Bernice King Reflects on Father’s Legacy Near 50th Anniversary of March on Washington

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

By Dominique Mann (Article originally published on

Fifty years after civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, his daughter Bernice King will stand before her own pulpit during the anniversary of the historic March on Washington.

As the CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (also known as The King Center), King will participate in a series of events starting on August 21, ending with the anniversary on August 28, in Washington, D.C.

Several leading figures in politics and activism will join King in observing this solemn occasion. President Barack Obama will give remarks on August 28 at the “Let Freedom Ring” closing ceremony organized by King, which will include a bell-ringing ceremony commemorating Dr. King’s memorable address. His daughter will also co-host a “Jobs, Justice, Peace & Freedom” March at the Lincoln Memorial with her brother Martin Luther King, III and Rev. Al Sharpton on August 24. The National Action Network, NAACP, and other leading labor, education, media, and civil rights organizations will co-convene the event. Among those scheduled to attend are the families of Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, Congressman John Lewis, and other leading politicians and organizers. A full list of events commemorating the 1963 March on Washington can be found on the King Center web site.

The youngest King offspring took a few moments to share her thoughts on the current state of race relations leading into these days of memorial occasions.

theGrio: What are your thoughts as the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington approaches? How close are we to fulfilling your father’s dream today?

Bernice King: I hope that this will be an opportunity to see where we stand today with race relations. In light of the Voting Rights Act ruling and the Trayvon Martin situation, we still have tremendous work to do in the nation in terms of truly building a love community, where people are respected and valued for their character and what they bring to the table, and not merely by external definitions. In particular, I think for those of us in the African-American community, this is a time for us to really realize that my father’s message was about the state of the black community. If you put it in the context of one hundred years later, the “Negro” at that time, is still not free. He was speaking for a people, and not so much a person or a segment of a people, speaking about all of us in the African-American community.

When we look at the state of our community today and society, we still get half the good, and twice the bad. There’s still great disparity when we talk about health, the environment, the justice system, education, and the list can go on and on. While some of us have progressed, and it’s to be applauded, we’ve got to come up with a plan of action that will enable the masses of our people to progress, and that’s where we are. I think this 50th anniversary is a wake-up call to really connect in the freedom struggle, not just to react in moments of crises, and to recognize what my mother said – freedom is never really won. Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won; you earn it and win it in every generation.

While we have been conditioned historically to act in crises, we have to find a way for our people to be summoned for day-to-day action. We need people tied together in long-term relationships in the struggle for freedom and justice because it is an ongoing struggle. There’s no such thing as “we have arrived.” We are arriving, but we have not arrived. Like the little kid said, are we there yet? No.

Are you hopeful about any of the current civil rights movements or protests? What do you think of the efforts of groups like the Dream Defenders, and similar groups who have become galvanized in recent months?

You always remain hopeful whenever people are passionate, whenever people are willing to make sacrifice; you’re hopeful because part of transformation and change is a commitment. It’s a willingness to make sacrifices. It’s important that in our effort to bring about change and transformation, we recognize that we cannot do it in silo. That was one of the main things my father charged us with when he was living. It’s one thing for us to come together, but we have to find a way to stay together.

We have to come up with strategies and tactics that have long-term benefits for the masses, and that takes a whole other level of commitment and stamina. While I am hopeful because of the initial level of commitment, I am also hopeful because of the passion particularly in the next generation because none of this will happen without the next generation. As passionate and committed as I am, I don’t have the same level of energy and strength that I once had. It requires that kind of feel, energy and strength that comes from a younger generation.

I’m hopeful, but I’m also cautious because unless there is a way in which people can be galvanized together toward a common goal, I’m not sure how much progress we will make, and certainly how much transformation will take place. My father made a statement to the extent that a movement that moves people is a revolt. A movement that changes people and systems is a revolution. Time will only tell whether this is a revolution, or we’re revolting against the system in terms of the end results of whatever the target or the action is.

I hope and pray that it is a revolution because to Daddy and them, that’s what it was. It was a revolution and people were changed; people’s hearts were changed, but at the end of the day it’s not just about the legislation. It’s not just about law. That’s not enough. If we don’t have people whose hearts have been changed — now committed to humanity, and treating people with dignity, respect, and understanding, knowing that we all are created in the image and light of God, that we all are valuable — then the change will roll back.

Bayard Rustina close adviser to your father and the organizer of the 1963 march, was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama this year. While Rustin and Dr. King both struggled against racial turmoil, Rustin also endured another struggle, facing discrimination as a gay, black man. Some think because of his sexuality, his contributions have often been overlooked. Does Rustin’s life impact your view of the legacy of the march, given your previous remarks against gay marriage?

I look at Bayard Rustin as a master organizer and as a strategist. I think he made invaluable contributions to the Civil Rights Movement that cannot be overlooked or undermined. We celebrate that and salute that. But one of the things I was hopeful for, and I’m glad it is happening in other respects, is that going into this all the individuals and organizers that helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington would be honored. We were talking about the NAACP, the Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in particular because they are still around, as well as the National Council of Negro Women.

The involvement of women is underplayed and not discussed enough. None of this probably would have happened had it not been for the work of women, though they did not get the recognition. These women and organizations, in addition to Bayard Rustin, because of his tremendous contribution, and John Lewis, being the last living speaker from that time period, also deserve to be remembered. I certainly agree with and salute Rustin for being honored in that way for his tremendous contribution.

I try to look at things in context. In ’63, Bayard Rustin was focused on helping advance the cause of African-Americans in the South, in the country. That’s what his involvement was during that time period in working with my father. They were focused on social and economic justice. It does not affect my perspective. In context, we honor him for the work that he did – that was tremendous work; that was groundbreaking work that he did in the ’50s and ’60s.

We’re talking about remembering 1963 and the March on Washington. We’re talking about what that really was about. Daddy framed it for us; he said at the beginning of his speech, 100 years later, the Negro is still not free. What I have to keep sounding an alarm about is that 150 years later, the masses of Negro people, black people, African-Americans, are still not free. There has to be a concerted effort to ensure that the African-American community is not lost in this whole process as we continue to progress and go forward. When we all started this in ’63, we were first and foremost looking at the state of the African-American community. Now we’ve moved forward, and continue to move forward. We forgot about that. We’ve left that behind.

Follow Dominique Mann on Twitter @dominiquejmann

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