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Children of the Movement

Medgar Evers. Malcolm X. Martin Luther King Jr. All were shot dead in the '60s. All were husbands. And all left behind youngsters who were forced to grow up quickly.

April 22, 1998|MARY COREY and M. DION THOMPSON | BALTIMORE SUN

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 thought 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 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. Van spoke softly, sharing his longing for a family unbroken by the bullet that had torn through Medgar Evers' back.

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

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.

Now, 30 years after the last of the three was assassinated, love and loss fill the lives of the 13 children of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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

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, also the son of a civil rights leader.

Time has brought them together and given them an understanding of their kinship in grief. In their 30s and 40s now, they 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.' "

Children of Activists and of the Movement

By age 9, Yolanda King was on her way to becoming an actress, winning lead roles in school plays and pageants. 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 saw them only once a week. Memories of their fathers are precious and few.

Their homes 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 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 and the others were all born between 1953 and 1965. Yolanda King was 2 weeks old when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. Van Evers, whose full name is James Van Dyke Evers, was less than a month old when sit-ins began at lunch counters in Greensboro, N.C. And Qubilah (pronounced cue-BEE-lah) Shabazz was 4 months old when freedom rides to integrate interstate buses began.

The youngest have no memories of those days--or their fathers. Malikah and Malaak Shabazz were born seven months after Malcolm X was assassinated.

When the civil rights leaders were home, the men dropped the uncompromising faces the world saw. All became fathers, ready for pillow fights and cartoons, foot races and catch.

"He was my dad, my hero," Darrell Evers says. "He could do anything."

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