A DRUM MAJOR FOR FATHERS
A Martin Luther King Day Sermon by Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
January 23, 2014
My predecessor Bishop Palmer was scheduled to deliver the King Address last year. Like me, he received a new assignment. I am happy to be here. To President Dennis, members of Faculty, the Administration, Student Body, Chaplain Tim Harrison, District Superintendent Gary Wilson and his wife Muriel, District Superintendent Cindy Jones, guests and visitors, thanks for the invitation and/or your presence.
A lot has been said and read about Dr. King. In an Internet article dated January 9, 2014, Melissa Breyer mentioned ten lesser known facts concerning this great American. Three of those facts might interest someone in the other seven. For instance, Martin’s birth name was “Michael” King, Jr. not Martin. Second, when King entered seminary, he was “one of eleven African-American students” entering Crozer Theological Seminary in 1948. There, Martin was “elected class president.” His non-violent response to a white seminary classmate who pointed a gun at him inspired his election. Also, Martin graduated with honors as the class valedictorian. Third, Martin Luther King, Jr. is “the only non-president to have a national holiday in his name, and is the only non-president with a memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.” Absent from that list of ten emerged a lesser known but highly important issue, namely King’s parental role. What kind of Father was Dr. King? Millions of people held him in high esteem. Can similar conclusions be documented about his wife and children? What was his family legacy?
My talk is one response to those questions. It has two main boundaries: 1. Mrs. King and her children; 2. A span of fifteen years. June 18, 1953, the Kings marry. April 4, 1968, Martin is crucified in Memphis, Tennessee. Although Dr. King had a reputation as a Drum Major for justice, a Drum Major for peace and a Drum Major for righteousness, Mrs. King and her children spoke of him a broader context. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Drum Major for Fathers, a father worth emulating.
THE LATE CORETTA SCOTT KING
Natives of the south, Coretta and Martin met in Boston, Massachusetts. They came north and east for post-graduate work. After a chance meeting, a budding relationship eventually led to engagement and marriage. Negotiations between Coretta and Martin signaled the kind of husband and father Martin Luther King would become. “Father Knows Best” was not the model of choice. At Coretta’s insistence, they left out of the marriage vows the bride’s promise “to obey her husband.” After the wedding, Martin had second thoughts. He wanted Coretta to respect him as “head of the family.” His new wife objected to the sudden shift. King backed off saying he really thought “marriage was a shared relationship.” Second, Coretta nixed dressing in a white formal gown for the wedding. She preferred a pastel gown. King agreed to that and Coretta’s decision to have only four children. Martin wanted eight children. In a book entitled “Our Father: Where Are the Fathers?”
Bishop Lyght and I used the phrase, “Father at his Best.” Father at his Best is defined by voluntarily accepting the role of collaboration, freely opting for “a shared relationship and responsibilities.” Yes, it can be argued that father knows best sometimes, just not all the time. As a loving couple, Coretta and Martin resonated more with a familiar saying: “It takes a village to raise a child.” So it took a mother, extended family, church, the community and God to help Martin King be the best Dad he could be. Without these collaborative elements, King would not have accomplished what he did in Civil and Human Rights. Even the Lone Ranger needs Tonto, Santa needs Rudolph and President Obama needs Michelle Obama and his daughters to be the Best Father/Husband/President he can be.
Collaboration marked every aspect of King’s family and professional life. Coretta and Martin raised their children, helped them with school and homework, took them to church, taught them how to pray, to be a family, fight for justice and love others, etc. This blessed couple raised their children in two locales, Montgomery, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia. Parents on both sides of the family and members of Dexter Avenue and Ebenezer Baptist Churches were the main villagers helping to raise these children. Still, one major issue resisted every educational, experiential and spiritual skill they possessed. None of the gifts and graces the Kings possessed protected their children from America’s definition of their racial identity or how they would be treated.
In her book, “My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.”, Mrs. King epitomized their parental struggle in a poignant story. Yoki, the first born, always asked her parents to take her to public playgrounds and swing. Excuses were made, always. Because their excuses didn’t make sense, Yolanda was deeply hurt. One day, the situation came to a head. An amusement park came to Atlanta, Georgia named FUNTOWN. Excited, Yoki pleaded and literally begged her parents to take her to FUNTOWN. No matter how much Yoki begged, the answer was “No.” Unable to avoid the truth any longer, Coretta told her daughter that “colored people” weren’t allowed in FUNTOWN. Yoki broke down and wept. For the first time, Yolanda realized that she was defined by the color of her skin - that there were places Negroes could not go - that some of her dreams would go unfulfilled or be forever contested because of her racial identity. That day, her little mind began to understand her father’s constant absence from home and presence with the Black Community. He was fighting to change things.
