November 17, 1955 – May 15, 2007
Yolanda Denise King, the firstborn child of civil rights pioneers Coretta Scott King and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has died at age 51, of an apparent heart condition.
Thrust into the media spotlight virtually from her birth, the glare only intensified following her father’s death in 1968, when she was only 12.
“There is no way that we could detach ourselves or disconnect ourselves from the tremendous legacy that we are a part of, nor would we want to, but it is important for everyone to feel that their own uniqueness is being recognized,” Yolanda once said of the struggle she and her three siblings faced to carve out their own identities.
For her part, though, Yolanda was rather successful. She earned a master’s degree in theatre from New York University and played Rosa Parks in the NBC-TV movie “King,” and in the films “Death of a Prophet” and “Ghosts of Mississippi” she played activist Dr. Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X, and Reena, daughter of Medgar Evers, respectively.
She wrote a one-woman show, “Achieving the Dream,” wherein she portrayed several different characters in the movement for civil rights, calling the production “edu-tainment.”
“The arts has a way of getting into your spirit, and getting into your gut, and getting into your mind and heart in a way that stays,” Yolanda said. “You can tell people stories and create characters and situations that really help people see.”
Yolanda was a successful lecturer and motivational speaker. She founded Higher Ground Productions to incorporate “her personal vision, her contribution to the King Legacy and her passion for arts and entertainment.” She also co-authored two books, “Open My Eyes, Open My Soul” and “Embracing Your Power in 30 Days.”
Yolanda often spoke out for gay rights equality – she was presented with the Gavin Newsom Visionary Award at the Fourth Annual Equality Awards & Gala to the California State Conference – and I was very excited when I learned she was coming to speak at the Human Rights Campaign Dinner Event in 2000.
Upon contacting her at her office in California, I found Yolanda to be very guarded. She asked for a list of the questions I planned to ask in advance, which was virtually unheard of. But I buckled and sent them to her. I was worried it would make the interview rehearsed and robotic, but when we spoke again the next day I found her to be both warm and personable.
“What led me to my concern and my involvement [in working toward gay rights equality] is the number of friends that I have that are gay and who have had so many struggles in their life because of it,” Yolanda told me, adding that she believed that, were he still alive, her father would stand up, as had her mother, for the rights of gays.
“My father said it on numerous occasions, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'” If we exclude and discriminate against any group of people it affects us all, and it’s really that simple. The civil rights movement that I believe in thrives on unity and inclusion, not division and exclusion.”
Anxious for her to see it, I dropped a copy of the paper off at her hotel so she could read it when she arrived. And when I met her later at the event, she was tremendously gracious. She expressed a deep gratitude at the fact that I portrayed her mother as an activist equal to her father and not simply as the “widow of.” Too many journalists missed that critical part of the story, she said.
Yolanda was so impressed, in fact, that when I told her I was headed to Atlanta in a couple weeks to cover the Creating Change conference, she gave me the number of her mother’s personal – and openly gay – assistant and arranged for me to meet Mrs. King while I was there. (I was in awe, of course, at this meeting.)
I say this not to toot my own horn, but to demonstrate how vigilant Yolanda was at preserving the legacy not only of her father, but of her mother, too. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was in no jeopardy of ever being forgotten. But after nearly 40 years of dedication to the civil rights movement, Mrs. King still stood in his shadow. King shared with me that she was developing a film about her mother’s life and that she passionately sought to tell her story.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that project will now ever see the light of day. But I will never forget Yolanda’s commitment to her mother, her family, civil rights and gay rights and, really, just humanity as a whole.
“What I try to convey in everything I do – speaking, performing, just living my life everyday – is to encourage the best in everybody, to encourage people to honor themselves and let their light shine,” Yolanda told me. “If we could do that … Whew! What a different world it would be! If we truly could honor ourselves and each other, and honor the sacredness of the human spirit in every instance, it would be revolutionary.”