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In the Lead: Dr. Bernice King with Natosha Reid Rice, Part II

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Earlier this summer we sat down with Dr. Bernice King and Natosha Reid Rice for a broad-ranging conversation on nonviolence, the legacy of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King, and the work of the King Center.

For the latest edition of In the Lead, we’re providing you the second and final installment of this conversation.

Dr. King is the CEO of The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. She is a member of IWF Georgia and the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr and Coretta Scott King. Her mother was a founding member of the Georgia Forum and a former IWF Hall of Fame Honoree.

Natosha Reid Rice is a member of the 2017-2018 Leadership Foundation Fellows Program. She is the Associate General Counsel for Habitat for Humanity and the Associate Pastor of Women’s Ministries at the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA.

Editor’s Note: Dr. King and Natosha met in Atlanta for this conversation. It is transcribed below and edited only for clarity and conciseness.


NRR: We have explored your father’s legacy, now tell us about your Mother. Let’s hear more about what your mother has done in her own right and how she has worked tirelessly to support the legacy of your father and this movement.

BAK: I always refer to my mother as the architect of The King Legacy. She really created the blueprint for recognizing, remembering, and learning from my father.

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However, she also spent her life committed to social change for humanity in her own right. She was not made from the movement, but she made contributions to the movement that helped keep it going. This started before she ever met my father. In high school, she was exposed to Gandhi’s teachings and she was involved in the peace movement from its early stages. At Antioch College, she was a member of the progressive political party. By the time she met my father, she had already been to peace conferences and was really a very strong influence on his decision to speak out publicly on the Vietnam War.

Her background was in education and music. Before meeting my father, she wanted to be a concert singer. She even attended the New England Conservatory of Music, while he was in Boston getting his Ph.D. She decided to take that gift and use it for telling stories of the movement and singing. When they had difficulty raising money, she would perform freedom concerts. At one point, she raised $50,000 dollars to help support the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), through these concerts.

She also knew very early on that they were involved in something monumental. She was constantly thinking about how to preserve my father’s voice, words, and teachings. The first speech he made as part of the movement at the Hope Street Church was the night of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She could not go because my sister had just been born, but she insisted that a person take her tape recorder and record what Martin was going to say. That is the only reason we have the recording today.

NRR: She had that insight just after giving birth. She knew that she was not only going to be the mother of her children but the mother of this movement. She realized that she had something bigger than what was in her own household. That is so significant. What a witness to all of us as we contemplate our “calling” and purpose in life and in this world.

BAK: She had the ability to foresee the future, just like daddy. In the late 60’s, she started talking about creating a place for Martin’s papers. Initially, they started sending his papers to Boston because they were concerned for their safety in the South. She did as much as she could to ensure they were preserved. Before she founded the King Center, she started the King Library Documentation Project because she felt that his words and teachings were very important to future generations. So, when he passed, she knew that the conversation had been started with his papers, but there needed to be some type of institution in his honor with the mission of carrying on his work. That is how we got the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent and Social Change.

She saw justice as holistic. She believed it was more than just for black people even though that was the context they were working out of during the movement. She felt that although the work they did would elevate black people, it would help other communities as well. That is why she lent her voice to so many causes in our society and around the world while she continued to build the King Center. She built the Center to institutionalize his legacy. At the same time, she helped to establish the King Holiday.

She was a very strategic woman. She knew how to strategize, pull a plan together, and reach the goal. Who back at that time as a woman could build an institution like she did?

NRR: Your mother’s reach was global. She worked with Cory Aquino of the Philippines, Kenneth Kaunda from Zambia, and Nelson Mandela of South Africa on this idea of holistic justice.

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I first met your mom in 1993 when Harvard sent 5 of us students to South Africa to train their election workers for their first democratic election in 1994. Your mother was part of this program. We had one-on-one conversations with her on strategic thinking and holistic justice. She warned us that we would not be widely accepted when we got there, but nonetheless stand firm. That was in 1993, and during that visit, we saw her with Nelson Mandela. Less than a year later, he was elected president of his country.

BAK: She was instrumental in a lot of stuff. Another example of her broad-reaching impact is the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park. Before my father passed, his birth home, here in Atlanta on Auburn Ave., was scheduled for demolition. My mom went to Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. and had a conversation about saving it and other homes nearby [from demolition]. That’s why we still have it preserved today. Once she completed that, she knew her work was to continue building the official living memorial to my father, which is The King Center. However, she knew she needed to bring in a partner to manage the site in terms of tours, interpretation, and keeping future generations informed and educated about my father’s upbringing and the climate he was raised in. She reached out to invite the National Park Service, under President Jimmy Carter, to get the district where his birthplace is located designated as a historic district and site.

