Dexter King famously left Atlanta for California about a decade ago to clear his head and escape the excruciating spotlight of being the son of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr. in their hometown.
But on a misty Saturday night, Atlanta turned up at Ebenezer Baptist Church, his family’s long-time spiritual home, to say their final goodbyes.
Dexter Scott King, the youngest son of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, died Jan. 22 at age 62 after battling prostate cancer. He died in his sleep at his home in Malibu, California, which he shared with his wife of 11 years, Leah Weber King.
“Dexter has been welcomed home,” said his older brother, Martin Luther King III.
Leah Weber King said earlier this week that the ceremony would celebrate Dexter King with music and reverence. The service was called a “candlelight musical experience,” and it lived up to its name.
Ebenezer Baptist Church, which has been affiliated with Dexter King’s family for more than 100 years, never looked more beautiful.
The evening ceremony cast Ebenezer, with its large windows normally bathed in sunlight, in a different light. The sanctuary was illuminated with ambient light along the walls, and the windows were lined with golden candles, framing a candle display on the massive altar that all together provided an intimate, warm glow throughout the church.
The back of all the pews had candles placed in the holder usually reserved for Bibles, hymn books and communion cups for the congregation to hold as they stood and waved their arms along to the gospel choir singing.
The memorial service brought out gospel music royalty to honor Dexter. CeCe Winans sang, followed by her brother and duet partner BeBe Winans. After a second video tribute, their older brother, Pastor Marvin Winans, along with the Celebration Choir, performed Andre Crouch’s “Let the Church Say Amen.”
Then R&B great Stevie Wonder, who in the 1980s was instrumental in getting the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday enacted, was led to a keyboard placed in the middle of the altar.
He sat down and played “They Won’t Go When I Go,” his emotionally charged, Chopin-influenced composition that has been likened to a funeral march.
Jaylon Givan and Charray Helton interpreted the song—which Wonder also sang at Michael Jackson’s memorial service in 2009—through dance.
Stevie Wonder performed at the celebration of life for Dexter Scott King at Ebenezer Baptist Church and sang “Total Praise” to close out the night along with the celebration choir. @ajcpic.twitter.com/RRc5LSRKOp
King’s maternal great-grandfather, the Rev. Adam D. Williams became the pastor eight years after its 1886 founding, and a King family member was at the church’s helm for 81 years, from Williams in 1894 to King Sr.’s retirement in 1975.
The church’s current pastor and Georgia’s U.S. Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock led the congregation in prayer, asking for comfort for the King family.
“Be with Martin and Bernice, who had to say farewell to two parents, and now, two siblings,” Warnock said.
As expected, the emotional heart of the evening was provided by Bernice King and Martin Luther King III, the last two remaining children of the civil rights leader. Last July, the family gathered in the same Ebenezer for the funeral of the family matriarch Christine King Farris.
”We didn’t know that we would be back so soon to memorialize Dexter,” Bernice said. “But we don’t grieve as those who have no hope.” In telling a story about their oldest sister, the late Yolanda King, Bernice said her sister would often greet her as “your only sister.”
Addressing Martin III, she referred to herself that way. They are the only ones left.
”We’ve been through a lot,” Bernice King said, referring to the assassination of their father, the mysterious drowning of their uncle and the murder of their grandmother. “But Mother told us to be thankful for what you have left, and I thank God for you.”
Bernice King addressed what she called “the elephant in the room,” the well-publicized legal battles that the siblings often waged over the direction of their parents’ legacy.
Earlier, King III quipped: “We are like every other family. Sometimes we get along, sometimes we don’t.”
”Yes, we had some conflict,” said Bernice King, adding that in the months leading to Dexter King’s death, she flew to California at least twice to be by his side. “I prayed for reconciliation for a long time.”
In the end, they got it.
King III said that he and his sister are ready to pick up the mantle left by their brother, who was the CEO of the King Center.
”We will continue to work together to get it right, because (his daughter) Yolanda and others are going to work for justice and righteousness. We will achieve what Mom and Dad dreamed of.
Dexter’s widow, Leah Weber King, spoke of the love that she and Dexter King shared and promised to continue his and his family’s legacy.
”Your spirit remains. We will use your flame to light others,” Leah Weber King said, speaking directly to her late husband. “As you look down and see here that each of us are symbolizing the light of your love tonight with a single glow in our hands, let the collective illumination remind you that you are loved, you are honored and missed by all of us.”
“You were born a King,” she added. “Beautifully sculpted.”