King's Children Remember the Life and Death of Their Father

It's a memory close to Bernice King's heart...the kissing game.

After long trips away from home, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would call out his children's names.  Each child had a designated spot to kiss on his face.

"I would run up into his arms and he would say, 'Okay, we're going to play the kissing game today,'" Bernice King said. "He would say, 'Where is it?' and he would go through everybody's name, and I would kiss him on each one of those spots."

Bernice King's spot was her father's forehead.

Five years her senior, brother Martin King III remembered throwing a ball with his dad and younger brother Dexter. King remembered how his father taught him and most of his siblings how to swim at the YMCA, and remembered traveling with his father as he crusaded for justice.  In particular, he recalled being scared by a police officer's dog during a 1964 trip to St. Augustine, Florida.

"Because I was right there near him and could grab ahold of his pants leg, I could put my arm around his pants, I was comforted, by him," Martin King said.

He didn't realize how important his father and the work he did was until he was gone.

"I realized the true significance of who our father was at the time of the funeral," he said.

The service was attended by not only by politicians and celebrities, but also the thousands who lined the streets for miles to see Dr. King's funeral procession.

"We marched from Ebenezer Church to Moorehouse College for the second service, and there was not an empty spot on any of those streets," he said.
Bernice and Martin said their father and mother, Coretta Scott King, shielded them as much as possible from the violence directed at their family.  But Coretta King could not protect her children from Dr. King's murder.  The three oldest children - Yolanda, Martin, and Dexter - learned their father had been shot while watching the evening news.

The children went to their mother, who had already spoken to Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson.  Mrs. King was about to board a plane to Memphis when she learned Dr. King had died.

She returned home to her children.
"She said to us, your father is gone home to be with God," Martin said. "When you see him, he will not be able to hug and embrace you as you often experienced. But God rewards his servants and brings them home when they've served him well."
Bernice King learned about her father's death at the airport when her family received Dr. King's body.

"My mother explained to me that, 'Your father is in a casket asleep and he won't be able to speak to you when you see him,'" she said.  "I heard this wind type of noise and I said, 'Daddy's back there breathing.'  And she said, 'No baby, baby that's the plane.'"

Bernice was even more confused at the funeral service when a portion of Dr. King's last sermon at Ebenezer was played over the speakers.

"As soon as it started I was asleep and I woke up, and I was, you know, looking around because a child knows their father's voice," she said. "I was looking for him, and mother told me I was looking at the casket as if he were going to come up out of it."

For Martin King, the way his father died was at great odds with how he lived.

"I think I was looking with bewilderment and a lot of  confusion," he said. "We knew that Daddy articulated and embraced love, and so it's contradictory for a man who was advocating love to be killed in a violent way."

While violence met their father in Memphis, the King children have a number of times reached out to the Bluff City with love.  Yolanda, Martin, and Dexter accompanied their mother to lead a demonstration Dr. King had intended to lead on behalf of striking sanitation workers.

Bernice admits she avoided Memphis for years, mostly because she was unsure about the emotional impact it would have on her.  She first visited the city in the 90's.  It was then, she said, she realized Memphis was just another city.

"It just so happens to be the city where our father was assassinated," she said. "It becomes a significant city because of that.  It will always have that marker for us."