Atlanta pays tribute to Yolanda King


 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A procession of family and friends paid tribute Thursday to Yolanda King during a memorial service for the the oldest child of Martin Luther King Jr., and Coretta Scott King,

The noon service, scheduled to conclude at 2:30 p.m., stretched beyond fours hours as testimonies came from those who knew King as a relative, actress, classmate, and daughter of the civil rights movement.

Among the high profile mourners seated in the front pews at Ebenezer Baptist Church were, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, (D-Atlanta); the Rev. Al Sharpton, civil rights activist and talk show host; activist Dick Gregory; Attallah Shabazz, the daughter of slain civil rights leader Malcolm X and a long-time King friend; SCLC President Charles Steele; the Rev. C.T. Vivian; Juanita Abernathy, widow of the Rev. Ralph Abernathy; gospel singer Dottie Peoples; the Rev. Byron Cage and long-time King family friend Xernona Clayton.

Huge video monitors on either side of the pulpit broadcast the service as it unfolded. In the center of the pulpit, ringed with lush ferns, was a 4 foot photograph of King. In it she beamed her bright signature smile. The picture was nestled in a nest of lavender tulle and flanked on either side with sprays of peach flowers.

On the dais sat former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young; Elisabeth Omilami, daughter of King aide Hosea Williams; and Ebenezer Pastor Raphael Warnock.

At 12:29, the surviving King children filed into the sanctuary. Bernice King was first, followed by Martin King III and finally Dexter. They were accompanied by their aunt Christine King Farris; their cousin Isaac Newton Farris Jr., president and CEO of the King Center; and Bishop Eddie Long, pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.

As the service continued, Yolanda King’s cousins – the Rev. Toussaint King Hill, pastor of West Hunter Street Baptist Church and Vernon King, pastor of St. James Baptist Church in Greensboro, N.C. – read Scriptures, as the mourners shouted “Yes.”

Coca-Cola executive Ingrid Saunders Jones read a remembrance from Maya Angelou that bore Angelou’s poetic flourish. The elderly poet, who was originally slated to participate in the service, was unable to attend.

“Yolanda proved daily how it was possible to smile while wreathed in sadness,” Angelou’s statement read. She was a daughter who was “an inheritor of a national nightmare.”

Actress Cicely Tyson offered a dramatic reading of a poem urging King’s friends and loved ones not to grieve. “Do not stand by my grave and weep. For I am not there. I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow. I am the diamonds glinting on snow.”

Juandalynn R. Abernathy, the daughter of Ralph David and Juanita Abernathy, called King her oldest friend – meeting each other in the crib.

“I thought we would grow old together,” Abernathy said.

She spoke as though reading from a letter directly addressed to “Yoki,” Martin Luther King’s nickname for his eldest daughter. In it Abernathy recounted their days growing up together, from writing family plays in which their siblings were the stars, to collecting turtles.

The hours following Martin Luther King’s assassination were filled with tearful phone calls between the two teens. “Our friendship sustains me even today Yoki, How can I saw farewell? When we picked up the phone, it was like we picked up the conversation of those two little girls that played together.

“Our fathers took us to see “To Sir With Love.” Remember Daddy and uncle Martin went to sleep and snored through the whole movie? Those were the good old times.”

After her letter to her friend, Abernathy, a classical singer, who lives in Germany, sang a verse of “I Do Not Know How Long it Would Be.”

Elisabeth Omilami, who is also an actress, followed with a theatrical tribute also documenting their decades long friendship.

As mourners filed in, they received a 45-page program for the service. It was filled with photographs of King during happy times, documenting her journey from newborn in the arms of her parents, to her final years as an actress and director of her own production company, Higher Ground Productions.

The photographs show the access the eldest King child had to so many different worlds. In one photo she smiles with Oprah Winfrey, in another she grins with singer Stephanie Mills, in yet another she’s in conversation with President Bill Clinton. In one photo she sits next to the grandson of the man who inspired her father’s commitment to non-violent change, Mahatma Ghandi.

The program also contains acknowledgements from President George W. Bush, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and mayors Shirley Franklin (Atlanta) and Antonio Villaraigosa (Los Angeles).

In a tribute to her career as an actress, the program was divided into acts representing the stages of King’s life. On the final page is a sepia-toned family portrait of all the King children as adults surrounding their mother.

Acts Two and Three of the service featured tributes from Yolanda King’s friends from Grady High School, Smith College and her years as an actress in New York. The service, originally scheduled to conclude at 2:30 p.m., was only about half through at 2 p.m.

Those in attendance included Mayor Franklin, Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington and Joseph Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Lowery, walking to the sanctuary, predicted it would be a painful day for the King family, with the death of Yolanda so quickly after the death of her mother, Coretta Scott King, last year.

“These kids have been through the storm, they have weathered the storm, and they will survive,” said Lowery.

On the long line stretching outside the church, Lowery said, “This is the first family of black America, coming a year after her mother’s death people’s hearts are touched.”

