Home Interviews Interview With The Great Dexter King
Interview With The Great Dexter King PDF Print E-mail
Written by Kam Williams   
Tuesday, 19 April 2011 14:55


Black America was plunged into mourning on April 4th in 1968, the day that Reverend Martin Luther King was felled by an assassin's bullet. Afterall, Dr. King, as the eloquent spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement, had embraced non-violent resistance to embarrass The South into ending its state-mandated, Jim Crow system of segregation. If not for his genius and selfless leadership, this country, most likely, would yet, to this day, have a strictly-enforced social code relegating African-Americans to second-class status, with separate seating on buses, separate water fountains, and so forth.

Freedom of Information Act documents prove that freeing his people from such an effective system of subjugation and exploitation was absolutely infuriating to many people in positions of power. So, Martin was wise enough to understand that he would probably have to pay with his life for so effectively speaking the truth. And the excerpt above from his final speech indicates that he knew when the end was imminent. And as awful as his loss was for his followers, it still paled in comparison to the grief visited upon his widow, Coretta Scott King, and their four very young children.  One of his sons, Dexter, has just published Growing Up King, An Intimate Memoir and he was gracious enough to spend some time with me, talking about his life, his mother, his siblings, and, of course, his martyred father.  [This interview was conducted in 2004].

Kam Williams talks to Dexter King:

KW: What's your best memory of your father?

DK: "I would say when, as a child, we were playing together. But he was so fun-loving that he actually seemed more like a playmate than a father. In private, he was almost the opposite of how he was in public. He was so serious in public that with his children it was like letting his hair down. He really sought refuge in his family. And I just remember all of these fun times. There were not a lot of them, quantity-wise, but the quality of that family time was always special."

KW: A passage in the book that I found particularly touching was where you talked about having panic attacks and how hard it was for you after your father passed. Would you mind elaborating on that?

DK: "Sure, I think that for the longest time after his death, I was still holding on to him. And it was like a dream. So, I was really in a dream-like state, during that period, thinking that he was still with us. I don't think that I wanted to let him go, so I would have him in my dreams, only to be awakened and realize that he was not alive. That it had been a dream. Certainly that saddened me and I didn't quite know how to react during that long period when I was dreaming and holding on to him."

KW: Were you and your sisters and your brother very close at that time?

DK: "Yes, we were."

KW:  Were any of your father's friends from The Movement or other male figures supportive of you kids during this difficult period?

DK: "Yes, Andrew Young was very close, almost a surrogate father. My grandfaher picked up a lot of that, as well. My uncle, my father's brother, shared that role, too, immediately, but only for a very short time, because he also died, just a little more than a year after my father. So, it was a very traumatic period, because there were people close by, but there was still this sense of tragedy. We didn't dwell on it, we really did try to get on with our lives, but there was no getting around the fact that these tragedies had occurred, and not only my father and uncle, but then my grandmother, who I was very close to. All this occurred in a relatively very short period of time when the three people closest to me, other than my mother, were taken away. For me, that was very difficult, and I didn't understand, particularly with my grandmother's death, because of the way she was killed in the Church sanctuary. So, having grown up with that string of tragedies, it was important to have that grounding of family."

KW: By the way, I actually met your mother once, many years ago, at a dinner here in Princeton at the governor's mansion. She was very kind and charming and intelligent in person. But I wonder whether, as a result of all that misfortune, she was very overprotective of her children. 

DK: "Actually, she wasn't. She would take us along to events, and we got a lot of exposure, and I'm so thankful for that."

KW: But did you feel ignored or that you had to share your mother with the world?

DK: "I would say that she was very accessible, even though she was very busy. She let everyone on her staff understand that we were always #1, no matter what she was doing. We had total access, and she would drop everything to make herself available. And because of that, we knew that we were a priority, and that helped us, in fact, to do what we needed to do as kids."

KW: Was it hard having to grieve and grow up in the public eye?

DK: "I think in retrospect, yes. But at the time, I don't know that we were conscious of it. We were just going with the flow, so to speak. Personally, I probably only realized in my mid to late 20s all the expectations and pressures that had been placed on us. I had been dealing with so much that frankly, at some points, I was confused, particularly in my adolescence, that very important period of your life when you want to be accepted by your peers and to be a part of everything. No matter how much I tried to fit in, I always was treated differently. And that confused me, because my parents endeavored to normalize our upbringing. They often told us that we were no different from anyone else, and yet people treated us differently. So, it was confusing, at times."

