Following the light Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. serve as inspirations to sons and daughters grieving over their fathers' violent deaths.

March 29, 1998|By Story by Mary Corey and M. Dion Thompson | Story by Mary Corey and M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

As Van Evers squeezed beside the freshly unearthed casket for the six-hour ride, one thought consumed him: He was going to see his father.

He never believed he'd have this chance. Three years old when his father, Medgar Evers, was killed, Van had only faint memories of a man leaving bubble gum cigars on his bunk bed. After the murder, he would pick up the phone and ask, "Have you seen my daddy?"

Now, nearly 30 years later, the body was being brought to Albany, N.Y., from Arlington National Cemetery for an autopsy to bolster a case against the accused killer.

In the hospital, Van took the longest walk of his life: 30 paces across the room.

He gazed down on the man taken from him so many years ago. Medgar Evers lay in the casket, perfectly preserved.

Slowly, he touched the arm, the hand and, finally, his father's face. For several minutes, Van spoke softly to his father, sharing confidences he had stored up over a lifetime.

"It made the circle complete," Van recalls, "my image of family: mother, father, brother, sister."

Van Evers is a member of a club he never sought to join: The sons and daughters of American leaders who gave their lives to the cause of civil rights.

Saturday, the nation will observe the 30th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. During the past eight months, two Sun reporters and a photographer traveled across the country to record the stories of those who grieved not only leaders, but fathers.

Love and loss fill the lives of the 13 children of Dr. King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X.

At a young age, they knew sacrifice. The fight for racial justice all but claimed their fathers from the families before the assassins' bullets. As adults, they chose different paths, but the challenge for all was the same: How to draw strength from sorrow?

Dr. King dreamed of a day when his children would "not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." But his children - and these others - also would be judged by their parents' achievements. The legacy is "a cross and a crown," says Ralph David Abernathy III, another civil rights descendant.

Time has brought them all together and given them an understanding of their kinship in grief. In their 30s and 40s now, the sons and daughters run companies, raise children, create art, preach, write, act and carry on.

They wince over still being described as "the children" of martyrs, as if time stopped when their fathers were killed.

The daughters of Malcolm X now mourn their mother, Betty Shabazz, who died last year in a fire set by her grandson.

Their lives haven't been tragedies. Their fathers' spirits cast a glorious light - a beacon to guide them. And their mothers, with strong wills and soft hearts, kept it burning.

"They are living examples that young people can come through the fire," says Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights legend.

"They have a message: 'In spite of everything that happened to my family and to me, I'm not bitter and I'm not hostile. ... We didn't give up.'"

Growing up in the movement

By age 9, Yolanda King was on her way to becoming an actress, winning lead roles in school plays and pageants. From folding chairs in hot auditoriums, her mother, Coretta Scott King, and other relatives encouraged her dreams.

But when she looked out into the audience, there was one face she rarely saw: her father's.

In 1964, other events consumed him. He was jailed in St. Augustine, Fla., during a demonstration, met with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

To his daughter, he sent notes and telegrams praising her efforts.

"That was nice," Yolanda says, "but it just wasn't the same."

Too young to understand the movement, these sons and daughters knew its effect: It kept their fathers away. Sometimes they only saw them once a week. Memories of their fathers are precious and few.

Millions watched the marches and riots unfold on the evening news, but these children lived with them. Their homes in Queens, New York; Jackson, Miss.; and Atlanta were hubs of activity. At school, they were ridiculed for their fathers' efforts.

Yet growing up in the movement didn't seem unusual. Men who made history - Andrew Young, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Dick Gregory - were like uncles. And the children often participated in speeches and demonstrations.

There was pride in being part of something dangerous and exciting, even if they couldn't understand its significance. Before falling off to sleep some nights, Reena Evers heard unfamiliar voices in the living room, a sign of another late-night meeting.

She was unfazed when she awoke the next morning to find a stranger dozing nearby on the floor.

"I felt good about him helping people," she says. "I felt good about people we did not know coming into the house at odd hours."

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