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Bernice King Shares Precious Memories of Her Father, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and How Faith Turned Her Heartache to Hope

Bernice King opens up about how a life riddled with loss led her to lean on God

Bernice King’s eyes shone with excitement as her father, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., stood in the doorway of their home, no longer the activist, the reverend, the man in the headlines… but simply a husband and daddy.

Civil Rights activist Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta, daughter Yolanda, 5, and Martin Luther III, 3, sitting together as they play piano
Civil Rights activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta always cherished time with their children, Yolanda, 5 and Martin Luther III, 3

After many days on the road, he was showered his family with giggles, cuddles and a family ritual he’d dubbed “The Kissing Game.” “Where’s Mommy’s sugar spot?” he’d say, as his wife, Coretta, kissed his grinning lips.

Turning to his two sons, he’d ask “Where’s Martin’s and Dexter’s sugar spots?” as the boys beamed, taking turns kissing his cheeks. With shining eyes, he’d then turn to his oldest daughter: “Where’s Yolanda’s sugar spot?” She’d dash into his arms and kiss the side of his mouth. “Where’s Bernice’s sugar spot?” he’d ask his youngest daughter, as she clamored onto his lap to kiss the center of his forehead.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s children Yolanda (8), Bernice (11 months), Martin Luther King III (6), Dexter (3) with their mother Coretta Scott King in February 1964
Yolanda (8), Bernice (11 months), Martin Luther King III (6), Dexter (3) with their mother Coretta Scott King in February 1964

Five turbulent decades later, Bernice still embraces this precious memory of her father. She was just 5 years old when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, and although she had very few memories of him, he still had an incredible impact on her life.

“I remember being at the dinner table and right before Daddy would say a blessing, he’d pick up a long-stemmed green onion and just chew on it like it was a celery stick,” Bernice says with a smile. “When my mother told me that he went to live with God, I asked how Daddy was going to eat. She just hugged me and said, ‘God will take care of it.’”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his I Have a Dream speech in 1963
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a positive influence in his daughter, Bernice’s life as he bravely fought in the Civil Rights Movement’s March in DC in 1963Getty

With a childlike faith, that had seemed like enough — but as Bernice got older and experienced more loss and despair, she began to question everything.

Here, she shares her story and how she discovered that God does take care of it all.

God finds you in the dark

Bernice’s father’s death was only the first in a long series of heartbreaking losses. A year after MLK was killed, Bernice’s uncle died in a swimming pool. When Bernice was 11, her grandmother was shot and killed in church.

Two years later, Bernice lost her cousin to a heart attack, and went on to endure her grandfather’s, mother’s and older sister’s passings. The notion that God takes care of everything became harder to grasp as rage nudged out Bernice’s faith.

American Civil Rights and religious leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr (1929 - 1968) holds his infant daughter, Yolanda King (1955 - 2007), in his arms, 1956
Bernice was devastated by the loss of so many loved ones including her older sister, Yolanda pictured here with her fatherAfro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

“When I was old enough to question the Lord, I kept asking ‘God, why did You let all of this death happen?’” Bernice recalls. “I felt abandoned by Him and by my daddy, and I would cry out, ‘Why did You leave me?’ speaking of my Heavenly Father, and my earthly father. I felt like God could have stopped all the loss, and I was angry with my dad because he left me.”

MLK's brother, Reverend Alfred Daniel King, his widow Coretta Scott King, and his children Martin Luther King III, Dexter King and Bernice King at the funeral of assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on April 9th 1968
MLK’s brother, Reverend Alfred Daniel King (left), his widow Coretta Scott King (right), and his children Martin Luther King III, Dexter King and Bernice King at his funeral at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on April 9th 1968Photo by Santi Visalli/Archive Photos/Getty Images

By the age of 17, Bernice was filled with bitterness and dabbled in drinking, uninterested in doing anything serious with her life.

“Despite everything, I began to feel an odd calling in my spirit, as if God was drawing me into ministry,” Bernice recalls. “It was difficult and confusing because I felt this strong pull to serve the Lord, but I was still so angry with Him and I didn’t want to give up partying. So instead of following God’s will, I ran from Him for years… so all that pain and sorrow stayed in my heart.”

God always has a plan

Over the next eight years, Bernice was determined to carve out her own path in the world and escape the shadow of her father’s legacy, so she enrolled in law school to try to find her own identity.

But in the second year of the program, she was still emotionally and spiritually struggling and doing so poorly in school that she was put on academic probation.

“I felt so alone and unloved that I tried to find a way to commit suicide,” Bernice admits. “It sounds crazy but there was a moment when I had a knife in my hand trying to figure out how to stab myself but not feel pain. Suddenly, I had an encounter with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit said to me, ‘Put the knife down, people are going to miss you. You have a calling on your life.’ That conversation was like being resurrected out of a deadly state of mind.”

From that point on Bernice says that she completely yielded her life to Christ, and her whole life changed. “I realized if God can do this for me knowing how much pain and fear was in my heart, then nothing is impossible for the Lord,” she says. “God literally saved my life!”

Bernice King speaking at the 2015 Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta
Bernice King onstage at the 2015 Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist ChurchPhoto by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Bernice King spreading God’s love

After surrendering her heart to God’s calling, Bernice went on to graduate with a joint Doctorate of Law and Master of Divinity. Today she is a minister and international speaker and God has led her to follow in her father’s footsteps after all as the CEO of The King Center in Atlanta, which was founded by her mother just two months after her father was assassinated.

She continues to keep the dream alive by shining a light on her parents’ mission through her work at The King Center, while also commemorating them each year with King Holiday Observance events—like a book signing of the new children’s book, Coretta” based off of Mrs. Coretta Scott King’s autobiography, My Life, My Love, My Legacy. She says, “Without #CorettaScottKing, there would be no #MLKDay.”

Bernice with new children's book based off her mother, Coretta's autobiography
Bernice at the book signing for the new children’s book based on her mother’s autobiographyParas Griffin/Getty

“My father taught love and nonviolence, not as a mere tactic but as a way of life,” Bernice says. With a multitude of programs from youth camps preparing young people to be peaceful world leaders to student conferences to single-parent programs to online resources, Bernice believes the key to true unity is by instilling nonviolent education and enriching people’s faith.

Bernice King, 2019Paras Griffin/Griffin

“I dream of one day seeing the peaceful world my father so longed for,” she says. “But it took my own struggle to see God doesn’t give up on us. I was angry for so long, but all I had to do was surrender. He kept chasing me down…and He won!”

Looking back now, Bernice says James 1:2–4 beautifully sums up her journey. “It says, Count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. In other words, God truly takes care of it all.”

This article originally appeared in our sister magazine, Simple Grace.

For more articles on overcoming fear and finding joy, keep reading…

Radio Host Delilah Opens Up About Faith and Losing Three Sons: “I’ll Be With Them Again”

Bible Teacher Joyce Meyer Shares How Overcoming Any Problem Is Easier Than You Think—Here’s The Secret

Dennis Quaid Opens Up About His Faith Journey: “I Was Sitting Too Close to the Devil”

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