Edited and Transcribed by News/Talk Director Tamara Caselin Avila : Interview by John Malkin on Transformation Highway
Image of Yolanda King from Wikimedia Commons
Originally recorded in 2003
John Malkin: My name is John Malkin, and this is Transformation Highway. You’re listening to KZSC Santa Cruz at 88.1 FM broadcasting from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Earlier this week, we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And often, this time of year, I’d like to rebroadcast my interview with Yolanda King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. This interview was originally broadcast on Free Radio Santa Cruz in 2003. You’ll hear Yolanda discuss the efforts she made to establish MLK Day as an official holiday. She also talks about non-violence and spirituality and the US government surveillance that her family endured for generations due to their social-political activism. Yolanda King passed away in 2007. She was an activist, author, actress, and at the time of this interview, she just co-authored a book with Elodia Tate titled “Open my Eyes Open my Soul.” Here now is Martin Luther King Junior’s daughter, Yolanda King.
John Malkin: He recently compiled a book of poems and stories with Alodia Tate, “Open my Eyes, Open my Soul.” And the book emphasizes the common qualities in unity that all human beings share. One of the poems, Human Family by Maya Angelou, says, we are more alike, my friends, than unalike often, though governments and media emphasize our political, religious, or cultural differences and focus on conflict and violence rather than cooperation and love. How can we create a more peaceful world when we are being taught that violence is entertaining and when our political leaders advocate punishment and hatred?
Yolanda King: Well, I certainly think that initiatives such as the one that Elodia Tate and myself have undertaken unnecessary and imperative, in fact, any initiative that can help us to really embrace, first of all, become more aware of our oneness, and then embrace it. What I really love about this particular collection of stories and point is that it really speaks to people from where they really are, it’s, it’s; these are moments in people’s lives that are very special and, and an eye-opening moments that were really really precious to them. And, and that comes through on the page, there are experiences that I think the reader will, can relate to, many readers can relate to because it really chronicles experiences that have happened to everyday people as well as is obviously some special kinds of things, so that people can see from the inside out, or various people going through the incredible and important connection, connecting with someone else or connecting with others can really see that connection taking place and, and how the workings of it and, and so it’s not just a preachy kind of book, but you get a chance to, to actually feel those connections being made people really coming out of themselves and opening up their hearts, their souls, their eyes, to another way, a better way. And so I certainly advocate, obviously, these kinds of initiatives as an artist, and that’s where my focus is I really see myself as an artist communicator. I am always attempting to find creative ways to change people’s hearts to really affect people’s hearts and minds. While it’s imperative, I believe obviously to challenge the forces that would keep people from being able to live the fullest life the forces that prevent people from being the very best that they can be the forces that prevent people from living a decent life, we have to, in order to do that we have to really affect people’s hearts and minds. I think that’s where the struggle is now, today is to change hearts. And so this book is about doing that. And this focus is about doing that.
John Malkin: One of the components of doing that seems to be non-violence, non-violence towards self and towards others. And in my view, it seems that non-violence is often misunderstood as a weak or soft strategy. Yet people like Mahatma Gandhi and your Father Martin Luther King, Jr. said that nonviolent action required great courage. What do you think about this? And how is nonviolence applicable to our modern world?
Yolanda King: Oh, absolutely. You know, a lot of people think nonviolence, they, when they think of it, they really see it as a sort of a wet dish, rag behavior. A form of masochism, to some extent, you know, going around smiling all the time and saying, Hello, have a good day, when in fact, you are angry inside and that’s not non-violence, that that really is masochism. But the kind of non-violence that Gandhi practiced and lived that my father believed in and lived is really it requires even more courage, I think, than what is very easy, which is to respond in a violent in a very destructive way. That is the easy choice. That is the almost effortless choice, that is a choice. It doesn’t require much thinking. It’s just total react with with with non violence. You really, it’s always been interesting to me that people say, well, it’s passive because you’re turning the other cheek. I said, Yes, but you’re turning the other cheek, and you’re showing your best side. And that takes an incredible amount of courage, and discipline. And I think that’s the reason why it’s been difficult for humanity to embrace, because it is the more courageous way to go. And but it is, it is at the absolute most incredibly rewarding when one is able to, to really reach that level of, of living and being and interacting. It is an incredible liberation and freedom.
