January 27, 1997 12:00 PM

BERNICE KING HAS ONLY HAZY recollections of her father, but the memory of his funeral that grim April day in 1968 remains etched on her soul. Just 5, she was sitting with her head in her mother Coretta’s lap at the sweltering Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta when Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice suddenly rang through the rafters.

“My mother had told me he was gone, that he wouldn’t be speaking to me anymore, and then this voice comes out—his voice. I was jerking my head around and looking for him,” recalls King (who was hearing one of the slain civil rights leader’s last recorded sermons). “I was confused and upset—I think that’s where I developed a childhood fear of ghosts. My father was gone, but he was there. It’s spooky to me even to this day.”

King, 33, has managed to put her father’s presence within her to good use. An assistant pastor at Atlanta’s Greater Rising Star Baptist Church, she is the author of a new book of sermons and speeches, Hard Questions, Heart Answers, which she hopes will “get some passions rolling” on the subject of race relations. “The civil rights movement addressed the legal side, but you cant legislate beliefs,” she says. “Blacks and whites have got to figure out how to connect genuinely to each other’s experiences if we’re going to coexist.”

Those who have heard King’s rousing speeches, which bring audiences to their feet both at her own church and at speaking engagements around the country, believe her oratorical fire can help in that quest. “She has her father’s mannerisms and cadence,” says former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young. “It’s almost mystical.” An unpretentious woman with a ready laugh, Bernice—the only one of King’s four children to enter the ministry—downplays her similarity to the man with a Dream. “I don’t see a mantle that’s been passed from my father to me,” she says. “I’ve fallen in line to do the same work, but all of us in the family have portions of the mantle.” (As part of a new joint publishing venture between the King estate and Time Warner Inc., PEOPLE’S parent company, both King’s widow and his youngest son plan to write books of their own.)

King’s wife, Coretta, 69, certainly made sure her children (Bernice’s siblings are Yolanda, now 41 and an actress with a role in Ghosts of Mississippi; Martin III, 39, a motivational speaker; and Dexter, 35, head of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change) understood their inheritance. At dinner in the family’s modest Atlanta home, which Coretta still occupies, Bernice recalls that “she evoked my father a lot,” Says Yolanda: “Our house is like a museum—there are pictures of him everywhere.” But Coretta also made sure “we had a normal childhood,” Bernice notes. “She could have moved us to a more protected place, but we stayed.” And Coretta’s tomboy daughter never basked in her status. “I knew I was Dr. King’s daughter,” she says, “but I didn’t quite understand who Dr. King was.”

That changed one day when she was 16. While on a retreat with her church youth group, she saw Montgomery to Memphis, an Oscar-nominated documentary about her father, and fell apart. “I had seen it before, but I exploded into tears and ran into the woods,” she says. “For two hours I cried and kept screaming, ‘Why, God? Why did you take my father?’ I became so angry with God that I made a choice to separate from the church. I was angry at my dad too, for leaving, and at society.”

Within a year, though she hadn’t resolved her rage, King felt a calling to join the ministry. “It was a tugging of sorts, like an inner voice telling me that was what I was meant to be,” she says. Says Coretta: “Everyone thought Marty would be the preacher, and then here comes Bernice. We were all surprised.”

King majored in psychology at Spelman College, then won degrees in both law and theology from Emory University. (Law school, she explains, “was a way of doing something that was not King.”) She spent a year clerking for a juvenile court judge in Atlanta before signing on at Greater Rising Star, in one of the city’s poor neighborhoods. There she leads a women’s group and a youth ministry. She broadened her audience in 1993 when she gave a locally televised Martin Luther King Jr. Day sermon at her father’s church, calling for “greater racial understanding, friendship and cooperation” 25 years after his assassination. “My brother Dexter says I may have been quiet as a child,” she says, smiling, “but once I started speaking, you couldn’t shut me up.”

Now work is King’s top priority. Like her three siblings, she is still single. She lives alone in an Atlanta suburb, sees her family often and, though she has dated plenty in the past, is currently unattached. “I want it to be right,” she says. “I’m spending some time healing from all my past relationships, which is something we don’t do enough.”

King now can look back on her father with peace and love. “The anger about my father’s death has left,” she says. So has the burden she once felt whenever his name was mentioned. “He was just a human being with an awesome commitment,” says the great man’s daughter. “Now I just feel sadness. And I wish, at times, that he was here.”

KIM HUBBARD

GAIL CAMERON WESCOTT in Atlanta

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