Actress, firstborn of rights leader

She saw performing, public speaking as way to carry on her father's legacy

Yolanda D. King, 1955-2007

May 17, 2007|By Valerie J. Nelson

LOS ANGELES -- Yolanda King, an actress, producer and motivational speaker who was the eldest child of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and who turned to the performing arts to carry on her father's civil rights legacy, has died. She was 51.

Ms. King died late Tuesday in Santa Monica, said Steve Klein, a spokesman for the King Center in Atlanta. According to Klein, family members suspected her death could be related to a heart problem, but he provided no additional details.

In a statement, the King family called her an "advocate for peace and nonviolence, who was known and loved for her motivational and inspirational contributions to society."

Cornel West, professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University, said Yolanda King was "a fine actress and had tremendous style and grace."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr., said in a statement that "Yolanda lived with a lot of the trauma of our struggle. ... The movement was in her DNA."

In 1968, then-12-year-old Yolanda learned from a TV news bulletin that her father had been killed in Memphis, Tenn. She felt that she would be thrust into the role as her 39-year-old father's successor.

"I struggled with a lot of the legacy for a long time, probably actually into my 30s, before I really made peace with it," Ms. King said in 2005 on a Colorado-based public radio show.

"My father was bigger than life, an entity, and everyone expected us, as his offspring, to be saintettes, these little carbon copies," Ms. King told the New York Daily News in 1996. "They're pleasantly surprised that I'm just really down-to-earth, open."

She once told People magazine that when the first national holiday honoring her father was observed in 1986, she asked herself: "What is it that you really want to do in your life?"

She answered by diving back into acting and becoming a motivational speaker.

Yolanda Denise King, nicknamed "Yoki," was born Nov. 17, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., two weeks before Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white man, which led to the Montgomery bus boycott spearheaded by her father. The King family home was bombed when she was 10 weeks old while her father was at a boycott rally. She and her mother escaped injury when the device exploded on the front porch.

Ms. King was 7 when her father delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington.

She earned a bachelor's degree in theater and African-American studies at Smith College and followed it with a master's in theater from New York University in 1979.

At a photo shoot, Ms. King met Atallah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, and discovered they shared a passion for theater and social consciousness. They co-founded the Nucleus theater group and presented inspirational plays at schools and colleges throughout the 1980s.

A decade later, Ms. King founded Higher Ground Productions, based in the Los Angeles area.

In the 1978 TV miniseries King, which aired on NBC, she portrayed Mrs. Parks. On the big screen, she played Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X, in Death of a Prophet (1981) and the daughter of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Ghosts of Mississippi (1996).

Ms. King's mother died Jan. 30, 2006. She is survived by a sister, Bernice A. King, and two brothers, Martin Luther King III and Dexter Scott King.

Valerie J. Nelson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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