John Malkin: I wonder what your thoughts are about the current global justice and anti-war movements in the role of nonviolence as a strategy in those movements. Recently, millions of people worldwide engaged in nonviolent protests against another US war on Iraq. And it seemed that the bombing might be stopped. But, in fact, the United States military did attack Iraq and is now occupying that country. How well do you think the global peace movement is incorporating nonviolence in their struggle?
Yolanda King: Well, I was really thrilled to see the utilization of nonviolent strategy, tactics, really nonviolent way of responding to the military. Assault the first the threat and then the actual carrying out of of that threat of military involvement. I think it was so important even though it did not change the course of what would actually happen. But I think it was so important for people for the powers that be as well as the people who were involved even more so to take that kind of stand to involve themselves in that kind of movement in that kind of initiative. It reminds me so much of a story, that man who is told about a man who many, many for many, many years would go out and demonstrate in front of a nuclear arms facility, and many times he was by himself. Sometimes there were few other people with him. Sometimes they would arrest him. Most times, they just left him alone, and somebody He asked him at, at a point, you know, why do you keep doing this? It’s so futile. I mean, you’re not changing a thing. And he said, “Well, perhaps I may not change the world. But I’m going to make sure that the world doesn’t change me.” And I think that’s really well; I was so thrilled to see because I, I felt that people refuse to just give in to a sense of powerlessness, and said, there’s something we can do to say, We don’t care for this. We choose to make another choice, regardless of what you do. We are taking we’re going another way, we’re making another choice. And I just I, I just was, so I was very encouraged by it.
John Malkin: Yolanda, I’m curious about your views on the role of spirituality in social change. Many people seem to feel that they need to choose between spiritual growth or social change. And your Father Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others have intertwine these aspects. What role do you think spirituality plays in social change? And maybe what role do you think it played in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s in the United States?
Yolanda King: Well, it really went hand in hand. With the civil rights movement, there could not have been I don’t believe the success that was realized, nor the tenaciousness with which so many people came together , to move our country to a more sensible or more, more embracing a more inclusive way of being, it would not have occurred if people were not fueled by a tremendous spiritual force and energy. Tremendous amount of, I believe spiritual power was just was really the undergirding of the civil rights movement. My father, needless to say, often talked about the fact that while Gandhi provided the methodology, the nonviolent methodology, it was Jesus Christ, who really showed the way. And it was that focus it was that that the the way of, of refusing to, first of all, believing that, that you had the power within, and that you were that what we were fighting for, what we were striving for, was something that was really God ordained, that came from the very foundations of, of the creation of humanity. It was that sort of belief that, that philosophy that that undergirded and really served as fuel for, for the movement and for so many who participated. And so, it was a wonderful coming together. And I think integration of spiritualism and social change, and really kind of melding the political with the spiritual. And, and, and and it needs to happen today. It’s, unfortunately, not happening as much as it should, it seems to me that they are people more than I would care to see it. They are people in different camps who are saying, well, this is the way you have to be in order to kind of preserve the purity of, of whatever the spiritual journey may be. And then you have, of course, the others who are totally completely activist for change. And it’s important, I think, to bring the two together, I think that’s when we will again see the kind of tremendous growth, tremendous progress, the tremendous leap that took place, as difficult as it was, and that’s not denying that. It was not a very challenging time, but there was a tremendous leap that we made in the 60s as a result of, of that melding of faith and the quest for change.
John Malkin:It seems indeed that it was a very difficult struggle, that nonviolence isn’t necessarily the easy path. And your father was threatened many, many times and imprisoned. And on April 4 1968, he was killed. And you were 12 years old, then it is widely believed that his assassination was part of the counter intelligence program of the FBI and other departments of the United States government. I would like to hear about the history of US government surveillance and interference in your family’s political and religious activities. And your thoughts about who killed your father, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Yolanda King: Ironically enough, we we have found in there has been evidence that has revealed that as far back as my great grandfather, my father’s grandfather, surveillance by the government was taking place. I mean, this was in the 20s. When my grandfather, great grandfather, who was very much involved in the local political scene in Atlanta, at the time, very much. At that time, needless to say, it was it was quite, quite courageous to take a stand even particular, particularly for some of the issues that he was, he was championing. And there have been some documents that have revealed that indeed, during his lifetime, in the 20s, and 30s, that there was actual surveillance going on by the military. And then my grandfather, my father’s father also experienced very similar kinds of experience. And, and when, while it was not as widespread as it became with my father, it’s it just kind of continued. And, of course, with my father’s very direct involvement, it really escalated tremendously. We are convinced that it was because of the efforts and initiatives that my father was taking in the last year, a couple of years of his life, his stand against the war in Vietnam, his work to bring together poor people across racial lines that were were was perceived as a threat. A very direct threat to, to the American Peace, to to the domestic to domestic peace at home. And because so many, so much of the military resources were being poured into our defense resources would be important to the Vietnam War. There was a real fear in among a number of paranoid governmental officials that if indeed, anything happened, domestically, that there would be no way to contain it. And that Martin Luther King Jr. could very well be responsible for things getting out of hand, because of the work that he was doing the last six months of his life, you may be aware he was criss-crossing the country bringing together meeting and organizing bringing together Native Americans working on reservations with Native American organizations and working in the barrios with the Latino and Hispanic organizations working in Appalachia, with poor whites really bringing all of us together helping us to understand the common problems, the economic injustice is, and that was huge. That was that that potential coming together, I think, was perceived as as an incredibly threatening alliance. And, and it’s very much the reason why he had to be stopped
John Malkin: And 15 years after your father was killed, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States at the time signed a bill to create a national holiday commemorating Martin Luther King and his work for peace and justice. Tell me about the signing of that bill by President Reagan. Tell me about that. And also tell me about the effort it took to create this commemorative holiday.
Yolanda King: Yes, I call the signing of the merde, the King Jr. Holiday bill by Rommel President Ronald Reagan, one of the miracles of the 20th century. The fact that this man who clearly disliked my father, and did not believe in many of the initiatives, many of the policies, many of the principles and ideals for which my father was working toward did not, did not honor them, at least. Some of them, I guess, publicly, he might have. He might have embraced but clearly had many philosophical differences with him. The fact that he signed this bill is, oh, it’s still it’s just, it boggles the mind sometimes, and but it just shows that, as my father always said, that the truth quest, the Earth will rise again, that no matter what, you know, you cannot stop, what is what is truth and what is right. And when I look back on it, now, it seems rather that it was not extraordinary, the events and the activity and, and all of the work that went into bringing the holiday into being, it seems now that it really was not a major. Just not a huge major thing, because when you think back on some of how long it’s taken to accomplish, really important significant occurrences in the history of the world, it only took about 10 years. For the holiday to get momentum, and then take off, and it took another 5 years. So it was about 15 years, from beginning to end, to bring the holiday into being a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of effort and energy from both people in government to, to grassroots organizing to Stevie Wonder, to the just incredible lobbying efforts of my mother and others, to just an incredible amount of energy went into it, when you stop and think about it was only 15 years. And, for something is, is totally significant. And really, I mean, it was it was a precedent, it said such a tremendous precedent that I don’t think we’ll ever be surpassed really, I mean, my father currently is the only American that has, has a holiday because now Washington and Lincoln birthdays have now been combined into Presidents Day. And so it’s just it is it’s, it’s, it’s truly extraordinary. And I do remember very well the day, because we went into the Oval Office. And after we had all greeted President Reagan, we all stood there, sort of in this frozen moment of time, nobody quite knew what to say. He certainly didn’t know what to say; it was clear that he was really uncomfortable and sort of just stood there waiting for a queue or waiting for a script or waiting for a line, and sure enough, George Bush, finally, after my mother broke the ice by announcing what a great day and George Bush was the person who responded, not Mr. Reagan. But Mr. Bush, he was the person who said, yes, it is. And he sort of took it from there. And in fact, Mr. Reagan said very little during the course of the time we were there. And then we laughed and went out into the lawn, and he delivered his speech. And he convinced even me that he loved Martin Luther King. He was quite an actor. That’s what I got to see it firsthand. But he’s he was quite the communicator, that’s for sure.
