Dating Liberty and Justice for All

Yolanda King’s sudden death shocks family, friends

ATLANTA, GA May 16 — In the hours before she died, Yolanda King had a meeting at her production company to talk about an upcoming play, “Dancing on Higher Ground,” that focuses on demystifying death.

King’s business partner and life coach, Wanda Marie, said Wednesday that the play written by Chicago playwright Tanya White was the latest project for King’s California-based company, Higher Ground Productions.  According to its Web site, Higher Ground seeks to incorporate King’s “personal vision, her contribution to the King Legacy and her passion for arts and entertainment…”

King, 51, the oldest child of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., died late Tuesday night in Santa Monica, Calif., according to family.

She was set to star in the production and had been working on it for the last two years.  It was to premiere in Los Angeles in September, Marie said.

“She had just flown in from Philadelphia,” Marie said.  “We had a meeting and talked about hiring a director.  She was tired, pretty exhausted, actually.”

King left the office shortly after, Marie said, and apparently went to meet her brother, Dexter, where she collapsed.

“We don’t know anything about the circumstances,” Marie said.

Death unexpected, family says

“This has rocked us,” said Isaac Newton Farris Jr., president and CEO of the King Center and the cousin of Yolanda King.  “We did not see this coming.  We are grounded in faith and we are calling on that right now.”

A spokesman for the King Center, Steve Klein, said the family suspects the cause of death was a heart problem.  An investigator with the Los Angeles County coroner’s office said it was not planning an autopsy.

Alveda King, another cousin, said Yolanda was meeting with her brother, Dexter, at the home of a friend, when she collapsed and died.

King, known since childhood as Yoki, was an actor and producer.

“She was a princess and she walked and carried herself like a princess,” said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, one of the King family’s closest friends.  “She was a reserved and quiet person who loved acting.”


Lowery had known King since her birth

“I have known her since she was a child.  I saw her grow up and come into her own as a beautiful, charming, gracious woman.  It is unbelievable that she has left us,” said U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta), also a member of King’s inner circle.

Lewis said King would be “deeply missed, not just by her family, but friends and many other people who saw her grow up in the early days of the civil rights movement.  He said he last saw her at the massive Easter service held by New Birth Missionary Baptist Church at the Georgia Dome.

“She looked well,” said Lewis, adding that he had no idea that King might have been ill.  “She gave me a hug.  To Atlanta, to the southern region, to the nation, we have lost a strong spokesperson for peace, nonviolence and the call for human rights.”

Tributes paid at King Center

Rowena Joyner, who lives in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, stopped by the nearby King Center on Auburn Avenue Wednesday morning after hearing the news.

Joyner, 42, pulled from her knapsack an autographed copy of King’s book, “Embracing Your Power in 30 Days.”

“Looking at her eyes, I’ll never forget,” Joyner said.  “It’s like looking into her father’s eyes.”

Joyner said that in spring 2006, she had stayed in the same San Rafael, Calif., hotel as King, who was in town to speak at a Jewish community center.  Joyner left a message for King and the next day, King called her and let Joyner have a picture made with her.

That’s how loving and personable she was,” Joyner said.  “She was awesome.  I’m really saddened by [her death].”

Maurice Blair and Brandon Johnson, both 27-year-old Midtown residents, also came to the King Center.

“It’s sad.  She was trying to continue the legacy of her parents,” Blair said.

Lucille Grinnell, 73, of Lithonia, brought her friend, Pat Schoop, 59, who was visiting from Eatonville, Wash.  They had planned to tour the King birthplace, but paused at the tomb.

Both said they were surprised she died at such a young age.

“Hopefully, she’s saved and is gone to be with the Lord,” Grinnell said.

Continued father’s work

King was born in 1955 in Montgomery, and was an infant when her home was bombed during the turbulent civil rights era.

As an actress, she appeared in numerous films and played Rosa Parks in the 1978 miniseries “King.”  She also appeared in “Ghosts of Mississippi.”  She founded Higher Ground Productions.

She was also an author and advocate for peace and nonviolence.

She is survived by her sister, the Rev. Bernice King; two brothers, Martin Luther King III and Dexter Scott King; and an extended family.

The family said in a statement that funeral arrangements will be announced later.

Her death comes more than a year after the death of her mother, Coretta Scott King.

Mrs. King died on Jan. 30, 2006, of complications from ovarian cancer diagnosed after she had a stroke and mild heart attack.  She is buried near the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on Auburn Avenue, the street where her husband was born and where he preached.

Yolanda King’s death presumably breaks a stalemate among the four children over whether the King Center on Auburn Avenue should be sold to the National Park Service.  The Park Service operates the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, which includes King’s birth home and virtually surrounds the King Center.

In 2005, Yolanda King and brother Dexter voted in favor of pursuing the sale.  Martin Luther King III and Bernice King vowed to fight the sale.

Martin Luther King III said at the time that he had been removed as chief executive officer and Bernice removed as secretary of the board of directors by a board he says was appointed by Dexter King, the board chairman.

“It is a sad day for the SCLC family and the civil rights family in general,” said Charles Steele, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who described Yolanda as a close friend.  He saw her as recently as two months ago, and she was going to perform at the SCLC’s 50th anniversary this fall.  He said the upcoming conference would be dedicated to her.