Father's spirit, faith live on in daughter Sermon: The youngest child of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. says God changed her from an angry young woman to a minister.

November 14, 1997|By Mary Corey and M. Dion Thompson | Mary Corey and M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

In a rousing sermon yesterday, the Rev. Bernice A. King, the youngest child of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., called on the country to fight racism by becoming good Samaritans.

King told a record crowd of nearly 800 at Anne Arundel Community College that "130 years after the Emancipation Proclamation racism is still deeply entrenched in the fabric of American society."

Her delivery was straight from the Baptist pulpit. Saying she came to open hearts and inspire minds, King rocked behind the lectern as her preacherly voice filled the room. At times, her father's spirit seemed to echo through her.

To draw connections for the audience, she used sometimes surprising sources: nursery rhymes, the Pledge of Allegiance, poetry and her father's stirring words.

But her most eloquent words came when describing her own life. college she became so filled with loneliness and confusion that she contemplated suicide. "Fortunately, the Lord came into my room through the presence of the spirit and caused me to change my mind," said King, 34.

Before this transformation, she described herself as an angry young woman, filled with rage at the world and at God.

"I came to the conclusion that if I did not get a handle on it, push beyond my anger I would be like many of our young people today," she said. "I would explode in violence because the anger would have taken so much internal control that I would have to kill myself or take it out on somebody else."

She was only five when her father was killed in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968. A photo of her lying in her mother's lap during the funeral won the Pulitzer Prize.

That tragedy continues to play out in her life.

"The greatest issue I have at this point in my life is my fear of abandonment. So, I don't let too many people get close to me because I fear they are going to leave me," she said. "What I have to constantly repeat to myself is: 'The world is safe.' "

The love of Jesus Christ saved her, she said. It put her on a different path, propelling her on to a career in the ministry. She is assistant pastor at Greater Rising Star Baptist Church in Atlanta, where she oversees the youth and women's ministry. A former law clerk in the Fulton County juvenile court system, King also is a mentor for young women.

Yesterday, when a 10-year-old asked whether there would be an end to racism in the child's lifetime, she replied: "I can't say the way it looks now. Ever? Yes. In the near future? No."

While she spends most of her life known as the daughter of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr., she said there are times when "I'm treated like most black folk." To her, that means being watched more closely than a white person at a shopping mall and having her credit card scrutinized when she makes purchases.

But overall hers was a message of hope, not despair.

"What we need more of in this society is a thing called love," said King, who built her sermon on the parable of the good Samaritan. "The story helps us understand what love can do. I'm talking about a kind of love where God operates in our heart and causes us to reach out and help."

During the question-and-answer period, she touched on many issues, saying she favors affirmative action and believes history books must be rewritten to present the full story of America.

When asked about her family's interest in getting a trial for James Earl Ray, convicted assassin of her father, she said she believes in his innocence. She raised the possibility of a government conspiracy.

After the speech, dozens lined up in the college cafeteria to have King autograph copies of "Hard Questions, Heart Answers," her book of sermons and speeches.

Tashea Brooks said: "What surprised me most was how she turned her life around."

"I grew up without a father and I could relate to when she talked about that," said Brooks, president of the college's Black Student Union. "It is very hard to let go of the anger."

Elizabeth Kessel, history professor at Anne Arundel Community College, encouraged her students to earn extra credit by attending the lecture.

"She's at the right place at the right time for this generation," Kessel said of King. "Students of this generation have to understand what came before. They think the civil rights movement is ancient history. Seeing someone like this may make clear to them why it's not over."

Pub Date: 11/14/97

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