Memories of M.L. King, father and playmate

Catching Up With ... Dexter Scott King

January 26, 2003|By Jill Young Miller | By Jill Young Miller,New York Times News Service

Dexter Scott King and his older brother, Martin Luther King III, were sitting on the floor, watching TV, when a news bulletin jarred them.

Their father had been shot.

Startled, the boys got up and ran to their parents' bedroom, to their mother, who was on the phone, hearing the terrible news from Memphis.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination on April 4, 1968, was a national tragedy. But for his four children, it was a personal blow that changed their lives forever.

"I kind of see all of us as children of war, if you will, the civil rights movement being certainly the backdrop, but like a modern-day civil war," Dexter King, 41, said in a telephone interview from Malibu, Calif., where he lives part time. He was 7 when his father was killed.

"While it may have been unarmed conflict, in some respects, or nonviolent, there was still the hardship and the emotional trauma of war and, in some respects, maybe even worse because most of it was psychological and emotional, and those are the types of scars that can last for a long time."

Luckily, so can good memories, and King recounts many in a new book, Growing Up King: An Intimate Memoir (Warner Books, $24.95), which he co-wrote with Ralph Wiley, a former senior writer for Sports Illus-trated. King will discuss and sign the book at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

In the book, the younger King son recalls loving his father, losing him and growing up under the weight of the King legacy.

Christmas 1967. His mother, Coretta Scott King, bought Dexter and her husband matching purple bicycles. They rode together, laughing, along hilly Sunset Avenue in Atlanta's Vine City, where Dexter King's mother still lives.

"He was really like a playmate," he said, laughing. "He really would let his hair down. I think those moments were like his refuge away from the very serious, stoic kind of individual who in his public life had to deal with such serious issues. So, coming home for him I think was really like a joy and relief to be able to play with his kids."

When their father would return from a trip, the children would hide from him, shaking with excitement, knowing he would want to play. He'd find them and have them jump off the top of the refrigerator into his arms. "We would get on top and drive my mom crazy because she thought one of us might fall," King said.

Their father called it the kissing game. Yolanda, the eldest, would be first. She'd land in her father's arms and he'd ask, "Where's your kissing spot?" Hers was a corner of her mouth. Martin's was his forehead. Bernice's was a corner of her mouth. Dexter's was his temple.

Dexter writes that he can still see his father walking down the hallway at home in his slippers and a burgundy robe. Seeing his father in his robe made him happy "because it meant he wasn't going anywhere for a while."

He saw his gentle father get angry only once -- after the children hid his carton of cigarettes. "There was an unbelievable amount of stress on him," King recalls in the book. "He didn't start smoking until the last few years of his life."

One scene in the book particularly foreshadows the heartbreak to come. Dexter and Martin found some plastic toy guns. They played war, gangsters, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians. Their father, who'd probably been watching from a window, came out and gathered his sons at his knee. He asked them for their guns, which they handed over reluctantly. He told them the toys represented handguns, which are used only to kill or maim people. "If you saw what they did to people, you'd be sad," he told his sons. "Suppose somebody shot somebody you loved?"

After some more talk, the boys destroyed the guns. They put them in a metal trash can and burned them.

Dreams of father

At their father's funeral, one of his last sermons at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church was played. "Bernice could hear him; it puzzled her; in ways, she remains puzzled," King writes. The youngest of the Kings, she was 5 at the time.

As for Dexter, "it wasn't until I reached adulthood that people saw me express much emotion about anything."

After their father's death, Dexter never rode his bike again. Sometimes, he would look under his bed for his father, hoping he was hiding there to surprise him. For a long time, he dreamed his father was alive: They would ride their bicycles, play softball, sit together in his father's study. Then he'd wake up, grieving.

Dexter took refuge in music and was thrilled when the Jackson 5 visited their house and played Ping-Pong and board games with him and his siblings in their basement. Vice President Hubert Humphrey invited the Kings to the White House, where the chef made a cake and served ice cream.

When was life what could be called normal? "Playing in the neighborhood and going outside, you know, really just getting kind of bruised and bumped up as kids do," King said. "Those times, I really felt normal, like a normal kid."

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