Yolanda King, 51; actress, child of civil rights leader

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Times Staff Writer

Yolanda King, an actress, producer and motivational speaker who was the eldest child of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and who turned to the performing arts to carry on her father’s civil rights legacy, has died. She was 51.

King died late Tuesday in Santa Monica, said Steve Klein, a spokesman for the King Center in Atlanta. According to Klein, family members suspected her death may have been caused by a heart problem, but he provided no additional details.

In a statement, the King family called her an “advocate for peace and nonviolence, who was known and loved for her motivational and inspirational contributions to society.”


Cornel West, professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University, said King was “a fine actress and had tremendous style and grace.”

“The legacy of Dr. King is this profound commitment to love and justice.... Yolanda had that same kind of commitment, though manifested as an artist,” West told The Times.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who worked closely with her father, said in a statement that “Yolanda lived with a lot of the trauma of our struggle.... The movement was in her DNA.”

And Charles Steele, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which her father co-founded, told The Times that King had “definitely brought the civil rights movement alive and educated younger generations through her drama.”

In 1968, the 12-year-old Yolanda learned from a television news bulletin that her father had been slain at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.

She felt that as the oldest child she would be thrust into the role as her father’s successor.


“I struggled with a lot of the legacy for a long time, probably actually into my 30s before I really made peace with it,” King said in 2005 on “Western Skies,” a Colorado-based public radio show.

“My father was bigger than life, an entity and everyone expected us, as his offspring, to be saintettes, these little carbon copies,” King told the New York Daily News in 1996. “They’re pleasantly surprised that I’m just really down-to-earth, open.”

When the first national holiday honoring her father was observed in 1986, she later told People magazine that she asked herself: “What is it that you really want to do in your life?”

She answered by diving back into acting and becoming a motivational speaker.

As she noted in a 1985 speech at City University of New York, she wanted to remind young African Americans that “the civil rights movement was not a mirage.... It was live and in living color.”

Yolanda Denise King, nicknamed Yoki, was born Nov. 17, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., two weeks before Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white man, which led to the Montgomery bus boycott spearheaded by Martin Luther King.

The King family home was bombed when she was 10 weeks old while her father was at a boycott rally. She and her mother escaped injury when a device exploded on the front porch.


King was 7 when her father delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 march on Washington and expressed his hope “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

At 8, she enrolled in what was then the only integrated drama school in Atlanta, run by Walt Roberts, father of actress Julia Roberts.

Her first major stage appearance was in “The Owl and the Pussycat” in Atlanta in 1971, and it caused a stir in Atlanta because she kissed a white man.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in theater and African American studies at Smith College and followed it with a master’s in theater from New York University in 1979.

King found she could participate in the civil rights movement through her acting “and be fully myself at the same time,” she said in the 2005 interview on radio.

At a photo shoot, she met Atallah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, and discovered a shared passion for theater and social consciousness.


They co-founded the Nucleus theater group and presented inspirational plays at schools and colleges throughout the 1980s.

A decade later, King founded Higher Ground Productions, a Culver City-based company. Its first project was “Tracks,” a one-woman multimedia show in which King played 16 characters who interact with her father. The show toured the country for four years.

In another production, “Achieving the Dream,” King also portrayed characters from the civil rights movement, including a girl who rides a desegregated bus for the first time and an activist who witnesses King’s assassination.

On television and in the movies, King also chose dramatic roles drawn from key moments in the civil rights movement.

In the 1978 NBC miniseries “King,” she portrayed Parks. On the big screen, she played Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X, in “Death of a Prophet” (1981) and the daughter of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in “Ghosts of Mississippi” (1996).

As she found her dramatic voice, she found herself.

“I don’t worry about being a successor to my father anymore,” King told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1995. “Somebody has always wanted me to speak as a voice of black America, but it has dawned on me that I can only speak for myself.... I was trying to be all things to all people. But I’m through with that now. I’m just me.”


Her mother died Jan. 30, 2006. She is survived by a sister, Bernice A. King, and two brothers, Martin Luther King III and Dexter Scott King.

Services are pending.


Times staff writer Jocelyn Y. Stewart contributed to this report.