James Karales’ 1962 photo shows Yolanda King and her father Martin Luther Kings Jr. at their home in the High Museum of Art’s “Road to Freedom” Civil Rights photography display at the museum in Atlanta on Thursday June 5, 2008. JAMES KARALES/High Museum
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Remembering Yolanda King

Yolanda King’s first movie role came in 1978 when she played Rosa Parks in her father’s television biopic, “King.”

Her last was in 2005 when she played the choir director in an episode of the long-forgotten drama “Strong Medicine.”

Between them, King — who died suddenly in 2007 — carved a nice career as a character actress appearing in about 20 productions, while also carrying the legacy of the being “Yoki,” the first-born progeny of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr.

Last week, on the eve of what would have been their father’s 91st birthday, Bernice King, the CEO of Atlanta’s King Center, unveiled the nonprofit’s refurbished theater renamed in honor of her older sister. 

It has been unofficially known as the Yolanda King theatre. But during last year’s renovation of the King Center, officials installed new signage to dedicate the space in her name.

01/09/2020 — Atlanta, Georgia — The Yolanda King Theater for the Performing Arts at the King Center in Atlanta’s Historic Sweet Auburn District, Thursday, January 9, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is Jan. 15; his national holiday will be observed Monday.

“Yoki was what this generation would call a creative,” said her younger sister, Bernice King. “She was an example of how to use God-given gifts to inspire goodwill and influence toward nonviolence. She demonstrated how to effectuate heart and cultural change with art, and merged art with activism in her efforts to build the beloved community.”

Read about Bernice King’s preparations to celebrate King Day.

The Yolanda D. King Theater for the Performing Arts at the King Center will be used for performances and presentations that explore her artistic and social visions.

Yolanda King was the founder of The King Center’s Cultural Affairs Department, and she often used the theater to present and perform plays about social justice and equality and for a nonviolent film festival, Bernice King said.

01/09/2020 — Atlanta, Georgia — A biography of Yolanda King is displayed in front of the Yolanda King Theater for the Performing Arts at the King Center in Atlanta’s Historic Sweet Auburn District, Thursday, January 9, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

It has been 13 years since Yolanda King died of heart failure at the young age of 51.

Her career as an actress and motivational speaker was influenced by her father’s messages of nonviolence and racial equality.

As a child, she organized her siblings and cousins to act in plays she wrote and produced.

One of her first professional performances was also one of most controversial.

In 1971, just three years after her father’s death and at the age of 15, she played a part-time prostitute in the Atlanta Actor’s Workshop stage production of “The Owl and the Pussycat.” 

She appeared opposite a white actor, whom she had to kiss, which triggered criticism from both sides.

“The white community criticized it because they didn’t think interracial sex was right,” she would say later. “The black community asked, ‘How could you disgrace your dead father’s image by playing a prostitute?’”

Yolanda King and Gregory Patin in The Actor’s Workshop production of “The Owl and the Pussycat” in 1971. (Bill Grimes / AJC staff)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Coretta Scott King, who had put Yolanda in acting classes when she was nine-years-old, supported her, but her paternal grandfather, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., refused to attend.

As an adult, she appeared in movies, toured the country as a performer and started Higher Ground Productions, dedicated to what she called at the time, “personal empowerment.”

In 1996, she appeared in the movie “Ghosts of Mississippi,” playing Reena Evers, the daughter of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. She would also play Betty Shabazz in a 1981 movie about Malcolm X and would go on to start a dramatic group with Atallah Shabazz, the daughter of Betty.

“She used her ability to act to tell the story of the civil rights movement,” U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), said at the time of her death. “Had the grace of her mother and the intellect of her father. The combination was beautiful.”

Rep. John Lewis and Yolanda King received Medals for Outstanding Service in the area of civil/human rights during the George Washington University Martin Luther King convocation in 1994. (Rick McKay / Cox/AJC staff)
Photo: Rick McKay/AJC

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