Bernice King

By Mandy Wang

Bernice Albertine King carried on her family’s legacy by advancing the Kingian philosophy of nonviolent social change. She is an African-American minister, author, and CEO of the King Center.

Born on March 28, 1963, in Atlanta, Georgia, King was the youngest child of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. Growing up, she dealt with many obstacles, including the losses of her father at age five, her uncle at age six, and her grandmother at age 11. Bernice graduated from Douglass High School in 1981 and went on to Spelman College in 1985 to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a Doctorate of Law and Master’s of Divinity from Emory University in 1990. Later on, she also received an honorary Doctorate of Divinity degree from Wesley College. To honor her mother, Coretta Scott King, Bernice returned to Spelman College to announce the establishment of the Be A King Scholarship.

At the age of 17, King was inducted into the church and shared a love for it as her father had when he was young; she was the only child in the King family to take up ministry as a profession. In 1988, Bernice preached a trial sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had served as pastors. In 1990, she was ordained as senior pastor of the Greater Rising Star Baptist Church in Cascade, Georgia, after assisting at the pulpit in Ebenezer Baptist Church for many years. Later on, she served as an elder pastor at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia. With all of her success at a fairly young age, she published a collection of her addresses the year after, titled, “Hard Questions, Heart Answers: Sermons and Speeches.” She also published a book in 2003 named “The Father I Never Knew.” The book discusses the emotional events and trauma that Bernice King felt after her father’s death, which then led her on a journey toward personal fulfillment and continuing her father’s legacy.

Around the same time King was inducted into church, King developed an interest in the ministry profession and began her oratorical journey. At 17 years old, she delivered her first speech, which was about the apartheid–when she spoke in place of her mother, who for an unexplained reason could not be present, for the United Nations in New York and advocated against South African apartheid. As a result of this speech, in 1985 and 1986, Bernice King continually advocated against apartheid and was even arrested for doing so. The United Nations speech she delivered made Bernice realize her oratorical skills. Over the years, she has spoken at famous locations including the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, major corporations and universities, and in other nations throughout the world, some being South Africa, Germany, and New Zealand.

King had a close relationship with her mother, Coretta Scott King, who was her favorite person. They attended events like the national Hands Across America homeless awareness event together. Because her mother was always busy running the King Center, one of the most visited places in Atlanta and traveled to do nonviolence workshops, King felt like she fell under a shadow and would always be known as Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter. However, after the death of her mother, King recalls that she felt like she had been rebirthed and in that moment she was called to greatness to be her best self and continue her family’s legacy.

After the death of Coretta Scott King on January 30th, 2006, King coordinated the nationally televised funeral, which took place on February 7th, 2006, in Lithonia, Georgia. Four former presidents attended the funeral, George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter. Well-known and respected individuals, including Maya Angelou, also attended the ceremony. This moment determined Bernice as the public face of her family, just as her mother had been decades ago when her father, Martin Luther King Jr., died.

When King wasn’t crafting speeches or working as a minister, she was being featured in television shows and magazines, including the Atlanta Magazine and television show King. She has earned many awards and accolades, with one of them being the “Commitment to Community Award,” handed out by the Georgia Alliance of African American Attorneys, an award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women Convention, the Legend Award, and a title as one of the Ten of Tomorrow future leaders of the black community.

In April 2008, she was one of the 15 chosen delegates to meet Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the United States. Ten years later, on March 12, 2018, she received the honor of privately meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican. At the same time, she was being honored by the Center of Gandhi in Monteleone di Puglia and was given an award for her work and commitment to nonviolence and peace. Also, in 1995, she attended the inauguration of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

In January 2012, King was chosen to be the chief executive officer of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, also known as the King Center. This position was the same as her mother, Coretta Scott King, had. Most of the King Center’s programs had been discontinued and the buildings were in disrepair after Coretta Scott’s death. However, with her dedication to bringing the King Center back to life, Bernice King was able to upgrade and repair facilities, reconnect with the Park Service, organize the Center’s social media and website, and digitize its one-million document archive with the partnership of JPMorgan Chase. To carry on her parent’s legacy, King rebranded the Kingian philosophy of ‘Nonviolence’ as ‘Nonviolence365.’ With Nonviolence365, she educates youth and adults about the nonviolent practices demonstrated by her parents. Later on that year, Bernice implemented other educational programs, one of them being the N.O.W Encounter Summer Camp, which aims to engage youth on an international level, from New Mexico, United States to the Island of Cyprus. Outside of the King Center, King also taught a class on race relations at Mississippi College, located in Jackson, Mississippi. She also taught a year-long leadership development class at the same college.

Even though King made it one of her goals to educate younger generations on nonviolent practices, she also organized celebrations and commemorations. From August 22nd to August 28th, 2013, King organized the ‘Let Freedom Ring and Call to Action’ event to commemorate both the 50th Anniversary of March in Washington and her father’s well-known ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Among the people who attended the event were former presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, and members of Congress, and other international leaders. At the event, former President Obama made a speech reflecting the Civil Rights Movement and commemorated Dr. King’s speech as well as the 1963 March on Washington. It was held at the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his speech.

To initiate courageous conversations about difficult racial issues that affect communities around the world, Bernice launched the Beloved Community Talks in 2015, during the King Holiday Observance. The podcast is virtual and aims to have open conversations that are truthful, civil, and useful in promoting understanding among various groups of people, including police officers, politicians, and students. One of the first talks, released on May 11th, 2021, was named “Reimagining Public Safety in America.” The episode discussed the death of George Floyd and the rage from the public about abolishing and defunding the police forces. It had conversations about what reimagining policing and public safety would look like.

Currently, Dr. King is a member of the State Bar of Georgia and a trained mediator. She is also a member of the International Women’s Forum and National Council of Negro Women. Additionally, Bernice is a co-founder of Active Ministers Engaged in Nurturing (AMEN) and is part of the Chair of the National Advisory Committee on National King Week College, and the University Student Conference on Kingian Nonviolence. King has spread the Kingian philosophy, educated younger generations on it, and carried on her parents’ legacy. Bernice King has three other siblings, all of whom are activists as well and took on their parents’ legacy. Although she is not close with all of them, and her sister Yolanda passed away from heart disease in 2007, she continues to strive to make changes with the King Center.

Why Did I Choose to Research Bernice King?

I chose to research Bernice Albertine King because I got to take one of her Nonviolence365 courses. She reached out to my school’s club, PARU, which grabbed the nation’s attention after removing the book ban that our school had previously tried to enforce. Getting Dr. King’s support was very exciting and invigorating. After our club’s contact with Dr. King, I wanted to know more about her work and the impact she has made on our society. The Kingian philosophy that King often talks about is a unique approach to social change, one that incorporates kindness and respect. Overall, I found it fascinating how King followed her parents’ footsteps yet incorporated her own ideas into their family’s work, such as establishing educational programs for younger generations around the world to learn about the Kingian philosophy.

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This article was published on 1/20/24