Living with the legacy People expected more from the sons and daughters of the slain civil rights leaders. As adults, they have tried to balance those expectations with their desire for fulfillment.

March 30, 1998|By Story by M. Dion Thompson and Mary Corey | Story by M. Dion Thompson and Mary Corey,SUN STAFF

Yolanda King sits in her stocking feet, sipping peppermint tea and passing on the gospel truth. "This old lady used to say, 'It's hard enough being who you is, let alone who you ain't.' "

She smiles and her warm laughter fills the hotel room. The old lesson guides her life these days. Growing up in Atlanta, people were always watching Yolanda King, reminding her that being herself was not enough.

She had a legacy to live up to and a hero's torch to carry. It was the same with the other men and women who lost their fathers during the civil rights era.

The world expected more of a King, an Evers, a Shabazz.

Celebrity was thrust upon them. As adults, they tried to balance impossible demands with their search for personal fulfillment.

"We have to find that place of self-acceptance and self-understanding and confidence," says King, 42, an actress in Los Angeles. "It is a lifelong journey."

The generation that stood with Medgar, Malcolm and Martin wanted the sons and daughters to be leaders who could stir a nation. In their eyes, a normal life was a disappointment.

"I want them to be engaged in the life of their communities," says Julian Bond, recently named chairman of the NAACP. "I don't get the sense that they are."

A simple life offered challenges enough for the 13 sons and daughters. Some tried to slip through college without revealing their identities. In desperation, one sought escape by putting a knife to her wrist. It seemed the only way out.

Old wounds began to heal during adulthood. But then the Shabazz family lost its matriarch, Betty Shabazz, last year in a fire set by her grandson, Malcolm. For the Kings and Everses, confrontations with their fathers' assassins brought a sense of resolution.

All searched their souls for answers to questions lingering since childhood. Some tried therapy and religion. They discovered each other and forged lifetime bonds. Some married and divorced. Others felt too bruised to form strong relationships.

They did not achieve the greatness of their fathers. There was no need.

"You have to follow your own dream," says Reena Evers-Everette. "More than anything else, that's what my father wanted for us."

Dealing with self-doubt

In college, these men and women learned how their fathers' legacies could dominate their lives.

At the State University of New York in New Paltz, Ilyasah Shabazz felt people changed when they learned her parents were Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz. To her, their motives became suspect.

"They would want to know, 'Why didn't you tell me? Oh my gosh!' " says Ilyasah, now 35 and director of public relations for the City of Mount Vernon, N.Y. "Then they would start tripping, 'Malcolm X's daughter! Malcolm X's daughter!' "

Black students wanted her to speak for them. They figured she could bring back the fire of the revolution. They were wrong. "I had gone to private school. I had gone to camps in Vermont. So, I wasn't like this powerful, emotional speaker. I was just ...," she shrugs.

She just wanted to be "Yasah," a biology major. Like Martin Luther King III, she wanted people to relate to her, not her name. She struggled to find her own identity.

"Look," she says, "my hair's permed, OK? I had gone through this thing where I started questioning myself. Here I am, Malcom X's daughter and my hair is permed. Sometimes I would wrap my hair when I would go places."

Self-doubt troubled their lives. Darrell Evers found comfort and stability in the teachings of the Maharaj Ji, an Indian guru. An art school buddy had told him about the guru and the followers of the Divine Light Mission.

"They were talking about the essence of what you are," Evers says while sitting by the beach in Malibu, Calif. "It stretched beyond the color barrier, the creed barrier."

Through this he attained knowledge, a state of understanding not unlike what he felt when his father died.

Tall and ruggedly built, Darrell, 44, wears his hair in a sleek ponytail. There's a defiance in him. He talks angrily about being harassed by police in Los Angeles. They put tracking devices on his car and tapped his phones, he claims. He believes it's because of who he is and because his art deals with controversial topics such as the Rodney King case and the U.S. invasion of Panama.

His faith keeps him balanced, able to handle the police intimidation, the pressures of starting his own computer software testing company, the joys of raising his son, Keanan, 13.

"Knowledge," he says, is his "foundation. ... It's like you can do anything to me and it doesn't matter as long as I'm within that experience."

For Yolanda King, acting provided a sense of self.

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