I have often imagined how different my life might be if I were the child of a larger-than-life parent — the offspring of a mother or father who had been embraced and celebrated by people around the world: Names that immediately come to mind include Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin or Beyoncé. What a wild ride that would be.
But what if your mother or father had been history makers? Iconic figures who challenged the status quo and made a real difference? Then, imagine if their lives had been tragically cut short at the hands of a crazed assassin, a hate-filled racist, a religious fanatic or a deranged xenophobe?
Such is the case for and the reality faced by one of my classmates with whom I studied, commiserated and burned the midnight oil before we received our master’s degree — marking the end of our three-year journey at Emory University, Candler School of Theology. That classmate, Bernice King, is the youngest of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s four children — barely out of her mother’s arms when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 — some 50 years ago.
Strange enough, while Bernice has the preaching cadence of her father, fully comprehends and discuss his theological and philosophical musings and has done a formidable job when representing her family, particularly her parents, Martin and Coretta Scott King, I cannot remember her ever seeking sympathy, shedding tears at public events or behaving as if she were a celebrity. Still, there’s always been something different and distinct about King’s “baby girl.”
As we got to know one another better and I began to truly understand the weight she had to bear upon her shoulders — that two-edged sword of privilege and burden — I realized that being “Dominic” was more than enough for me. I learned that I had my own destiny to fulfill — and doing that was no easy matter.
What’s more, I knew that I didn’t want to live in a fishbowl. I didn’t want to have to watch every word I said or worry about every action I made. I didn’t want to wonder if I had been befriended by folks not because of who I was but rather who my father was.
I wondered what went through her mind whenever she sat quietly and imagined what life may have been like had she been able to really get to know her father, to hear him laugh, to feel the rush of the wind as he picked her up and thrust her on his shoulders. I wondered how she has been able to fill that empty space in her mind and in her heart.
There will be many events, from Memphis to Miami, that will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and I’ll be present for some of them. But when the lights have been dimmed, the curtain closed, and the crowd has dispersed, I’ll probably shed a few tears for my friend Bernice, and say a prayer of consolation. What else can a friend do?