Some years later, FUNTOWN desegregated. The family made it to FUNTOWN. Coretta said “they had a glorious time.” And Martin and the kids had a glorious time on all those rides. Martin seemed to be the biggest kid of all. While Martin fought for rights and privileges of denied people and families in Montgomery, Birmingham, Memphis and Chicago; he fought for his kids to ride the rides at FUNTOWN as well. And he rode with them. Martin never forgot their children. His wife drove that point home delivering a speech to Memphis City Hall, four days after her husband’s death.
“Three of our four children are here today, and they came because they wanted to come. And I want you to know that in spite of the times when he had to be away from his family, his children knew that Daddy loved them, and the time he spent with them was well spent. And I always said that it’s not the quantity of time that is important but the quality time…this hour to me represents much more than just a time to talk about and to eulogize my husband, who I can say was a great man, a great father, and a great husband. We loved him dearly. The children loved him dearly. And we know that his spirit will never die.” (My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., Revised Edition, 1993, pages 311-312)
From April 8, 1968 to January 30, 2006, Coretta Scott King carried the torch for the Civil Rights struggle bequeathed to her the day Martin died. What about her children? What did Yolanda, Martin III, Dexter and Bernice think about their father?
THE LATE YOLANDA DENISE KING
Yolanda Denise King was twelve when her father was murdered. According to one report, Yolanda and her brothers Marty III and Dexter happened to be watching television when CBS issued a Special Bulletin. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been shot in Memphis, at 6:01 P.M.”, reported Walter Cronkite.
She and her brothers already knew what their Mom told them later. Their Dad was dead. Nicknamed Yoki, Yolanda was born November 17, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. She weighed 9 pounds, 11 ½ ounces. Martin and Coretta rejoiced in her coming. Yolanda made their lives complete. The next generation had arrived. Two and one half months after her birth, Martin and Coretta’s parsonage was bombed. Folks protesting the Montgomery Bus Boycott took responsibility for the bombing. The murderous plot failed. Yolanda, her mother and a friend escaped serious injuries. But emotional and psychological scars trauma remained. Sadly, Yolanda joined her parents in the church triumphant, May 15, 2007, 16 months after her mother fell asleep. Age 51, Yolanda collapsed and died suddenly at the home of a friend in Santa Monica, California. An actress, playwright, producer, motivational speaker and advocate for her Daddy’s Dream was gone too soon. Yolanda’s death was laid at the feet of heart trouble. However, Jesse Jackson and other Civil Rights leaders declared that her death was egged on by repeated bombings, death threats and hostility from the dominant culture beginning with the attempt on her life at 2 ½ months. Yoki “lived with a lot of the trauma of our struggle,” Jackson said. Yolanda’s youngest brother Dexter King may have said it best. “Whenever a television program is interrupted by a Special News Bulletin, Yolanda’s pulse races; she feels faint, her throat closes and she senses death.” She never forgot.
Yolanda loved her Dad. At a 2007 ceremony at the tomb of her father; Congressman John Lewis, Democrat from Georgia, heard Yolanda say “Dad was my first buddy and now he’s just gone. I was thirty years old before I really started to mourn him.” Yoki’s father taught her to ride a bike at four years old. Plus, he taught her to swim. “My Dad was a big kid,” said Yoki. “He liked to have fun. If Dad had a chance to babysit and Mom was gone, all of us jumped on top of him, on the floor, on the bed or whatever. Sometimes, Mom came home and found us sitting on my father and the house in a mess. She’d fuss or tell us to stop. We did until she left. Then we’d start playing all over again,” Yolanda recalled.
Yoki’s Dad invented a game called “Let’s Go Up.” It taught Yoki about faith. She learned to trust in her dad and herself. The game was simple. Martin put little Yolanda on top of the refrigerator, extended his arms and asked her jump. Yolanda jumped into her Dad’s arms and loved it. Like a typical child, she wanted to do it all the time. In life and death, Martin caught his beloved daughter with his physical arms and the arms of witness, support and love.
Yolanda suffered because of her Dad. Like the prophet Jeremiah, this caused her to weep often. As folks reacted negatively to her father leading the masses against segregation, schoolmates made Yolanda pay big time. Questions Yoki had to answer repeatedly really perturbed and disturbed her. “Are you the daughter of Martin Luther King?” was posed ad nauseam. “Why is he doing this?” i.e., stirring up trouble? Classmates called Yoki and her father the “N” word constantly. According to her mother, Yolanda had enough one day. Frustrated she blurted out in class “I just wanted to be treated like a normal child.” It never happened.
