By Susan Reed
November 21, 1994 12:00 PM

AS A LITTLE BOY GROWING UP IN the rambling house on Sunset Avenue in Atlanta, Dexter Scott King would spend hours taking his toys apart and putting them back together. When he was a teenager, he did the same with the appliances in his mother’s kitchen. “When anything breaks down,” says his aunt Christine King Farris, “we all look to Dexter.”

Last month, King, 33, the third of four children of slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., was handed his biggest repair job yet when he was named to head Atlanta’s troubled Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. The nonprofit center was founded in 1968, just months after the elder King’s assassination, to carry on his civil-rights legacy. But according to its critics, the center has paid more attention to King’s image than to his message. In 1989, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called the center’s failings an open secret and derided its conflict-resolution and community programs as “intermittent and superficial.” Concedes Dexter: “I’m being asked to fix something that admittedly is not living up to its full potential or capitalizing on all its resources.”

More important, he is being given the clout to reshape the center, which has a $5 million annual budget. In 1989, Dexter was appointed president of the King Center but resigned four months later over conflicts with his strong-willed mother, who remained CEO. This time, Coretta Scott King, 68, announced she would step down and lobbied the 36-member board to name her son chairman, president and CEO. “Dexter has done a lot of thinking about the future, about the King Center and, I’m sure, about me,” she says. “This time he has full responsibility. The buck now stops with Dexter.”

Dexter and his siblings grew up amid the tumult of the civil-rights movement. In between his father’s absences, Dexter remembers his teaching him to swim at the YMCA and riding bicycles with him. When the elder King arrived home, Dexter would leap into his father’s arms from atop the refrigerator, kissing the “sugar spot”—each child was assigned a different one—on his face.

On April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Dexter, then just 7, lost not only his father but all that remained of his own boyhood. Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who was with King when he was killed, says King’s martyrdom focused a withering spotlight on his children. “There was an expectation that the two boys would automatically become leaders,” he says. “They were never again allowed to be children.”

Nor were they allowed to forget what Dexter’s younger sister Bernice, now 31 and a Baptist minister, calls the whole King thing. During grade school and junior high, Dexter and two of his siblings attended a predominantly white private school in Atlanta. “I was one of the only blacks in my class,” he recalls. “I remember feeling I always had to take the black position on any social issue.” Dexter transferred to Frederick Douglass High School, a mostly black public school for his junior and senior years. There he became an outstanding football player; offered a football scholarship to USC, he turned it down in favor of his father’s alma mater, Morehouse College in Atlanta, so he could remain close to home.

In 1983, Dexter dropped out of college because of a medical condition. He then worked for the Atlanta corrections department but quit after two years. “It was very difficult for people to treat me as a normal person,” he says. “It was like, ‘Why is he here?’ It taught me that I was going to have to be self-determining.”

Dexter moved into music next, producing an album—with Prince and Whitney Houston among others—for the first Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday in 1986. “I love music, jazz, rhythm and blues, classical, rock,” he says. “I always wanted to explore the creative side of myself.”

King says he made another personal breakthrough when he started following comedian, activist and health-food evangelist Dick Gregory and became a vegetarian in 1987. “It opened me up in terms of my spiritual self…and enabled me to transcend a lot of emotional interference,” he says. “Once you can manage your emotions, anything is achievable.” So far that has not included marriage. In fact, none of the King children has married. “I’ve had relationships, and I love the feeling of being in love,” says Dexter. “But I also see it as a very important responsibility. I cherish friendships now. If they evolve into something more, fine.”

For now, King is focusing his energies on revitalizing the King Center so it can communicate the history and values of the civil-rights movement to a new generation. He has plans for a multimedia museum and wants to strengthen the center’s programs in nonviolent conflict resolution. “My father’s legacy was born out of tragedy,” he says. “I didn’t ask for it, and I didn’t create it, but I’m part of it. It’s my responsibility too.”