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.