Another experience typified this suffering. Five year old Yolanda and three year old Marty attended a nursery school in Atlanta, Georgia. One day, Yolanda came home crying. She had no answer for a classmate who asked why her father was a “jailbird.” Yolanda asked her mother, “Why did Daddy go to jail?” Coretta explained, “He went to jail to help people. Some people don’t have enough to eat or enough clothing to wear. Daddy went to jail to make it possible for all people to have these things. Don’t worry your Dad will be coming back.” Armed with an answer, Yolanda went back to nursery school with a renewed sense of hope. Sure enough, the jailbird accusation arose to which, Yoki answered “Yes, my Daddy is a jailbird. He went to jail to help people.” For that moment, Yoki’s pain was temporarily assuaged. Remember dear ones; the sting of rejection and name calling trickled down to his children not just to he and Coretta.
Bottom line, Yoki’s childhood years were both dream and nightmare. Yet, the faith, love, witness and undying love of her father and mother enabled Yoki to live life to the full. Yolanda had a testimony about Growing up King whose truth she probably sang about in these words “through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. Tis’ grace hath brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.” Yolanda had a father worth emulating.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, III
Marty heard the bad news on television like the rest of his siblings. That day, Marty had been 10 years old for six months. That day, things changed forever. October 23, 1957, Dr. King’s life changed forever. His first son arrived. Coretta and Martin had a little spat about his name. Why? Martin wanted the boy named after him. His mother feared classmates would treat him like society treated his Dad. However, the name Martin Luther King III prevailed. Sure enough, Martin III’s childhood peers treated him as his mother expected.
Just after his 57th birthday, Marty participated in a radio interview. Mark Simpson of WMFE conducted it on Tuesday, November 20, 2012. King was on a speaking tour in Central Florida. During the conversation, the interviewer asked Martin III how he remembered his father. “Dad never had a lot of time to spend with us, but it was quality time. When my Dad came home we might jump on top of him, play catch with the football, exercise, swim, ride bikes or drive to the YMCA for a massage. Our father was like a playmate. We just called him Dad.” Martin III talked about the privilege and gift of traveling with his father on business 8 to 10 times. Experiencing his father’s ministerial context seemed worth its weight in gold. Coretta illustrated the connection beautifully. Martin took the kids on one of his trips. As he spoke or preached, they sat in chairs behind him. Dr. King turned from the crowd and addressed his oldest son. “Marty, What do we want?” His little son answered “Freedom”. Again his Dad called, “Marty! When do we want it?” Marty shouted back, “We want freedom now.” Marty never forgot his Dad’s public validation.
Like his big sister, Marty had his own trials and tribulations. Questions as simple as “What’s your name?” “Is your father’s name, Martin Luther King, Jr.?”
“Is he that famous “N” going around causing trouble?” What’s in a name? Trouble, sometimes. President Obama found that out running for the Presidency the first time. A lot of people were turned off because his mother named him Barack Hussein Obama. His mother named her baby boy long before major conflict and enmity developed between Uncle Sam and Iraq. Hussein served as the fifth President of Iraq from 1979-2003. Barack Obama was born and named August 4, 1961, 28 years before Saddam Hussein came to power.
Perhaps, the best illustration of Marty’s dilemmas happened after a football game at school. His Mom and brother drove to school to pick him up after a game. Marty III played football. Dexter went to get him. Delayed in returning, their mother grew concerned. Then, she spotted them in conversation with two big Caucasian boys. Asked why it took so long, Marty told his mother that the big boys asked him to state his father’s name. “I told them I had forgotten his name,” Marty explained. Flabbergasted, his mother didn’t believe it. Asked why, Marty dropped his head and shoulders in shame admitting, “I was afraid they’d beat me up.” Little Marty sounded like Peter denying that he knew Jesus. Like Peter, young Marty lived in fear, fear they he’d get beat up, fear that he could not measure to his Dad’s name, fear that he was not a great student, fear that he would embarrass his dad, fear that every child and teacher would treat him like he saw his Dad being treated, fear that there would be no one to help him save Jesus the Christ. Did you know what it means to live in fear?