As of January 2018, it is the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Park, which is the only African American National Park in the nation. My mother laid the groundwork and opened the door for this – that is one of the reasons I say she is the Architect of The King Legacy. She had the vision of it becoming larger than just the home. Within the Historic Park you have Martin Luther King’s birth home, his spiritual birthplace – Ebenezer Baptist Church, the headquarters from which he did a great portion of his movement work-SCLC, the official institution named for him-The King Center, and his final resting place. That’s powerful. That’s the work of Coretta Scott King.

At the same time, she was working on the development of The King Center and the National Historic Park, my mom was also working on establishing a national holiday. She had a lot of experience working on legislation in Washington with the Brady Bill and the Humphrey Hawkins Bill. She learned a lot of lessons from those experiences, namely she had the insight to know that getting legislation passed for the holiday alone wasn’t good enough.

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For the King Holiday, she went back to the US Congress to set up a federal holiday commission, so that when the first celebration of the holiday came around 3 years after the signing, there would be a master plan as to how all of the states and cities would celebrate it. The commission was set up for 5 years, and it was extended for an additional 5 years after that. This is why all over the nation we still have different people consistently commemorating Dr. King’s legacy in January. It is also global, as more than 100 nations celebrate it annually.

The Dr. King we know in this world today, the way we view him, the way we are coming to better understand him, and the fact that his words are still very present in this world, is because of Coretta Scott King. If she had not been diligent, persistent, and determined after his assassination; had she let her grief overtake her- I shudder to think where our world would be today. By keeping his legacy alive I think she brought balance- the good in the midst of evil, the justice in the midst of injustice, the nonviolence in the midst of violence. His teachings were necessary to save the soul of this nation and world. As bad as things are right now, his name invariably comes up in conversations, news stories, and movements. The other day it came up as protesters marched in Palestine.

Earlier this summer, I accepted the Power to Inspire Award from the National Center for Civil and Human Rights on behalf of The King Center, and in my remarks, I said: “I used to believe that my father was a prophet to this nation, but now know he was prophet to this world.” I believe this is the case because of Coretta Scott King. He was great and people knew him in the world, but somebody had to keep it going to get it embedded in the conscious, in the psyche, in every institutional aspect of our world. She didn’t do it alone, of course. She had the support of her family, friends, and volunteers. She was the champion and the single consistent person who insisted that what Martin King Jr. brought to us is needed in our world today. And I believe God gifted him to this world as an archetype of Christ. God does that through time to bring us back to our original purpose. He gave Martin King Jr. these experiences and the ability to think how he did. My father was not afraid to engage in things he didn’t agree with and explore whether there could be any truth in them. He was able to find threads of truth even in philosophies and theologies he didn’t holistically agree with because there were aspects he could draw from and see some truth in. That’s how he weaved together his philosophy and methodology of nonviolence and ultimately spoke the language of the world. In other words, if two countries had opposing ideologies he would find threads of truth in each and pull something together that appealed to all sides. He was brilliant at synthesizing these truths and that’s why I believe people all over the world look to his teachings.

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NRR: I want to highlight the fact that your mother did all of this while also being a wife, a mother, and an African American woman at a time when that identity was assaulted on a regular basis- physically, mentally, spiritually. Despite these factors, she was a visionary and legacy creator. The fact that she could realize what she was a part of and that what her husband was doing was something that would influence and impact generations to come. It is absolutely tremendous to think about! I thank you and your family over and over again for sharing your father and your mother.

Now turning the lens to you, your parents were the prophets for their generation and their legacies continue to speak to us today, but so often they speak to us through the work you continue to do and the legacy you continue to build.

I just wanted to touch on this generally speaking: as an activist and a moral leader, how do you make sure that your heart and soul are cared for? As women in leadership positions, I think we are very challenged in this area. We have so many things we are trying to do for so many reasons and for so many other people. Do you find a way to feed your soul in the midst of this so you can “keep on keeping on?” Or how can we help each other in that quest?

BAK: I try to meditate on the right things and not let negative conversations in the world embed themselves in my psyche. I feed myself with the things that I have been taught and with those things that are consistent with my belief system. So that’s the first thing you have to do on purpose because it is very easy to get inundated with a barrage of negative conversations that are happening in our world today. You can get swept up in it and a sea of bitterness and anger can set in and then you become enraged. You have to keep your mind clear of that kind of clutter. It does not mean that you don’t hear it. For me, it just means that I’m aware of it but I can’t entertain and dwell on it too long. I have to go to my frame of reference on how to address it to stay on that higher plane. Hopefully, through my conversations, I help to bring others to that level as well. I believe love conquers hate. It may not be easy, but I believe it because I have seen it vicariously through
the life of my parents.

