Yolanda King was an African–American activist and actor. The eldest child of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, Yolanda was the boldest of all the children in the family. Yolanda not only continued the legacy of her father but also contributed to bring about a positive social change. She advocated for equal rights with her public speaking skills and with her acting and writing skills, a passion she developed at a tender age. As an actor, writer, director, and producer of several plays, Yolanda focused on many societal evils, such as teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, and racial discrimination. Yolanda is remembered for her calm demeanor that she exhibited after the assassination of her father. She knew the purpose of her life and understood her father’s struggle since her initial years. As a teen leader, she was featured in the journals 'Jet' and 'Ebony.' Yolanda died due to a chronic heart condition in 2007.
Childhood & Early Life
Yolanda was born Yolanda Denise King, on November 17, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. She grew up with her younger sister, Bernice, and her two brothers, namely, Dexter Scott and Martin Luther King III. She was nicknamed "Yoki" by Jr. King, as he thought “Yolanda” was a difficult name to pronounce. Since her father was mostly traveling, Yolanda and her siblings were raised by her mother, Coretta.
Yolanda was only 2 weeks old when the famous bus boycott by Rosa Parks took place in Montgomery. In 1956, a few white supremacists bombed their house. Fortunately, Yolanda and her mother were not harmed, but a few more such racist attacks made Yolanda become a determined activist at a tender age. She was constantly threatened and bullied because of her race.
At 8, Yolanda played the protagonist in a self-written play about a queen who embraced cultures from around the world. As her passion for acting grew further, she joined an Atlanta-based children’s theater group. By the time she hit her teens, Yolanda had decided to become an actor. Her decision was triggered following an uproar after she played a prostitute opposite a white male lead in 'The Owl and the Pussycat.'
In 1965, Yolanda went to 'Spring Street Elementary School' and then attended 'Grady High School.' At 'Grady High,’ she was the president of her sophomore and junior class. She received a bachelor’s degree from 'Smith College' and then studied theater at 'New York University.' Yolanda also received an honorary doctorate degree from 'Marywood University.'
Following Jr. King’s assassination in 1968, Yolanda emerged as a prominent activist with strong social beliefs. Continuing from where her father had left, Yolanda became the voice and the face of the civil rights struggle that was fought in the US for decades.
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Yolanda began acting professionally in 1978, when she portrayed Rosa Parks in the miniseries based on her father’s life, 'King.' She also made stage performances as part of her social activism. Yolanda starred as an unwed teen mother in the play 'Stepping into Tomorrow,' which was a collaborative effort with Attallah Shabazz, the eldest daughter of civil rights leader Malcolm X. Yolanda met Shabazz for the first time at the university, and despite the differences in their respective fathers’ perspectives, the girls got along well.
Yolanda and Shabazz founded the theater company 'Nucleus’ in the 1980s. The objective of the company was to present the thoughts and beliefs of their respective fathers through plays. In the following years, their stage works spread to churches and community centers all over the nation.
Yolanda was the narrator of the musical composition 'New Morning for the World.' She was also part of the 1980 war-comedy film 'Hopscotch' and the 1981 TV movie 'Death of a Prophet.' She portrayed the role of Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X, in the latter.
In 1984, Yolanda was arrested for protesting against the South African apartheid in front of the 'South African Embassy.' She later served as a member of the board of directors of the ‘Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc’ and was the founding director of the cultural section of the center. In 1992, Yolanda appeared as 16 different characters in her multimedia work ‘Tracks: A Celebration of the Words and Spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.' She performed in the 1995 play 'A Lincoln Portrait' to honor her father. The same year, she appeared in the drama film 'Fluke.'
From 1996 to1999, Yolanda appeared in numerous TV productions, such as 'America's Dream' (1996 TV movie), 'Our Friend, Martin' (1999), and 'Selma, Lord, Selma' (1999). She also appeared in the 1996 film 'Ghosts of Mississippi.' In 2001, she promoted the show 'Achieving the Dream' in honor of her father. In 2003, 'McGraw-Hill' published the book 'Open My Eyes, Open My Soul: Celebrating Our Common Humanity,' which Yolanda had co-edited with Elodia Tate.
In 2002, Yolanda appeared in the 'PBS' animated historical fiction ‘Liberty’s Kids.' She played ‘Mama’ in the play 'A Raisin in the Sun,' which was staged at the 'Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts' at 'Cornell University.' She was also the founder of the production house called 'Higher Ground Productions.'
Yolanda had spoken for gay rights and had also got arrested. In 2006, she gave a speech at the Chicago's 'Out and Equal Workplace Summit,' in which she advocated for equal rights for homosexuals. She was the first national ambassador for the 'American Stroke Association's 'Power to End Stroke’ campaign and was a member of the 'Southern Christian Leadership Conference.' Yolanda had served on the 'Partnership Council’ of ‘Habitat for Humanity.' Along with securing a lifetime membership at the ‘National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’ (NAACP), she sponsored the 'Women's International League for Peace and Freedom' and the 'Human Rights Campaign.'
Family & Personal Life
Yolanda lost her mother to ovarian cancer on January 30, 2006. Before her death, Yolanda and Dexter had a conflict with their other siblings over selling the 'King Center.' On May 15, 2007, Yolanda died after her heart collapsed. She was 51 years old at the time of her death.
Actors Melina Nzeza and Ronda Louis-Jeune portrayed Yolanda’s young and adult versions, respectively, in the 2013 TV movie 'Betty and Coretta.'