I am convinced that God kept renewing the strength of Martin III. Earlier, I mentioned Yoki weeping because a nursery school classmate called her Daddy a jailbird. Learning her Dad was in jail to help people, Yolanda used that information to fight back. December 21, 1961, it happened again. Yoki came home crying. Now, she feared her daddy wouldn’t get out of jail or be home for Christmas. Before her Mother could explain, the spirit got hold of little Marty. Marty comforted his big sister with these words. “Don’t cry Yoki. Daddy will be back. He has to help people. He has already helped some people, but he has to help some more and when he finishes, he’ll be back. So don’t cry, Yoki.” Their mother was so moved, she could have shouted. In her book about life with her husband, Mrs. King reported another response from Yoki. Later on, her nursery school age daughter declared, “I want to go to jail with my Daddy.” Moved like the songwriter, Yoki and Marty could have helped write these words. “If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a word or a song, if I can show somebody, he’s traveling wrong; then my living shall not be in vain.” Like his elder sister, Martin III never escaped the pressure of being a King or carrying his name. He has struggled mightily to live up to his name. Martin III had a father worth emulating.
DEXTER SCOTT KING
Dexter Scott King, born January 30, 1961, was seven years old when his Daddy’s dream turned into a nightmare. CBS News announced that his father had been shot. Withdrawal from the limelight seemed to be Dexter’s primary response to trauma and crises. Such responses may have had a prenatal history. How so? Dexter was born six weeks premature. Years of stress and trauma in the movement had exacted a toll on his Mom’s body and spirit. Close to delivery time, a lunch counter demonstration landed his father in jail. Subsequently, Martin was imprisoned a good distance from Atlanta. Not being able to talk to her husband, burdened with caring for 4 year old Yolanda and 3 year old Marty, fearing they might kill her husband in prison and worrying over the new life in her womb, Coretta nearly lost herself and the child to be, Dexter.
Despite the weight of “Growing Up King,” his father’s love, care and devotion to family left an indelible stamp on Dexter. National Public Radio (NPR) interviewed Dexter January 15, 2007. During the interview, Dexter shared a familiar story. The transcript is entitled Memories of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I remember him more as a playmate than as a Dad. He would come home from a long journey and he would really let his hair down. I think because he had to be so serious in public, he took the time with his family to really let his hair down. And he really sought refuge in his family. So we really had a lot fun, even though he didn’t have quantity time, it was really family time.”
Playing, swimming, biking, joking, roughhousing, hide and seek, Let’s Go Up, the Kissing Game, that’s all this seven year old boy knew. Believe it or not, the King children had a Dad who did not believe in spanking. Time out and talking were his methods of correction. By the time their father got through talking to them, his children wished he had spanked and got it over with. Playing or working, they had to talk and hear talking.
One conversation Dexter had with his Dad reverberated forever. Like most boys, Martin and Dexter grew up with BB guns, water guns, cap pistols and rifles. “Bang, bang, you’re dead;” they said. Their father objected to such play acting. Consequently Martin King asked his two sons to give up their toy guns. Too often, “they’re used to kill people,” King said. “You wouldn’t want another person’s death on your conscience, would you? Suppose somebody shot somebody you loved?” Dexter fell silent. Giving up his toy gun was not something he really wanted to do. But he did. His father had a way of explaining things that you just wanted to comply with his request. So, they got rid of their toy guns.
April 4, 1968 and June 30, 1974, Dexter’s conversation with his Dad about guns returned like a huge thunderbolt. April 4, 1968, Walter Cronkite announced his father had been shot and killed in Memphis. Six years later, it happened again. Dexter and some church friends slipped away from church after Sunday school to go to the store. When Dexter and his friends returned, his paternal grandmother had been shot dead while playing the organ for Sunday Service by Marcus Wayne Chenault wielding two handguns. Dream and nightmare commingled. Two persons whom Dexter loved were killed with guns, his Dad and paternal grandmother. Dexter had a Dad worth emulating.
BERNICE ALBERTINE KING
Bunny, Bunny-bopy nee Bernice Albertine King’s birthday is March 28, 1963, exactly five months before the famous August 28th March on Washington. She knew nothing about her Father’s ministry, the pressures, the death threats, the bombings, the surveillance and terror raining down on her family because her Daddy accepted the call to be a Drum Major for justice, a Drum Major for righteousness and a Drum Major for peace. However, Bernice nicknamed Bunny experienced a great deal of her father’s love.
