By Dr. Barbara Reynolds
Not another King dying far too soon. This was the immediate reaction of many at the news that Dexter King, the youngest son of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King had died from prostate cancer at age 62 . In 2007 his sister Yolanda died at age 52.
At the time of his death, Dexter had served as both chairman of The King Center and President of the King Estate. In that capacity he engaged in legal intellectual property fights with corporations, federal agencies, and court suits with family members to protect his parents’ legacy. His strongest crusade, however, was his battle to bring to justice those responsible for his father’s murder.
Born in Atlanta on Jan. 30, 1961, he was named after Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where his father served his first pastorate and helped launch the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott. He was the second-born son of Dr. King and Mrs. King and was only 7 years old when his father was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.
For years, Dexter King – who had an amazing resemblance to his globally acclaimed father, confessed that when he “looked in the mirror he saw his father’s face trapped in mine.” In his memoir “Growing Up King,” he spoke of gazing upon the writing on his father’s crypt, “Free At Last,” and feeling that same sense of freedom. Yet he was freed in a different way- not in death- but in the resolution of living his best life on his own terms and not becoming a prisoner of the King name.
As a journalist and later biographer of Coretta Scott King, I was in and out of the King household since the seventies watching their becoming years. As a teenager Dexter used to love talking about one day becoming a businessman and he started his first enterprise, a music company where he hired himself out as a disc jockey for weddings. In later years, his zest for business skills took root at the King Center, where he sometimes took the reins of the King Center with his siblings helping it to become a Beloved world house of peace and non-violence.
Coretta King said all four siblings – Martin III, Yolanda, Dexter, and Bernice had inherited specific qualities from her and their father. Yolanda had a love for the performing arts and became an actress; Martin III, a social justice activist; Bernice, a Call to ministry and pastoral and organizational leadership, and Dexter, a drive to master the complexities of life by pushing forward, overcoming the most difficult problems, even when at the very root he had to overcome himself.
Confronted with the fear of death, instead of running from it, he freed himself by running into it . At age 16, he started working at a funeral home, the same one that buried his father. The experiences in the mortuary he attributed to his quest to come to terms with death and dying. To understand the intricacies of the criminal justice system, in 1982, for a short spell he became a police officer in Atlanta. His stance to wear a uniform with a sidearm shocked the principled non-violent, anti-gun workers at the King Center. But he was determined to understand the system from the inside out.
Dexter also wanted to test his acting abilities. With his uncanny resemblance to his father, he portrayed him in the 2002 television movie “The Rosa Parks Story.” His love for the creative arts drew him to relocate to California but he also continued his work with the King Center and commitment to the King family legacy.
As deftly as he helped free himself from fear and tradition, he also took responsibility for freeing his family, especially his mother, from digging their graves with their forks. He became a strict vegetarian, giving up sugars and starches until his body craved natural foods. He said he was bothered that his grandfather, Daddy King, might have lived a longer life had he eaten differently.
At her son’s insistence, Coretta, who had mastered the art of rich Southern style cooking, became a vegetarian. Once when I traveled with her to a Florida spa, I was dismayed that for a week, they served nothing but raw vegetables and veggie smoothies. Yet, she also believed her strict regimen eased her pain from gout and other discomforts prolonging her life. She died at the age of 78.
Both mother and son shared an intense determination to prove to the nation that James Earl Ray did not kill Martin Luther King Jr., that his murder was the result of a conspiracy involving the U.S. government and the assassins should be held accountable.
In the early 1990s I picked Dexter up at the DC airport and took him to the National Press Club where I had helped arrange a briefing on the assassination. He spoke about his plans to meet with Ray and that he believed Ray’s claim of innocence and, based on other evidence, felt along with other family members that Ray was not the lone assassin.
On December 8, 1999, Dexter and Mrs. King, on behalf of the family, pursued a civil suit in Memphis. A jury of six Whites and six Blacks unanimously implicated U.S. government agencies in the wrongful death of Dr. King. The shocking evidence convinced the jury that Dr. King had been the victim of assassination by a conspiracy involving the Memphis Police Department as well as local, state, and federal government agencies, and the Mafia. The Jury also concluded, just as Dexter had argued all along, that Ray was not the shooter, but had been set up as a patsy to take the blame.
This news, where both Dexter and Mrs. King testified, should have rocked the world, but unfortunately it landed like the noise of a feather hitting the ground. The verdict and shocking testimony were virtually ignored by the media – as it is today.
Dexter was often criticized for his insistence on following up on details ignored by the press, but he argued that it was hard for him to believe looking into his father’s murder was somehow illogical.
Yet, even in this failure, Dexter believed as his mother did, that they had both freed themselves of the guilt of not pushing for the truth. So many times, they had heard their father and husband say, “Truth crushed to Earth Shall Rise Again.”
And they left this world believing one day it would.
The Rev. Dr. Barbara Reynolds is co-author of the new memoir, Coretta Scott King: My Life, My Love, My Legacy.