John Malkin: Academy Award performance.
Yolanda King: Oh, yes.
John Malkin: Yolanda King, in September 2003, you were a featured speaker at a world peace conference and 50th birthday celebration for the Indian guru, Mātā Amritānandamayī Devī, also known as Amma; you told a stadium full of people, that women need to rise up as women, not as imitations of men. Tell me more about this idea that women need to rise up as women, not as imitations of men.
Yolanda King: I think all too often because these are the models that we have, as women begin to move in assume positions of power, there’s a tendency to emulate the role models that the only role models that, that we have had, which are men and all too often, it ends up, utilizing the same tactics, the same kind of oftentimes hurtful or harsh and not compassionate tactics, tactics that lack compassion, and that don’t necessarily, I think, convey what women the very unique qualities that women bring to the table. And in, in our rush to, to either climb the ladder or break through the glass ceiling, or to be accepted at the table as equals, and and it’s imperative that we hold on to those things, those qualities, that do make us special and make us unique, mean the fact that we are more feeling or more feeling people is I think of value, it is not something to be thrown out, it is something that is really important that the intuition, the sense of, of compassion, of caring, of nurturing, that, that is so much a part of the feminine aspect is so vitally needed in the political space in the corporate arena, that’s what’s needed. I think, in fact, if there were had, if there had been more of that, in the, in the history of the world, and the and the making and the creation of, of our societies, I think if they had been more feminine influenced, then we’d have a very different world than we do today. And so I just think it’s imperative I was so pleased to be a part of his 50th birthday celebration, because it not only was a tribute to her, which was so well deserved, but the bringing together of women and men, people from so many different backgrounds, really trying to fashion policies and real action steps that would allow people to take a leap forward and be able to hopefully contribute to changing some of the the patterns that have existed and the tendency for men only to carry the ball and it’s time for women to come to the table and really to bring our very unique and very significant perspective.
John Malkin:Yolanda King, I would like to ask you just one more question. I’m grateful for having the opportunity to speak with you. I am curious about the role that you think creativity has in social change. You have chosen to be an actor and a creative person in your work, and in particular, you’ve portrayed Rosa Park Marx in a television movie, and I think that a lot of people don’t know that she had training in nonviolent direct action, before her courageous refusal to move to the back of the bus. I wonder if you could tell me about the role of creativity and also a little about Rosa Parks.
Yolanda King: Yes, Ms. Parks had been involved prior to that very fateful day when she refused to give up her seat, she had been involved with the NAACP, organizing in the Montgomery Alabama community. Had attended some workshops on nonviolent direct action, and she certainly was someone who cared she was already an activist to some extent in her life not by any means to the extent she became after that day. Her involvement grew tremendously because I think that particular day was one of those days my father calls it zeitgeist moments where everything the forces of time and history and who she was as an individual all kinda came together there was no other perfect person like Rosa Parks, to serve as the spark that ignited the civil rights movement because she and her very being was such an embodiment of nonviolence. A gentle spirit naturally, not something that she learned, just who she is and at the same time had a passion and a fire inside and kind of a quiet fire. I call her a quiet giant, she is the person that sparked, and it was not coincidental. And I think that is why the community responded the way they did because she was very respected in the community and she was such a gentle soul and think people were outraged that someone like herself would have to suffer that kind of indignity and it really served to bring the community together in a way that it had not been able to do so before. There had been other people who had been arrested on the bus for doing a similiar kind of thing but it was because of Ms. Park’s spirit and who she was that really just galvanized people, and Martin Luther King Jr. was in the right place at the right time, and it was the act that was able to propel him to leadership. The creative force has so much power and potency to really change and alter people’s thinking and parts and mind and that is why I choose to utilize the creative expression. Well, I dont know if I chose it; it felt like it chose me. That this is how my purpose and mission on the planet, how it has come forth and born fruit, and it makes perfect sense to me because i think that part of us, the creative part of us, has the ability to change and to grow, to experience, and to really transform, that is what I sought to do in my work as both an actor, speaker, author, teacher, and producer to try to utilize the creative energy to transform people’s thinking and ultimately their lives.
John Malkin: Yolanda King it’s been a great pleasure talking with you, I have enjoyed it very much.