April 10, 2014, The Driskill, Austin, Texas
One day after she was born, Bernice King bade farewell to her father—in so far as one can say goodbye at that stage of the game. Her dad had to go back to Birmingham for an epic showdown in civil rights, the turning point of the whole movement.
The day she turned five months old, her father was not around to celebrate. He had some responsibilities in front of the Lincoln Memorial. To his credit, though, he did make reference to her: “I have a dream 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.”
Bernice never had much of a chance to develop a deep relationship with her dad. He was taken way too soon from all of us, but perhaps most acutely from her—the youngest of his children. On that awful day in Memphis, she was just five years and one week old.
Yesterday at the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, I had the distinct honor of moderating a 75-minute discussion with Dr. Bernice King and the distinguished Mr. Julian Bond, one of the great civil rights icons of our time.
Dr. King is the CEO of the King Center in Atlanta. She is a minister. She is a lawyer. She is a force in her own right.
I found her to be a deeply reflective person, truly willing to engage in conversation at the heart level. She was tough, charming, funny, clearly committed to education and nonviolence, and not surprisingly very well spoken. The eloquence did not fall very far from the tree.
Here is one sample, in response to my question about the blessings and burdens of growing up as a child of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
“Wow. Well, starting out with the blessings. Certainly the opportunity to be connected to great parents who made tremendous contributions to our world has afforded me the opportunity to go to a lot of different places and have doors open to me that probably would not have been opened to me—I think that is perhaps one of the biggest blessings….
“On the burden side, it’s a fact that all of us have parents, and typically kids are judged by their parents. And so the biggest burden is that I have parents who have done things that impact the entire world. Most times you expect your children to go further. I would say that is going to be impossible, as far as I can see. And it bothers me a lot because, you know, I’m normal. I want to be able to do things that were greater than my parents. But I’m also realistic. And so I do what my mother taught me, and my siblings, which is to be my best self and do my best in all circumstances. So that ‘Great Expectation’ is perhaps one of the greatest burdens.”
Day 2 was an extraordinary day at the CRS. I attended panel discussions that were consistently inspirational.
The first one dealt with the relationship between MLK and President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The panelists included legendary historians Taylor Branch and Doris Kearns Goodwin, as well as Ambassador Andrew Young (one of MLK’s closest friends and colleagues), and Joe Califano, LBJ’s top domestic aide. Todd Purdum, the author of a wonderful book that was just released about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was the moderator. Here is a snippet from Doris Kearns Goodwin on LBJ’s contribution to civil rights:
“I think that tension between a social movement pushing at a president is the best moment in our American history. The Progressive Movement pushed at Teddy Roosevelt. The abolitionists pushed at Abraham Lincoln. And the Civil Rights Movement pushed at Kennedy and Johnson. That’s where change takes place: the Women’s Movement, the Environmental Movement, the Abolitionist Movement, the Civil Rights Movement. And you need, however, a president is open to that. I think that even though JFK had started to be open to it after that March [on Washington], what you needed was somebody who was going to put it at the top of his agenda. And that’s what LBJ did.”
The second panel, narrated by famed sociologist Harry Edwards, dealt with sports and civil rights. The two panelists were Jim Brown and Bill Russell. Not only are they two of the greatest athletes ever to play their respective sports, they are both civil rights stalwarts—and best friends for many, many years. On a day, coincidentally enough, when UMass’ Derrick Gordon publicly came out as the first only openly gay player in NCAA Div. 1 basketball, the former Boston Celtics’ superstar pondered the question of how he would respond to having a gay teammate.
“I’d have one question,” Russell said. “Can he play?”
The final panel on heroes of the civil rights movement brought Andrew Young back on stage, along with Julian Bond and Congressman John Lewis (the last surviving speaker from the March on Washington). Congressman Lewis grew up in rural Alabama surrounded by what he called “the signs” (e.g. “Whites only,” “Colored only”).
He asked his parents and grandparents about it, and was told, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.”
But in 1955 at the age of 15, he heard about Rosa Parks. He heard the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio. He was transformed. They inspired him, he said, “to find a way to get in the way.” He got into trouble: “Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”
It was a truly incredible day. Unfortunately, Missy and I were not able to get a ticket to hear President Clinton last night. (Instead, we went out to the South Congress Bridge to take in the daily sunset feeding frenzy of the famed Austin bats.)
This morning we will be arriving early to get a good seat to hear President Obama. More later.