Martin Luther King Jr.’s Daughter Embraces His Hope for the Future

During another polarizing period in America’s history, Bernice A. King lays out three actions that she thinks her father would offer today.

photo of Bernice A. King as a young child with her father
Flip Schulke / Corbis / Getty
Editor’s Note: Read The Atlantic’s special coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.

Bernice A. King, the youngest child of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, was 5 years old when her father was assassinated. A mediator, orator, and minister, she has been the CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, in Atlanta, since 2012.*

April 4, 2018, marks the 50th anniversary of the day my father, Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated. Many a historic moment has happened since then, reminding us that humanity will, in my father’s words, either “live together as brothers”—and sisters—“or perish together as fools.” At the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, we are concerned that humanity is widening the chasms that divide us, instead of building bridges that can move us ahead. This is why the theme for our commemoration of this anniversary is “MLK50 Forward: Together We Win, With Love for Humanity.”

Now more than ever, I believe that my father would encourage humanity to join together in love, commit to assisting people around the globe, and travel the path of nonviolence toward the “beloved community”—a society, as he envisioned it, of justice and equal opportunity. Kingian nonviolence is a way of thinking and living, and is not confined to the work of social and systemic change. Nonviolence365, as the King Center now trademarks its program of Kingian nonviolence, strongly and strategically facilitates change, both of systems and of hearts.

Nonviolence365 is love-centered. Love is not a weak, spineless emotion; it is a powerful, moral force on the side of justice. Nonviolence365 seeks not false peace, which accepts injustice as long as there is no physical violence, but true peace, about which my father stated: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” Nonviolence365 is not passive. It does act, but with the ultimate goal of a more just, peaceful, and humane world.

Imagine a critical mass of global citizens working together to engage issues and individuals with Nonviolence365. My father imagined. My mother, Coretta Scott King, imagined. I imagine.

Beyond imagining, there are three actions that I believe my father would articulate today to help us harness redemptive goodwill and choose

The first action is to be what he phrased as “creatively maladjusted.” We cannot afford to regard as normal the presence of injustice, inhumanity, and violence, including their verbal and cyber manifestations. We must refuse to adjust to ideals and policies that crush families, lay waste to communities, and yield refugees across the globe. When we decide not to accept what should be unacceptable, we begin to open ourselves up to the mental attitude and spiritual altitude to build the beloved community.

The second action is to serve as a force of light. My father stated, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” This is often quoted, but I’m concerned that we seldom realize he was expressing both a physical and a spiritual truth. When we show up as light in dark places, the darkness must depart. If we become darkness in response to darkness, then we perpetuate a descending spiral of hate and hopelessness. Each of us must decide whether it is more important to be proved right or to provoke righteousness.

The third action is to understand that we inhabit what my father described as a “world house”—a diverse, multicultural, dynamic house in which each nation represents a room. For our house to survive, we cannot look away when one of the rooms is in flames. And certainly we should not exacerbate the fire, or the whole house will eventually burn down.

If we remain in the grasp of nationalism, patriarchy, class conflict, racism, and religious bigotry, we will continue to be dehumanized—and destroyed—by poverty, genocide, slavery, and war. But the realization that we are all connected will make us more engaged in every area of human life, including our community.

I am hopeful. I have no doubt that my father, too, would be hopeful, even as our nation and our world grapple with a resurgence of divisive discourse and polarizing policies. As he told us, “The believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future.”

On the evening before he was killed, my father shared his final message. “It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world,” he said. “It’s nonviolence or nonexistence.” As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death, I implore us all to choose nonviolence and to embrace the spirit of “Together we win, with love for humanity.”

* This article originally misstated the year Bernice A. King became the CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. We regret the error.
It appears in the special MLK issue print edition with the headline “My Father Chose Nonviolence.”