KW: So I guess you got a combination of a certain sympathy for having lost your father and a certain reverence as a celebrity.

DK: "Exactly. It was that, and then some. Because you have to add the moral imperative that my father had established. That expectation just made it that much more difficult."

KW: Yes, it must be hard trying to live up to being the son of a martyr who has set a very high standard. You're expected to behave like that perfect child and you never get a chance to grow up like an ordinary kid, especially when you look so much like your father as you grow into adulthood.

DK: "Exactly. It's like you're not allowed to make mistakes or go through the normal growth process. That was always difficult. In the end, because of my personality, I did not allow that external pressure to deter me. I still did what I had to do and stayed strong, resolute and determined to overcome whatever adversity I encountered. It hasn't been easy, but I'm grateful for my strong spiritual foundation and that my parents were so nurturing, allowing me to experiment."                

KW: Reverend Ralph Abernathy was very close to your father. I've interviewed his daughter, Donzaleigh, who has developed her own independent personality and enjoyed a successful career as an actress. And you were roommates with her brother for a while. Did it help to have someone nearby who was seemingly saddled by a similar set of circumstances?

DK: "Yes, it helped, especially at the juncture in my life when I was still exploring and unsure of which direction I would take. But of prime importance was the fact that my mother was so incredibly supportive of all our efforts. For instance, since you mentioned Donzaleigh, my sister, Yolanda, is a professional actress, also. She studied acting all of her life, yet, she has had difficulty getting certain roles because some people might feel that they weren't appropriate for Dr. King's daughter. Yet my mom was always supportive, even when she portrayed a prostitute in a production of The Owl and the Pussycat. She was always such a cool mom, because she never caved into public pressure, always remaining supportive of my sister's growth and art and talent, even though there were those people who were offended and trying to stop it. To this day, that's the thing that sustains me, because with her support, I don't worry about what everybody else thinks."      

KW: Is there anything you forgot to say in your book, that you'd like everyone to know about you?

DK: "I honestly think I covered it all pretty well. But the only little point I would add is that it's important to remember that my father achieved such a high level of greatness in such a short period of time, that most of the accolades bestowed upon him will only be fully appreciated generations later. It's only natural that people will try to judge us by that standard, but the truth is, that there really wasn't been a blueprint for what to do. So, I've always asked people to put it into perspective to try to understand that we've just done the best we could with whatever resources we've had available."

-------------------------------------------------------------------------


"We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord". 

Dr. King's last speech, delivered the night before his murder--

"In terms of the black/white so-called race relations, Atlanta has always been just smart enough to be smarter than most. I don't know if it's because of what happened during the Civil War, General Sherman burning it down. Since then Atlanta had the sense to recognize it needs to be peaceful, though there have been lynchings of Blacks and bombings of Jewish synagogues here and there; there have also been efforts to stem the tide of hatred by being civil in that southern, intimate way, by being 'down home.' The raw, murderous violence of Alabama and Mississippi didn't seem to cloak Atlanta. But in my youth, it was rigidly, bitterly segregated. As children, we didn't know we were 'Negroes,' or if we did, we didn't know exactly what that meant. We didn't realized we lived in 'segregation,' didn't know there were better pools than the one we crowded into at the Y... we weren't aware that we could and would be turned away from public accommodations. We weren't aware that we were shunned by society, murdered over mere glances, made to feel less than human. We were children, but sooner or later we'd grow up and have to face the prison of segregation, unless Daddy won his struggle."

--excerpt from Chapter 1, Growing Up King--

Growing Up King:

An Intimate Memoir

by Dexter Scott King

with Ralph Wiley

Warner Books

312 pp., illus.

ISBN-10: 9780446692373

ISBN-13: 978-0446692373

This book is available on www.amazon.com or .ca or www.barnesandnoble.com

 

About the author of this article:  Kam Williams is a syndicated film and book critic who writes for 100+ publications around the U.S., Europe, Asia, Africa, Canada and the Caribbean.  He pens for www.eurweb.com, www.afrotoronto.com and so on.  He is also a columnist for www.megadiversities.com.  Some of Williams’ articles are translated into Chinese.  In 2008, he was voted most Oustanding Journalist of the Decade by the Disilgold Soul literary Review.  Williams is an erudite jurist who hold a J.D from Boston University, an MA in English from Brown University, an M.B.A. from The Wharton School.  Kam Williams can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .