King, Dexter 1961—
Dexter King 1961—
Estate executor, activist
Early in 1995, Dexter King succeeded his mother, Coretta Scott King, as director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia. The youngest son of Martin Luther King, Jr., Dexter King is expected to use his youth and enthusiasm to transmit his father’s message to new generations of Americans. King is accustomed to living his life in the glare of the celebrity spotlight, though that prospect does not entirely appeal to him. Atlanta Constitution staff writer John Blake called him “the least known, the most enigmatic member of a family that lives in the public eye.”
Through his office at the King Center, the son of the slain civil rights leader expects to court fame not for himself but rather for his father and the goals and methods he used to advance the cause of black Americans. “I’m not trying to change the world,” King, declared in the Atlanta Constitution. “I’m not trying to be another Martin Luther King Jr. This is a legacy that has been passed on to me.”
Few, if any, living Americans have a family legacy greater than that of Dexter King. His father is the only twentieth-century American whose birthday has been declared a national holiday, the youngest man ever to win a Nobel Peace Prize, and the figure most closely associated with the enormous and often dangerous civil rights movement in the American South. By the time Dexter was born, Martin Luther King, Jr., was an internationally known figure; by the time Dexter was eight, his father was dead, the target of an assassin.
Some observers have argued that when Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed, his children were suddenly deprived of their childhoods and were required by public pressure to assume the mantle of King leadership. It is a burden Dexter King and his three siblings have borne with dignity and resolve. “My father’s legacy was born out of tragedy,” King told People magazine. “I didn’t ask for it, and I didn’t create it, but I’m part of it. It’s my responsibility too.”
Dexter Scott King was born in 1961 in Atlanta, Georgia. At the time, his father was co-pastor of the Ebenezer
At a Glance…
Born Dexter Scott King in 1961 in Atlanta, GA; son of Martin Luther King, Jr. (a minister and social activist) and Coretta Scott King (a social activist). Education: Attended Morehouse College, 1979–81. Religion: Baptist.
Corrections officer in Atlanta, GA, c. 1981–83; business consultant, music producer, and music promoter, 1983–89; Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Atlanta, entertainment coordinator, 1988–89, president, 1989 (resigned, 1989), chairman and chief executive officer, 1995—. Manager, King Estate.
Addresses: Home —Atlanta, GA. Office—Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc., 449 Auburn Ave. N.E., Atlanta, GA 30312.
Baptist Church in Atlanta and—more importantly—a founder and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group dedicated to bringing needed social change by nonviolent means. Martin Luther King, Jr., was already known around the world as one of the organizers of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that led to integration of public facilities in that Alabama city. He was also highly visible at peaceful demonstrations against segregation and rallies highlighting issues as varied as union representation for factory workers, poverty initiatives by the federal government, and even opposition to the Vietnam War. In fact, Martin Luther King, Jr., first met his youngest son while he was in jail, having been arrested during a sit-in (in which demonstrators occupy the floor of an establishment as a means of organized protest, frequently sitting and refusing to be moved).
Dexter’s mother, Coretta Scott King, was also heavily involved in the civil rights movement. Family life in the King household was therefore unconventional, and Dexter learned early that sacrifices were often required of those who served the public. Reflecting on his mother, who was a musician and singer, Dexter recalled in the New York Times, “She was caught up in this whirlwind of activity from day one and had to put her dreams on hold. So naturally, growing up in that environment, I’m looking and watching and asking, ’If I am going to follow in my father’s and my mother’s footsteps, does that mean that I have to give up my other interests?’”
Not surprisingly, demands on Dexter’s parents kept one or both of them away from home frequently. Nevertheless, the son reminisced in People about his father’s teaching him to swim at the local Young Men’s Christian Association, riding bikes with him on rare days off, and catching him when he leaped from atop the refrigerator.
Dexter prefers not to dwell on the more difficult aspects of being a child in the King family—the constant death threats and attempts on his father’s life, the prying by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents in search of Communist ties to Dr. King, and the hatred and brutality his parents faced at some of their civil rights demonstrations. The fears he had for his father’s safety were realized on April 4, 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated by a lone gunman while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination was one of the darkest days in a turbulent era. Newspapers across the nation ran photographs of the grieving family, including one of Dexter being comforted by the vice president of the United States, Hubert Humphrey. The family had lost a father, and the nation a powerful leader, but Coretta Scott King was determined that her husband’s message would not die with him. In the months and years to come, she stepped into Dr. King’s shoes and worked hard to achieve his goals. One of her projects became the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. She began working on the concept in the late 1960s, and, by 1977, had raised enough funds to erect a building and employ a staff. The Center’s annual budget is in the neighborhood of $5 million, and its programs include conflict-resolution education for youngsters, leadership training, organization of peaceful protests on social issues, and sponsoring guest lectures and guest researchers.
Former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young told People that in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination, “there was an expectation that the two boys would automatically become leaders. They were never again allowed to be children.” The issue of how best to promote Dr. King’s legacy has certainly been central to all of his children—Dexter’s sister Bernice once called it “the whole King thing”—but in Dexter’s case he never lost touch with his need for self-determination. “I’m really a behind-the-scenes person,” the younger King admitted in the Atlanta Constitution. “I’m not of the same ilk in terms of my father. I don’t rush to be out in front of the crowd or in front of the cameras. That’s not me.”
Keeping in touch with his own needs, but conscious at the same time that his name made him special, Dexter graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in 1979, and turning down an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California, attended his father’s alma mater, Morehouse College. But he dropped out of college before graduation and took a job with the Atlanta corrections department. There, not for the first time, he found himself the subject of unusual scrutiny. “It was very difficult for people to treat me as a normal person,” he recollected in People. “It was like, ’Why is he here?’ It taught me that I was going to have to be self-determining.”
