turned into a rebel?
REV. BERNICE KING: Inwardly, and I guess God must have been somewhere inside of me because as I was rebelling, He was kind of saying, oh, no, you’re going to stay connected. You’re going to be a preacher. And I resisted it for eight years. And I wanted to do something different. I said, no, I want identity, I don’t want to do what Dad did because I’ll be consumed by that.
And when I found out I wasn’t doing well with law school, I said, oh, my God, you know, I’m losing that battle. But God again, once again, stepped into my life circumstance and said, oh, no, you have a purpose, you have a destiny. At that moment in my life when I had the ninth I had never before felt a sense of hope and relief. It was like I was carrying this hopelessness, this anger.
I was being consumed by a lot of emotions that were negative, but all of a sudden out of nowhere comes this like an inward voice saying, no, you know, and it used something simple as if you do this you’re going to be missed. I’m like, missed? Nobody’s going to miss me. (laughing) Yeah, you’re going to be missed. And you have–you have a purpose, and I’m going to fulfill that purpose. And it was shortly after then that I went ahead and resigned to my calling.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You’re the youngest of the four King children and the only one to follow in his footsteps. What do you think explains that?
REV. BERNICE KING: My mother explains it in an interesting sort of light. She says that I had to, it was–it was my salvation because she thinks that the death of my father created such a void in my life that I probably would have become consumed by all of the emotions and possibly end up, you know, dead one way or the other.
And the reason I believe it myself is I had a dream with my father in it, and he was sitting in a chair, like I am today, and I was fussing at him, pointing a finger, you know, you haven’t been in touch, and Yolanda was standing there right beside him saying, well, he’s been in touch with me, yes.
And he looked back and said, yes, I’ve been in touch with her; you will understand. It’s my ministry. And I put that as a confirmation that God was using me in the ministry so I would better understand why my father had to leave, but it was also God’s way of bringing me back in relationship with God, so that I would not have that distance, so I would be reconciled to him, and it was that one event, his death, caused me to say later for God.
But I had to understand what my father was doing, and as I do what I do in the ministry, I am beginning to understand the sacrifice and the suffering.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How is your ministry different from his?
REV. BERNICE KING: Well, I think my ministry is more geared toward the psychological and the issues of healing in an individual’s life. I think so many people have allowed the conditions to consume them inwardly, unlike in the ‘60s, there was something inside you all that caused you all to not allow what was going on the outside to destroy your sense of hope and your sense of being.
I mean, you had a “keep on” about you. And the people today don’t have that. You know, the conditions have kind of just wrapped themselves around people, and they’re choking them to death. And so I’m trying to speak to that pain and that hurt inwardly.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It’s been said that the state of race relations today, the poor state, deteriorating–widening gap between rich and poor, these things speak to a legacy that–a life that was lived in vain when they talk about your father’s legacy. Do you accept that, that his death was in vain, his life was in vain?
REV. BERNICE KING: Oh, certainly not, because any kind of life is only a part of the puzzle. He was–he was a piece of the puzzle. It’s an ongoing struggle. I mean, Frederick Douglass, himself, said, where there’s no struggle there’s no progress.
The difference in today I think and then in the ‘60s is we couldn’t dialogue, we couldn’t get close because the law pushed us away. It said, no, you cannot be connected. We can’t–there’s no discussion on this issue, and if nothing else, his life was not in vain because he broke down that barrier and allowed us now to talk about the hot issue, the thing that controlled the behavior, and the attitudes.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In your–in the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, there’s been a lot of turmoil and public discussion, fights, legal challenges over the intellectual property of your father. Some have said the fees that the family insists on charging and things like that are so inconsistent with his whole image as a selfless man.
REV. BERNICE KING: There is some profit motive behind what they’re doing. The profit motive is not behind–we profit in the end–but the motive is not to profit. The motive is to maintain the integrity and to set a standard that’s fair and equal. I had a conversation and I thank God for that conversation with Jesse Jackson, Jr.. One of the things he said I fought your father for is that he never understood the business aspect of what he was doing.
He said, yes, we have to, to address the issues and things of that nature, but the bottom line is we cannot save our people if all of us are broke. And that’s real. I mean, a hundred thousand is not going to do it. There are issues that are so difficult nowadays that require so much money, millions of dollars, to be able to address, and if you don’t garner that kind of money, you can’t address those issues, so you end up, you know, throwing nickels here, throwing dimes there. I have some dreams that are out of this world, and I can’t do it with nickels and dimes.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Bernice King, thank you.
REV. BERNICE KING: Thank you.