Bernice had fun with Daddy as did her siblings with the family game “Let’s Go Up.” No matter how scary or high the perch, Bunny loved jumping into the safety and love of her Dad’s arms. She and her Dad loved “The Kissing Game”. Whenever Bunny’s father came home, she’d run and jump into his arms. “Give Daddy some good old sugar,” he’d say. Joyfully, Bernice kissed him on the mouth. In turn, Martin declared, “I bet you don’t know where Yoki’s, Dexter’s, Martin’s or Mommy’s sugar is?” Dutifully, Bernice kissed her Dad on the right side of his mouth, the right cheek, his forehead and the center of his mouth. Before the game ended, her father said “Bunny doesn’t know where her sugar is.” “Yes, I do,” she replied. Then, she’d kiss him on the right cheek. And the game was over. Mrs. King said her husband never could resist her wishes. Baby daughter was crazy about her Dad. Bernice seemed to get whatever she wanted from her Daddy until April 4, 1968.
April 4, 1968, her Dad was crucified in Memphis. After autopsy, her father was embalmed, dressed and placed in a casket. “Where’s my Daddy,” she kept asking her mother. “Bunny…your Daddy is asleep. He is lying in a casket and won’t be able to get up or speak to you…Your Daddy is gone to live with God.” Gone to live with Whom? How does a five year old girl process that? Bunny did know her playing days with Dad were over. No more “Let’s Go Up.” No more piling on top of Dad. No more “Kissing Game.” No more hugs; no more. Even Bunny had not escaped the dream and the nightmare haunting the King family. Later, I don’t know how much later, Bernice’s mother shared a story that Bernice has appended to her childhood memories. “I’m told by my mother that my Daddy celebrated my fifth birthday before going to Memphis,” said Bernice. In one short week, her Dad went from cake, ice cream and celebrating the birthday of his baby daughter to a casket, “death’s sullen sting” and broken dreams. Lord Have Mercy!
Martin Luther King, Jr. passed on great values to his children. All four of them proclaimed him as a best buddy, playmate, teacher, talker, hugger, one who loved them and their mother, one who involved them in his ministry and/or a father who loved them with an undying faith. Dr. King worked, played, prayed, lived and died with the hope “that (his) four little children (would) one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content their character.” That’s still a hope deferred.
One legacy stands above all especially when we recall all of the suffering and trauma experienced by Coretta and their children. All of them have become or became Civil/Human Rights Activists. They lived into the wise words crafted by the sage in Proverbs 22:6. “Train up a child in the way he/she should go. And when they are old, they will not depart from it.” Extensive trauma and suffering experienced by this mother and her four children, because of the stances Martin took against injustice, did not turn them against personal involvement in the Civil Rights struggle. Mistakes and all, they have lived into that hope. Of Dr. King’s four children, only Bernice King, the baby daughter became an ordained minister like her Dad. Unlike their parents, only one child is married namely Martin Luther King, III. Martin III and his wife have produced the only grandchild of Martin Luther King, Jr, a girl named Yolanda Renee King. She is named after her late Aunt Yolanda Denise King.
Her naming stirs an imaginative conclusion. Pretty soon, this precocious five year old girl will be attending school. Pretty soon, a teacher or one of her classmates from the dominant culture will pop the question “What’s your father’s name?” Pretty soon, a classmate may ask “are you related to that famous “N” with a national holiday?” Pretty soon, she’ll be able to say “yes” not fearing any retribution. Pretty soon, the spirit of a dead Yolanda will rise up in the spirit of the living with a message for ages. “I believe in the dream and the dreamer. I believe in the God of our weary years and the God of our silent tears.” “I believe God wants me to help somebody just like my grandfather,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. What about you?
The Bible, (NRSV) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989)
Dexter Scott King, Growing Up King, An Intimate Memoir (New York: Warner Books Inc., 2003)
Bernice A. King, Hard Questions, Heart Answers (New York: Broadway Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1996)
Coretta Scott King, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Avon Books, a division of the Hearst Corporation, 1969)
Coretta Scott King, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., revised edition (New York: Puffin Books Inc., 1993)
Jonathan D. Keaton & Ernest S. Lyght, Our Father: Where Are the Fathers (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012)
Memories of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: NPR (January 15, 2007, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6861081)
Jim Lehrer, PBS program on Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1997, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/social_issues/jan-june97/king_1-15.html)
Mark Simpson interview with Martin Luther King III (November20, 2012, http://www.wmfe.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=13731&news_iv_ctrl=1441)
Memories of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Daughter, dies, New York, Times May 17, 2007 (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/17/us/17king.html)
Ten surprising things you may not know about Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 9, 2014), Melissa Breyer (http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/politics/10 surprising-things-you-may-not-know-about-martin-luther-king-jr.)
Wikipedia article on Yolanda Denise King (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yolanda_King)
Wikipedia article on Martin Luther King III (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King_III)
Wikipedia article on Dexter Scott King (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dexter_Scott_King)
Wikipedia article on Bernice Albertine King (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernice_King)