Role as husband, father charts course for King family

For someone whose every move is played out in the public eye, it might be safe to say that there has never been a tougher five-year stretch in the life of Martin Luther King III.

First he lost his beloved mother, Coretta Scott King.

Next, even more suddenly, his eldest sister and the compass of the family, Yolanda King, died.

Then, as he assumed the mantle as the head of the King family, he and his siblings fought each other in court over power, legacy and money.

Yet, on the 25th anniversary of the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, King III has never been happier and more at peace.

“I lost my mother in 2006 and earned a wife in 2006. I lost Yolanda in 2007 and was blessed with a daughter in 2008 named Yolanda Renee. It was tough losing a mother and sister back-to-back, but it would have been twice as hard without having Arndrea and now Yolanda Renee,” King III said. “You can never replace anything you lose, but it certainly helps when you are blessed to have a family of your own.”

So when the 53-year-old King III takes the podium Monday as the keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church — a spot usually reserved for leading politicians and clergy — he will do so as a changed man.

He said the holiday holds a special significance this year in the wake of the assassination attempt of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

“It affirms the fact that there is a great need in America for the message of Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King — the philosophy of nonviolence,” King III said. “We have to teach people how to live together without destroying each other. This incident should not have happened, but the tragedy has created an opportunity for the nation to say now is the time for us to engage in nonviolent conflict resolution.”

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Christine King Farris, Martin Luther King Jr.’s only surviving sibling, and the matriarch of the extended family, said she has noticed a change in her nephew over the past five years.

“He is more focused,” Farris said. “He learned that from his parents. Now he is on his last step as a very loving father.”

Last Thursday, about an hour after the conclusion of a King service at the State Capitol hosted by Gov. Nathan Deal, King III found himself camped out beneath a portrait of his father that has recently been granted a new place of honor on the North Wing of the building.

The hall was pretty much empty and quiet, save for the steady plinking of a nearby piano by his daughter. Earlier, when he was speaking at the event, Yolanda Renee clung to his legs. Dressed in a black top and red plaid dress, when she wasn’t playing the piano, she was running around the Capitol.

“Yes, she looks like Yolanda. And she looks like Dexter a little bit in his baby pictures. And she acts so much like my mother that it is frightening sometimes,” King III said. “I don’t know if I could have imagined anything being this wonderful. When you come home, and you may feel beaten up, and when you come in the house and your daughter says ‘Daddy’s home, hooray.’ It is like ‘oh my gosh,’ whatever you were feeling is gone. You have someone who loves you unconditionally and whom you love unconditionally — in addition to my wife of course.”

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For many who have observed the Kings over the years the question was always about who would be the first to marry and have children of their own. Coretta Scott King, on occasion, would even joke about having grandchildren during speeches late in her life.

Few were surprised that King III, the most accessible of the children, would be the first, although his mother never lived to see it. Asked how they met, Arndrea King, 37, steps in.

“I love to tell this story,” she said, as King III quietly — and nervously — listened.

She said they were set up by a mutual friend 15 years ago for a blind date. They talked on the phone for several weeks before agreeing to meet on a dinner date.

“Martin’s friend called me about 20 minutes after we were to meet and said he was called out of town. I was livid,” said the Tallahassee, Fla., native and Emory University graduate.

She said King III eventually asked to reschedule, which she agree to do — with a plan.

“I agreed with the whole purpose of letting him know that no matter who he is, he doesn’t treat a woman like this,” said Arndrea King, whose background is in nonprofit work — particularly in monitoring hate crimes.

King III said it would be years later before he heard about her plan, because he walked into the restaurant on that first date and completely charmed his future wife. She never cursed him out, and they began dating.

“He was such a wonderful person, and his spirit is so great,” Arndrea King said. “He didn’t give me a chance to stay mad.”

“I was just being me,” King III said, laughing.

The former Arndrea Waters stuck around and years later found herself part of the King family.

In early 2005, when Coretta Scott King suffered a minor stroke, Arndrea King was on a rotation of people who would spend the night with her, so she wouldn’t be alone.

“And in July of 2005, when she had another stroke and could no longer talk, Arndrea spent a considerable amount of time with her,” King III said. “They developed a very strong relationship.”

Coretta Scott King died Jan. 30, 2006, four months before the wedding, which was kept very private.

“All of our lives would have been different if mother had lived and had a chance to meet Yolanda Renee,” King III said. “And if my older sister Yolanda Denise had not passed, my daughter would not be named Yolanda Renee. All these things work in a way that God wants them to.”

But a year after Yolanda Renee was born, King III and his younger sister, Bernice King, found themselves in court against their brother, Dexter Scott King.

At issue was control and access to the King legacy and estate. King III and Bernice King claimed Dexter King kept them in the dark regarding the financial operation of King Inc., by not answering their questions and refusing to conduct shareholders meetings. In a countersuit, Dexter King asked a judge to force Bernice King turn over a valuable trove of their mother’s personal papers — including love letters.

In avoiding a nasty jury trial, a judge ruled that they temporarily had to give up control of the corporation that oversees the use of their father’s papers, intellectual property and materials to a custodian.

“Although we have been embroiled in a dispute — which is resolved — we never stopped loving each other,” King III said. “We disagreed and thought we needed to go to court to get a resolution, but we never stopped loving.”

King III said the wounds caused by the court battle have nearly healed — partly with the help of his daughter.

“Every night she prays — in addition to for my sister — for my brother,” King said, looking off. “They haven’t met yet. They have exchanged pictures and I hope that Dexter will be able to come soon. I am looking forward to the day when she will meet Uncle Dexter.”

In July 2009, Dexter King, who lives in California, was in a serious car accident, which makes it hard for him to travel.

Since their marriage, Arndrea King has managed to stay out of the spotlight, quietly helping her husband run the King Center and raising their daughter. She is also in the process of creating a family foundation and rarely talks to the media.

“I haven’t been out publicly, because the biggest thing for me is making sure that my husband, myself and daughter represent the King legacy in a way that is beneficial. And yes, that can be daunting,” she said. “I would love to be out there — when I am doing my work. I just want to be out there making a difference. You won’t see me on ‘The Real Housewives of Atlanta.’”

In what would be her first ever interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since her wedding, Arndrea King stopped for a second when Yolanda Renee was out of her eyesight. She was beneath the portrait of her grandfather. The father and daughter gazed at it.

“Marriage and fatherhood have changed him for the better. It has been very good for him,” Arndrea King said. “I see with him a commitment to find ways to restore the legacy so it can be used for her generation. And I see a focus. He is a lot more in touch with his emotions. All around, particularly with all that has happened over these five years. But he is doing fine.”

ExploreMartin Luther King Jr. National Holiday events in Atlanta 2021

The March 21 documentary 'The Last Days of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.' on Channel 2 kicked off a countdown of remembrance across the combined platforms of Channel 2 and its partners, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB Radio.

The three Atlanta news sources will release comprehensive multi-platform content until April 9, the anniversary of King’s funeral.

On April 4, the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, the three properties will devote extensive live coverage to the memorials in Atlanta, Memphis and around the country.

The project will present a living timeline in real time as it occurred on that day in 1968, right down to the time the fatal shot was fired that ended his life an hour later.

The project will culminate on April 9 with coverage of the special processional in Atlanta marking the path of Dr. King’s funeral, which was watched by the world.