Martin Luther King Jr.'s Son Reveals Why He 'Never Felt Afraid' While Facing Brutal Racism with Dad

"I could grab Dad's pants leg, and something went through me — a comfort — because I was with my father," Martin Luther King III tells PEOPLE

Martin Luther King Jr. Martin III Yolanda
Martin Luther King III, Martin Luther King Jr. and Yolanda King. Photo: Marvin Koner/Corbis/Getty

Editor's note: This story was first published on Feb. 10, 2022.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s son cherished the moments he spent with his father — even when the civil rights leader's travels took them "into the lion's mouth."

"I was very fortunate to be able to travel with Dad maybe seven or eight times, and the most important time, however, was that personal time that we spent with him," human rights advocate Martin Luther King III, now 64, tells PEOPLE for this week's issue, which celebrates Black History Month.

Though his father was a larger-than-life figure, King recalls the moments when he was able to just be their dad.

"My brother and I used to go to the YMCA every week when he would go to get exercise, and he taught us how to swim," King says.

They also "used to ride bicycles together in Atlanta," long before the city was transformed into the metropolis it is today.

But the harder times stick out as well. When King joined his dad on the road, they'd travel to cities where they had to face brutal racism in order to address it, keeping with the patriarch's belief that "the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

One trip to St. Augustine, Florida, particularly stands out in his mind. In the spring of 1964, his father and other leaders in the American Civil Rights Movement traveled south to help desegregate the city. King remembers how a hotel manager poured "acid and lye into the pool to keep Black folks from swimming."

Looking back, King says he "would have loved" to ask his dad and mom, Coretta Scott King, how they decided "that it was going to be safe for us as children to accompany Dad."

"At any moment something could have exploded and something could have happened to us," he shares.

Ultimately, he says, his parents' deep faith likely played a major role in their brave acts. And it was King's own faith in his father that made him feel protected.

Martin Luther King Jr., Martin Luther King III
Martin Luther King Jr. (L); Martin Luther King III. Walter Bennett/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock; Justin Sullivan/Getty

"I always felt safe in the presence of Dad, even when a German shepherd dog approached us one day," he says of that trip to St. Augustine.

"It was three or four of us standing, and the policeman came with the dog. Those dogs had been used in Birmingham," he adds, referring to the Alabama city where civil rights leaders took a stand to combat racism and improve integration efforts in early 1963. "But I never felt afraid because I could grab Dad's pants leg, and something went through me — a comfort — because I was with my father."

"Those are just some of the experiences that will always be so meaningful to me," he adds.

For more from PEOPLE's Black History Month portfolio, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

Although his father meant a great deal to him growing up, the profundity of the Nobel Peace Prize winner's contributions to society didn't "really hit home" for King until his father was tragically assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.

Five days later, his funeral in Atlanta was attended by "every candidate who was running for president," as well as American icons like Aretha Franklin, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis Jr., King recalls.

"Many were inspired by Dad," he says. "Many were involved in helping to raise money, to get the work done."

"But to see all of these individuals and over 200,000 people you know who actually attended his homegoing services," King adds, "that's when I realized, 'Oh my gosh. Dad was incredible.'"

More than 53 years since his father died at just 39 years old, King and his family are working to carry his torch.

"I hope that he would be proud of the fact that our family is still engaged," King says in this week's issue. "I'm sure he'd be proud of his granddaughter [Yolanda, 13]. She says, 'I want to continue in my grandfathers' and grandmothers' footsteps, but I want to create my own footsteps.' It's in her DNA."

Related Articles