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Great Expectations

Today's civil rights leaders look to the children of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. to continue their fathers' work. But what do the sons and daughters themselves want?

April 23, 1998|M. DION THOMPSON and MARY COREY | BALTIMORE SUN

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 the 13 children of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X.

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 Yolanda, now 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 to lead the NAACP. "I don't get the sense that they are."

A simple life offered challenges enough. Some tried to slip through college without revealing their identities. In desperation, one sought escape by putting a knife to her wrist.

Old wounds began to heal during adulthood. But then the family of Malcolm X lost its matriarch, his widow, Betty Shabazz, in a fire set by her grandson Malcolm.

All searched their souls for answers to questions lingering since childhood.

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."

College Was a Real Learning Experience

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.

Self-doubt troubled their lives. Darrell Evers, 44, found comfort and stability in the teachings of the Maharaj Ji, an Indian guru who advocates abstinence. An art school buddy had told him about the guru and the followers of the Divine Light Mission.

For Yolanda King, acting provided a sense of self.

At 14, her role in a local play sent black Atlanta into an uproar. The local paper wrote about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter playing a prostitute and kissing a white boy in a production of "The Owl and the Pussycat."

Yolanda knew she had to leave Atlanta.

"I got to get out of here," she recalls. "I will never grow up. Everyone wants to tell me how to live my life."

Her gypsy spirit carried her to Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and to New York University, where she earned a master's degree in theater. In 1980, she met Attallah Shabazz during an interview with Ebony magazine. Soon they were giving speeches and touring as Nucleus, a theater troupe.

Yet, Yolanda wondered if acting was enough. She began speaking across the country and directing cultural affairs at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. But she really wanted to be on the stage.

"In life, I had to be prim and proper and poised--the King Daughter," says Yolanda, now 42. "But acting, I could be the zany, silly, sometimes foolish person that I am. I could let the raw edges show."

And it was acting that helped her deal with her grief. At the first national commemoration of King's birthday in 1986, she hit rock bottom.

"It was the first time I really began to mourn my father," she says. "I really had not taken the time to do that."

She quit the King Center, cut back on her speaking and developed a multimedia tribute to her father.

"My mother supported me from the beginning and never said you should be an activist or civil rights leader or minister. She never did that to us, and thank God she didn't," Yolanda says.

For another King, the deepest despair came during graduate school.

Bernice King turned 5 a week before her father was killed. She barely remembered him, didn't read his speeches, didn't ask questions about his life.

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