In 1985 King and a Morehouse friend named Phillip M. Jones produced a music video in celebration of the first nationally recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The video led to a full-length album in memory of Dr. King that featured performances by pop singers Prince and Whitney Houston, among others. King and Jones then formed a music promotions company, Visionary Development Corporation, working with local talent and arranging for musical entertainments at the King Center. King found that working with musicians appealed to his creative nature, but he also discovered that he enjoyed administrative work—the “behind-the-scenes” business activities that suited his more retiring personality.
Because he remained associated with the King Center, Dexter King worked with his mother as a consultant on important King Center business. He also helped her to administer the King Estate, a private corporation that controls the rights to Martin Luther King Jr. ’s words and images. In 1989 King was named president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, while his mother remained chief executive officer. The announcement received much publicity, but Dexter King’s tenure as president of the Center was brief. After only four months he stepped down, giving little explanation for his decision at the time. More recently he explained in the Atlanta Constitution, “I had the title, but I really didn’t have the authority. Everything I did had to be done in consultation with the CEO. I couldn’t just say, “This is what I want to do.”’
King did not leave the Center entirely, however; he remained on its staff as head of the special events office, and he continued to work in the music promotion business as well. When his mother decided to retire as chief executive officer of the King Center in 1994, she approached him again, this time with assurances that he would have the independence he needed to make decisions and implement them himself. Thus, in November of 1994, the board of directors of the King Center unanimously voted for Dexter King as the Center’s new director and CEO. He assumed his position in January of 1995.
Major challenges awaited Dexter King at the Martin Luther King Center. Although the Center has an endowment fund and its trustees and staff are involved in raising money through private donations, the Center has run a deficit since 1993. Of more immediate concern to King, however, is the creation of exhibitions and programs that will introduce Dr. King and the full range of his activities to young people who were not born when he was still alive. Dexter King’s dream, he told the New York Times, is to “repackage” his father’s words and images in multimedia exhibits using new technologies like interactive computer programs and virtual reality.
King foresees a new civil rights museum near the Martin Luther King memorial sites that would offer a study of the civil rights movement geared toward visitors in the twenty-first century. “The words are timeless, the concept is timeless, but today you need a new spin on it, a new angle to make it fresh and exciting,” King enthused in the New York Times. “And that’s where the museum comes in. But it is going to be more than a museum. It’s going to be an attraction, and I don’t think that is a bad word.”
Unfortunately, King’s ambitions have put him at odds with the National Park Service, which oversees part of the historic district in which the King Center is located. Late in 1994 the Park Service announced plans to erect an $11 million visitors center to accommodate the estimated three million tourists who come to see Dr. King’s birthplace and the Ebenezer Baptist Church every year. The Park Service had chosen to locate its visitors center on a site that the King family had eyed for their museum. As construction began on the visitors center, the King family announced that it would close Dr. King’s birthplace to Park Service tours and re-open it with tour guides hired by the King Center.
The controversy over who should control Dr. King’s legacy and how it is presented to the public spilled over into the newspapers. One Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial writer called Dexter King’s museum idea “a sort of ’I Have a Dreamland,’ to make a profit from a Disneyesque [amusement park] trip through the civil rights movement.” In a retort published in the Chicago Tribune, King faulted the National Park Service for trying to “annex this area to control the dissemination of history,” adding, “Our history has always been diluted. We can tell our history. We know best.”
At issue, according to King, was the important question of who will set the tone for how Dr. King and his movement will be viewed in the next century and beyond. Dexter King and his family feel that they should be primary stewards of this history, not the National Park Service, though the family has yet to complete financial arrangements for their plans. King noted in the New York Times, “We feel strongly that the heritage of the civil rights movement is too important to be controlled by a government agency that has only superficial familiarity with the internal dynamics of our freedom struggle.” He argued that his family’s idea for a nonprofit, high-tech museum would preserve the principle “that the history of the civil rights movement and the legacy of Dr. King shall forever remain in the care and custody of the King family.” The dispute between the Park Service and the center was resolved in April of 1995.
In past years, the King Center also staged what came to be known as the Kingfest, a free neighborhood event for the people of Atlanta. In the 14th year of the center’s existence, the Kingfest had to be cancelled. It was hoped that eventually, as the center’s monetary situation improved, the festival would be revived.
A vegetarian, and as of yet, unmarried, Dexter King lives in Atlanta. His three siblings also live in the city—older brother Martin Luther King, III, is a Fulton County politician, sister Yolanda King is an actress and college professor, and sister Bernice King is a Baptist minister. All of the children of Dr. King have learned profound lessons from their parents’ lives and accomplishments. Dexter King concluded in the New York Times, “It may sound corny, but I’m very much led in a spiritual way. I have found that my life is not always my life. I believe my father was pulled into certain situations, and I somewhat feel the same way.”
Atlanta Constitution, July 4,1991, p. 1F; January 16, 1994, p. 5D; November 20, 1994, p. 1G; December 20, 1994, p. 19A; January 8, 1995, p. 8D; February 11, 1995, p. 5C.
Atlanta Journal, January 5, 1995, p. 1C.
Chicago Tribune, December 29, 1994, p. 4.
Black Enterprise, April 1989, p. 20.
Ebony, June 1995, p. 101.
Jet, April 24, 1989, p. 6; November 7, 1994, p. 5.
New York Times, November 26, 1994, p. 7; January 16, 1995, p. 10A.
People, November 21, 1994, p. 123.
Time, January 16, 1995, p. 37.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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