Yolanda King, 51, Actor and Dr. King’s Daughter, Dies
Yolanda King, the eldest child of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who melded her father’s message of racial equality and nonviolence with her own calling as an actor and a motivational speaker, died on Tuesday in Santa Monica, Calif. She was 51.
Steve Klein, a spokesman for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, said the cause of death had not been determined but seemed related to cardiopulmonary problems.
Ms. King was meeting her brother Dexter King at a friend’s home when she collapsed and died.
Yolanda Denise King, who was born on Nov. 17, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., lived virtually her entire life in the maelstrom of the civil rights revolution that her father and mother, Coretta Scott King, helped lead. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, and Mrs. King died last year.
Besides her brother Dexter Scott King, Yolanda King is survived by another brother, Martin Luther King III, and her sister, the Rev. Bernice King.
Yolanda King wrote and produced plays; gave speeches to groups that included elementary schoolchildren and Fortune 500 corporations; and acted in commercial movies. With Elodia Tate, she edited a motivational book emphasizing the importance of diversity. Ms. King’s consistent goal was to infect her work, including her films, with her family’s deeper purposes.
She portrayed Rosa Parks, who sparked the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her bus seat in a miniseries, “King” (1978), and Betty Shabazz, the wife of Malcolm X, in “Death of a Prophet” (1981).
In 1999, she acted in “Selma, Lord, Selma,” about the civil rights march, and in 1996 appeared in “Ghosts of Mississippi,” about efforts to track down the killer of Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader.
She founded a dramatic group with Atallah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X, the slain civil rights leader, and started a theatrical production company, Higher Ground Productions, dedicated to what she called personal empowerment. She was also on the board of the King Center.
In a statement, Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia and a veteran of the civil rights movement, said that being Dr. King’s daughter was to carry an extra burden.
It began on Jan. 30, 1956, when Yolanda, nicknamed Yoki, was 2 months old and the family’s house was bombed in the Montgomery bus boycott.
In 1958, Dr. King narrowly escaped death when he was stabbed in a bookstore in Harlem. To Yolanda, it seemed as if adults naturally went to jail occasionally, because all those she knew seemed to do that.
Her deepest memories were the love of her father, who taught her to swim and playfully pummeled her but never spanked her. She called him “my first buddy,” saying, “I was tremendously loved.”
Ms. King was 12 on April 4, 1968, when she heard a news bulletin on television saying her father had been assassinated in Memphis. Four days later, she and her brothers accompanied their mother to appear at Memphis City Hall. Mrs. King said the children attended because they wanted to.
The next year, Ms. King’s uncle A. D. King, her father’s sole brother, accidentally drowned. In 1974, an apparent madman fired a gun in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and killed her grandmother Alberta Williams King.
Yolanda King learned about racial discrimination at 3 or 4 when she was barred from an amusement park. She was one of the first black children at a previously segregated elementary school in Atlanta, where she endured racial epithets. In high school, she was president of her sophomore and junior classes and vice president of her senior class.
She wrote her first play at 8, and her mother sent her to acting school the next year. Her decision in 1971 to play a prostitute in a school production of Bill Manhoff’s “Owl and the Pussycat,” which involved kissing a white man, scandalized the white and black communities. Her paternal grandfather, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., refused to attend, but her mother supported her.
Ms. King graduated from Smith College and earned a master of fine arts degree from New York University. She then toured the country with the Christian Theater Artist Company, which she helped found.
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun in 1998, Ms. King said acting had liberated her, not least the parts unrelated to her family history.
“In life,” she said, “I had to be prim and proper and poised — the King daughter. But acting, I could be zany, silly, sometimes the foolish person that I am. I could let the rough edges show.”