Civil-rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton came to the service accompanied by two unidentified daughters of the late R&B legend, James Brown. “She was the first daughter of the civil rights movement,” Sharpton said of Yolanda King. “The Kings’ sacrifice was a family affair. That’s why we owe it to the family to be here.”

Syndicated columnist Barbara Reynolds, who’s writing a biography of Coretta Scott King, said she met with Yolanda King four days before her death to discuss her book proposal. She said King approved her proposal and helped outline some parameters for the book. “If she had not given me her instructions, it would have been impossible,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds said King said she was feeling tired. “I had no idea she had a heart issue.”

Anthony Holden, 50, Decatur, like most, said he was shocked when hearing of the death. “She’s part of our past. If it wasn’t for her family I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today,” Holden said.

Rev. Mike Jones, of Atlanta, a high school classmate of Yolanda King at Grady High School, remembered her as fun, energetic and a leader. “You could tell she had the spirit of her father,” he said. “She was relaxed and fun-loving, those were the fun days.”

He said the death of a classmate brought “a realization that we are all getting older and let’s enjoy each day.”

Cynthia Collins, 50, Snellville, brought her son, Jackson, 9, a student at Hopewell Christian Academy, to the memorial service. She said they frequently go to the King Center and attended Coretta Scott King’s funeral service. “[My son has] got it easy right now. People had to struggle so he can do what he is doing today,” Collins said.

She said she has a picture with Yolanda in 2006 at a book signing in Atlanta. The news of her death came as a shock. “I was driving down the highway and almost came to a complete stop when I heard it on the radio,” she said.

Jessica Bass, 22, of Stanford, Conn., said her parents knew Yolanda and the King family. “I was in this very place not even a year ago for her mother’s death. She’s loved and definitely will be missed,” Bass said.

Used art to further message

Yolanda King, the oldest of Martin Luther King Jr., and Coretta Scott King’s four children, died May 15 in Santa Monica, Calif. She had lived in California, most recently Culver City, for more than a decade. A private autopsy was done, but family members say that she died of heart failure.

The 51-year-old was known to have an irregular heartbeat.

As noted by her cousin Isaac Newton Farris Jr., out of all of the King children, Yolanda was the most artistic. In fact, it was her art and love for acting and performing that attracted her to California.

She appeared in several movies, throughout her career. Often small roles in civil rights themed movies. She played Rosa Parks in “King,” the television biography about her father.

In 1996, she portrayed Reena Evers, the daughter of assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers, in “Ghosts of Mississippi.” When roles became scarce, she started her own production company, Higher Ground Productions. With that as a base, she put on plays and toured the country as a motivational speaker.

Nicknamed “Yoki” by her father, she was also active in social causes. Most recently, after the death of her mother – who had suffered a stroke – she became the first National Ambassador for the American Stroke Association’s Power to End Stroke campaign.

On May 6, she spoke at Ebenezer Baptist Church, about the importance of African-Americans taking care of their health.

Yolanda Denise King was born Nov. 17, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala,, a few weeks before the start of the Montgomery bus boycott. Her life paralleled the civil right’s movement, When she was barely 6 weeks old, while her father was speaking at a Montgomery church, a bomb blew the porch off their home. She and her mother barely escaped injury.

Yolanda King graduated from Smith College in 1976 and received a master’s degree in fine arts from New York University in 1979.

She is survived by two brothers, Martin Luther King III and Dexter Scott King, and one sister, Bernice King.

30 thoughts on “Atlanta pays tribute to Yolanda King

  1. Sandra D. Davis

    God just received another one of his angels for his flock. May God bless each and everyone one of you!

  2. Phyllis C. Jones

    I was sadden of the news of Yolanda’s death. I met the family many years ago at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta while visiting from North Carolina. You all are a great family loved by the whole world. My prayers are with you. You are a beacon light for all of us.

  3. Sharee Daniels

    To the King Family, look to the hills from whence cometh your help, for your help cometh from the Lord. My prayers are with you and your family.

  4. Theressa Brooks

    May God continue to give the family peace, and may the pain be replaced with beautiful memories. God takes the best and we to must travel this road. May God Bless All…

  5. Rosalind V. Black

    Rest on Yolanda, you have had a faith building life, and I pray that you are up yonder shouting with the saints of God. But remember you can’t king him until we get there. Rest on Martin’s oldest angel. Thank you God for allowing us to come to know Yolanda D. King as a strong warrior for the Lord.

  6. Dollbaby Cooper

    Ms. King Spoke to a group of teenagers in New York state in Ithaca while at Cornell University. I walked up to her told her my name and what i did for a living. I told her I worked with Juviniles and I actually thought she could CHANGE Someone’s life just by stopping by…that next morning she did just that without it being on any schedule she just came by and she did in fact Change a few girls lives. I was so personally moved by her just being so down to earth. She had even been in touch with me to find out how the Girls at the residential center were doing. She was and will always be one of the Most AMAZING women I have EVER met. God rest her Soul!

