In a conversation with BET.com, Bernice King reflects on the Washington, D.C., memorial and the legacy of her dad, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
August 28 marks the unveiling of the first time an African-American leader will be memorialized on the National Mall.
Among some of the nation’s most prestigious stones including the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and the Washington Monument, an approximate 30-feet tall and $130 million granite statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will stand proud.
There’s no denying that the placement is historic. In many ways its significance is similar to the soul-chilling election of the United States’ first African-American president, but to some, including King’s children, it means so much more than words can say.
“It prominently etches him in the history of America. Generations yet unborn will realize that there was a person of color who played a very significant role in the history and the progress and advancement of this nation because of that monument,” Elder Bernice King, Dr. Martin Luther King’s second daughter and youngest child, tells BET.com.
King was only five years old when her father passed away, but she carries her father’s legacy as the only minister out of her siblings. Throughout her life she says that she mainly learned of her father’s impact on America through her mother, Coretta Scott King, who passed away five years ago.
“[The monument] speaks for me personally to the tireless works of my mom. In many respects, she was the one who was able to make my father real relevant and relatable by translating, and capturing, and sealing again in history and giving us a reason why we should put him in some sort of place in our history and in our nation of this kind of prominence. I think without her work, without her champion, the legacy, and the work, more than likely, we would not revere him to this level,” she says.
King reflects on her mother saying that everything her mother taught her, Coretta Scott King lived. Calling her an “extraordinary example” that she has made a decision to adopt, embrace and incorporate into her own life, King says that she has learned many lessons from her mother, the most important being “forgiveness.”
“We had a tragic slaying of my grandmother in church when I was 11 years old. My mother, from the time my father was assassinated, to that particular time my grandmother was murdered, and so many other occasions would always say, ‘I don’t hate anybody.’ She used to always tell us she doesn’t hold grudges. I can honestly say, just in my own observation of her life and the relationships that she’s had, that had held true until the day she died,” says King.
King believes that dissimilar to her mother and her father, America, unfortunately, is not a very forgiving or nonviolent society. She says that her father was not into being recognized, but that his emphasis was on freedom, justice, equality and pursuing righteousness. To her, his legacy was about nonviolence and social change, grounded in the tactics of Mahatma Gandi and Jesus Christ. When she looks at society today, however, she says America has struggled to embrace that part of his legacy.
“I think we are not properly honoring daddy until we recognize the importance of nonviolence as a way of life. He said so often that, ‘Today, the choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence, but nonviolence and nonexistence.’ To me, that’s where we are. We are either making choices that lead to nonexistence, or we’re making choices that obviously, create nonviolent society, but I don’t see it yet.”
She calls his message “certainly relevant” for now and can be effective in bringing about necessary change in response to the recent and violent outbreaks in the Middle East and London.
But more so than anything, on the 48th anniversary of her father’s “I Have a Dream” speech, King’s youngest daughter wishes that all people would be treated equally as her father told a roaring crowd at the 1963 Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C.
She acknowledges that there have been civil rights legislative changes, but in terms of race, class and ethnicity she says that his dreams have “obviously” not been fulfilled.
“If we look at the economic disparity, the educational disparity, if we look at the fact that we have yet to adequately and effectively address the immigration issue, we have not really begun, to me, to address the core of his message and his mission,” she says.
It’s her hope that the dedication and the monument will spark a resurgence of interest in the much needed work of her father, and in particular, his philosophy of nonviolence and equality.
Though she is proud of the monument, if her father were alive she says that his focus would not be the statue.
“It would not be the monument, it would be the continuation of the movement to address the triple evils that he called poverty, racism and he used the word militarism, or war” she says.
Perhaps one day, with the presence of a monument reminding people of the tireless work of Dr. King and many nameless civil rights leaders, not just some, but all the dreams of her father will become a reality, forever.
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(Photo: John Amis-Pool/Getty Images)