Amusement Parks And Jim Crow: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Son Remembers : Code Switch Most Americans think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a brilliant young minister who was one of the architects of the civil rights movement, and who was martyred for it in 1968. But to the revered leader's eldest son, Martin Luther King III, the famous man was just "Daddy."
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Amusement Parks And Jim Crow: MLK's Son Remembers

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Amusement Parks And Jim Crow: MLK's Son Remembers

Amusement Parks And Jim Crow: MLK's Son Remembers

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Between 1954 and 1968, more than three dozen people lost their lives in the civil rights movement. A few of them were household words, others were footnotes in history. Some of the people who paid the highest cost were the children of what many call the movement's martyrs.

As part of NPR's focus on the pivotal summer of 1963, NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates spoke with people who lost parents in the battle for racial equality. Today, in part one, she speaks with a child of civil rights royalty.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: If you say civil rights martyr, most people immediately think of this man...

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Like anyone, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its purpose. But I'm not concerned about that now.

BATES: Martin Luther King Jr. uttered those words during a speech in Memphis Tennessee on April 3, 1968. He was there to help black sanitation workers as they struck for safer working conditions and fair wages. Less than 24 hours later, terrible news raced across the country.


SENATOR ROBERT F. KENNEDY: Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.



MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) Lord, hold my hand and don't let me...

BATES: The King funeral was nationally televised. The country was riveted by the sight of King's children sitting in the front pew of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta next to their grieving mother. Twelve-year-old Yolanda, 10-year-old Martin, seven-year-old Dexter and their five-year-old sister Bernice became symbols of the cruelty of that loss.


JACKSON: (Singing) Lord...

BATES: In 2008, an adult Martin Luther King III addressed the Democratic National Convention in Denver and told delegates how pleased he believed his father would have been with the party's nominee, Barack Obama. Dr. King may not have been with them physically, but...

MARTIN LUTHER KING III: You know, we are all children of the dream, and he is here in all of our hearts and minds.

BATES: Now 55 years old, Martin Luther King III lives and works in Atlanta. He's one of the founders of Bounce TV, a broadcast channel devoted to African-American interests. He has been involved in social activism, but he's resisted being a carbon copy of his father.

MARTIN LUTHER KING III: I learned not to try to measure myself by what my father did, because if I was awaken every morning and try to be Martin Luther King Jr., I would fail miserably. I have to be the best Martin Luther King III that I can be.

BATES: He's been lauded for lending his famous name and presence to several causes, from stopping genocide in Darfur to reforming U.S. immigration policy. But he and his siblings have been criticized for copyrighting their father's "I Have A Dream" speech and charging for its use. After Coretta Scott King and their sister Yolanda died a few years ago, the remaining Kings publicly squabbled over the management of the King Center. That kind of confrontation was atypical for Martin King, who says he's been shy and cautious since childhood. He resigned as president of the center last year but remains on its board. In 2008, Martin King and his wife Andrea became parents. King has just published a children's book, "My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King." It's dedicated to his five-year-old daughter, Yolanda Renee.

MARTIN LUTHER KING III: It's really written for young children to get a context and an understanding that, yes, Martin Luther King Jr. was a civil rights leader, but he was a dad first.

BATES: In the book, young Marty King recalls riding past a popular segregated amusement park as the family drove to the airport to drop Dr. King off for one of his many trips.

MARTIN LUTHER KING III: We must have passed by Six Flags a hundred times and many of those times we were told, well, we're not able to go now, but daddy's working on it and one day we will be able to go. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Six Flags Atlanta was never segregated. Martin Luther King III most likely was referring to Funtown, a whites-only amusement park in Atlanta that his father helped to desegregate.]

BATES: Meanwhile, they had their own fun at home. In this passage, King reads about one of his favorite games: his father places young Marty on top of the refrigerator.

MARTIN LUTHER KING III: (Reading) I imagined swinging from the ceiling fan as if I were flying in my own airplane. Then I would let my daddy catch me as I fell into his arms.

BATES: Where, he says, he always felt safe. His father's spirit will be very much with Martin King on August 28th, when he'll speak in Washington, D.C. at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

MARTIN: Karen covers race, ethnicity and culture for NPR's Code Switch team. Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, she talks with the daughter of Viola Liuzzo, the only white woman murdered in the struggle for civil rights.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I was six. I couldn't understand why somebody would kill her. She was trying to do something good.


MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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