Secondly, I think as an activist you have to disengage sometimes because you can’t be the savior of the world. Too many times we feel that if we are not there or present, shame on us, but something my mother said to me that was so key when I couldn’t participate in a protest: “Baby, there will always be issues in the world, and your time will come.”

So today, when I look at everything in the world, it is overwhelming. I can’t be everywhere. I can’t be a part of it all. Then I hear my mother. She was not necessarily saying that your day of being in the spotlight will come. But, what she was saying was that when it is your time to be active and involved in something, you will know and you will be able to do it. As I’ve seen the world unfold, her encouragement has proven to be true. It is not an excuse to totally disengage. What I am saying is have a sense of perspective and balance, because you do have to preserve yourself for the long haul. Very few live a life of martyrdom and unless you know that is your fate, you must pace yourself.

Finally, take care of yourself. I get messages from time to time. It is okay to take days off. Understand your role. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about your role. Not everyone is going to be on the front line holding up a sign, but everyone’s role in the struggle is important. Those who helped to organize the carpool were important. Those who passed out leaflets were important. Those who were strategists and negotiators were critical. It all worked together. Therefore, be clear on your role and set boundaries to prevent yourself from being worn out.

NRR: One last question, what would you say your mission is going forward?

BAK: I think right now, in this season, I am a bridge builder. I had the fortunate pleasure of getting the last whiff of the movement, and yet I grew up in a new generation. So with the generational divide, I see myself as trying to bridge and bring some connection because the movement is not disconnected. What is happening today should not be disconnected from what happened during my Dad’s day.

Also, I think there is a reason God has allowed me to be exposed to so many religions/faith expressions. I think I have a role as a bridge builder because we have to transcend these religious belief systems. We can be very firmly rooted in what we believe, but we should not be so entrenched that we cut people off and shun their humanity. We must recognize that we are here in this world together. At the end of the day, God so loved the world. God is love and the greatest commandment is love.

In 2011, I completed mediation training. I am a lawyer but have not practiced as of yet. So, I am thinking about doing something in the legal arena. I frequently ask myself, “How can we create this win-win scenario?” Not everyone is going to get everything, but we can’t keep being so combative. Coming out of my own experience, even with my brothers, has helped me realize this.

It’s about win-win and really being able to feel someone else’s pain. I just look at and approach things from that vantage point. This doesn’t mean that I am blind to hate, division, and injustice. I just believe we are in the season that some people have to be willing to help us overcome what is tearing us apart as people, as communities, and as nations. That is where I see my role, and utilizing my father’s principles and steps of nonviolence will always be part of that work.

NRR: The work that you are doing is truly groundbreaking, it is spiritual and social justice oriented. It touches souls and elevates minds, and it impacts the way we live. I admire you greatly and thank you for the witness you continue to provide for me and other women as we try to find a way to make a positive impact on this world, in these times, when it seems so overwhelmingly negative. You have provided such a positive and powerful witness.

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Coretta Scott King and IWF Founder Elly Guggenheimer

BAK: Thank you. To close this conversation, I just want to reiterate my mother’s quote. In 2010, I spoke in front of an audience comprised of women, corporate, and business leaders. As I was standing there the Holy Spirit said to tell them: that this is the century of the woman. So, I started off saying to them that, “we often say that this is the year of the woman or that this is the decade of the woman, but I believe that this is the century of the woman.”

In the last 8 years, I have watched what has happened throughout the world and I believe this even more. It is literally an unfolding of this in our world today. Women are being positioned to help bring a sense of wholeness and sanity to this world in unprecedented ways

Mother said: “Women, if the soul of the nation is to be saved, I believe that you must become its soul.” I believe that’s the season we’re in.

When we [The King Center] were doing the March for Humanity earlier this year, we brought together the offspring of those who led the movement with my father. As we extended the invitation looking for those offspring involved in social justice invariably most of them happened to be women. I have seen this over and over again: it is our century ladies.

We have to be comfortable and yet humble with this. It is easy to get into these positions where we are like “men don’t know what they are doing,” but when you act in that spirit you become like them and you exclude them. We have to move forward together. Together we win. Now is our opportunity, so let’s do it with humility, grace, and dignity. Let’s bring what we always bring, which is a sense of compassion and not let competitiveness get in the way.

NRR: Thank you so much. This has been a great conversation.

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Earlier this summer we sat down with Dr. Bernice King and Natosha Reid Rice for a broad-ranging conversation on nonviolence, the legacy of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King, and the work of the King Center.
In the Lead: Dr. Bernice King with Natosha Reid Rice, Part II
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