    DollBaby Cooper
    Ithaca, Ny

  7. Ms. Lewis

    Yolanda has been an inspiration to so many, as it was her legacy. May God continue to bless the King family, and guide thier steps. Yoki has made her peace. Her race is run, and she has done what we all must do in due time. I encourage the survivors to pick up and carry on as best as possible and let her work and effort not have been in vain. We the survivors muct pick up and carry on, and ease the burden the Kings are bearing. God bless you all.

  8. Estella McElheney

    Yolanda has been a inspiration to us all and left us with a lot to think about. We now have to pick up where she left off and carry on. She will be missed. To the survivors, God has given you a good foundation through your parents and your sister. I know that God will be with you through these hard times.

  9. Johnnie Wells Thompson

    I met Miss King in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She spoke to a group about “The Dream Deferred.” She was friendly and very inspirational. Family, please stay together and continue to keep your father’s dream alive in your own way. Take heart. Time will foften the edges and ease your burden. You all are in my thoughts and prayers.

    Johnnie Wells Thompson & Family
    Greensboro, North Carolina



  11. Ann Witherspoon Favors - Daspoon Productions

    I had the distinct honor of hearing her message and seeing her perform at the Black History Luncheon in Jacksonville, Fla (Feb 2007). I met her Mother at my cousin’s wedding and had the privilege of taking a photograph with her. On occassion, I saw Bernice and Coretta Scott King at an award’s dinner in held Atlanta, Georgia honoring one of my former students. Each encounter has been both momentous and inspiring. The legacy of the “King” family will forever remain endless. May GOD strengthen each of you as you adapt to the loss of her physical presence and embrace the Spirit that lives within on a continuum.

    Ann Witherspoon-Favors

  12. Poinsetta W. McKnight & Family

    To The King Family,
    With Our Heartfelt Sympathy……..

    There’s so little one can do or say.. but may it help to know that others deeply care. May the beautiful memories of Yolanda comfort you and help to see you through this difficult time
    There will be no crying in Heaven, nor pain or sorrow there, God’s world is filled with only joy, and perfect love to share.

  13. Rosetta B Sellers

    No one can ever feel the pain, the loss, the emptiness that your family feels right now. No one has ever walked in your shoes or may glance the perimeter of it in their life time. We dare not say we even understand your life’s struggle from within. We stood close by and felt the ripples and shared in your family’s joys and in your sucesses and in your victories. Yet we fell to know you true sorrow. For that we are sadden. So we turn to the only true answer and only real hope in today and tomorrow. We pray that your spirit will be lifted above your sorrow, that your souls will be fed with his knowledge and your emptiness be filled with his love.

  14. Annie Pinkston

    To The King Family:

    Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot cure. Look to the hills from where our help comes from, which is GOD ALMIGHTY, I continue to pray that GOD give all of you strength during your time of mourning.

  15. Jessie and Vickie Jones

    May GOD continue to keep and bless the family during this sad time and we will continue to keep you in our prayers .

  16. Marsha' Moore

    My sympathy goes out to the King’s family. Dr. King has been my hero every since I learned of him during my high school history class and Yolanda strived to be just like him. She will be truly missed but never forgotten. Harvesting Generations, Inc. and the entire board will be prayering for the family and we love you.

  17. To The King Family:
    Trust in God and he will give you the strength that you need. May
    your pain be replaced with beautiful memories. My prayers are with your family.
    Carmen A. Bethea
    Dillon, South Carolina

  18. Sheaneta M Rowe

    God, will give you the strength that you need. May
    your pain be replaced with beautiful memories. My prayers are with your family

  19. Yolanda Russell

    I was saddened and heart broken at the news of Yolanda King’s death. I have always admired her, especially since she bears the same name as I do, that by itself has given me courage to press on and become the strongest black woman that I could ever be. May God continue to bless the King family.

  20. To The King Family

    My thoughts and Prayers are with you, I was saddened to hear
    about Yolanda King’s death. Such a lovely lady with so much dignity. Keep her close in your heart and she will always be with
    you. May God continue to bless and keep you

  21. M. Aro'n James

    Poised dedication, True Life, A Lovely Person, has gone through life and is now in the Saviors arms. I pray her soul rests with
    wonderful and sweet peace.

  22. Tonya E. Blackman

    To the King Family our hearts and prayers go out to you and your family.
    May God Bless You!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11

  23. Sylvia L. Johnson

    I did not know Yolanda personally, but I’ve known of her for a long time.( God has picked another Flower from his garden.) My heart and prayers go out to the entire King Family, especially her Sister and Brothers.

    May God continue to Bless your Family,

    Sylvia Johnson

  24. Brenda Scott

    I was surprised and saddened to hear of the death of Yolanda [Yoki] King. I lived through the civil rights movement, and watched the King children grow into the beautiful adults they are now. I will always consider the King family as the first African-American family in this country, who stand for dignity, integrity, and equality for all. My love and prayers go out to this family, who I consider a part of my family.

    With love and respect,

    Brenda Scott

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