Yolanda Denise King (November 17, 1955 – May 15, 2007) was an American activist and first-born child of civil rights leaders Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. She was known also for her artistic and entertainment endeavors and public speaking. Her childhood experience was greatly influenced by her father's highly public and influential activism.
Born two weeks before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a public transit bus in Montgomery, Alabama, she occasionally experienced threats to her life, designed to intimidate her parents, and became a secondary caregiver to her younger siblings and was bullied at school. When her father was assassinated April 4, 1968, King, then only twelve years of age, was noted for her composure during the highly public funeral and mourning events. She joined her mother and siblings in marches, and she was lauded by such noted figures as Bill Cosby and Harry Belafonte, the latter establishing a trust fund for her and her siblings.
In her teenage years, she became an effective leader of her class in high school and was given attention by the magazines Jet and Ebony. Her teenage years were filled with more tragedies, specifically that of her uncle Alfred Daniel Williams King and the murder of her grandmother, Alberta Williams King. While in high school, she gained lifelong friends. It was the first and only institution where King was not harassed or mistreated because of who her father was. However, she was still misjudged and mistrusted, based on perceptions founded solely upon her relationship with her father. Despite this, King managed to keep up her grades and was actively involved in high school politics, serving as class president for two years. King aroused controversy in high school for her role in a play. She was credited with having her father's sense of humor.
In the 1990s, she supported a retrial of James Earl Ray and publicly stated that she did not hate him. That decade saw King's acting career take off as she appeared in ten separate projects, including Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), Our Friend, Martin (1999) and Selma, Lord, Selma (1999). By the time she was an adult, she had grown to become an active supporter for gay rights and an ally to the LGBT community, as was her mother. She was involved in a sibling feud that pitted her and her brother Dexter against their brother Martin Luther King III and sister Bernice King for the sale of the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia. King served as a spokesperson for her mother during the illness that would eventually lead to her death. King outlived her mother by only 16 months, succumbing to complications related to a chronic heart condition on May 15, 2007.
She is also known as Yolanda Denise King.
On May 15, 2007, King spoke to her brother Dexter and stated that she was tired, though he thought nothing of it due to her "hectic" schedule. Around an hour later, King collapsed in the Santa Monica, California home of Philip Madison Jones, her brother Dexter King's best friend, and could not be revived. Her death came a year after that of her mother. Her family has speculated that her death was caused by a heart condition. In the early hours of May 19, 2007, King's body was brought to Atlanta, Georgia by private plane. Bishop Eddie Long said he offered his plane to collect her remains. A public memorial for Yolanda King was held on May 24, 2007, at Ebenezer Baptist Church Horizon Sanctuary in Atlanta, Georgia. Many in attendance did not know her, but came out of respect for the King family's history of non-violence and social justice. King was cremated, as according to her wishes. She was 51. All three of her siblings lit a candle in her memory.
Bernice King said it was "very difficult standing here blessed as her one and only sister. Yolanda, from your one and only, I thank you for being a sister and for being a friend." Martin Luther King III uttered that "Yolanda is still in business. She just moved upstairs." Maya Angelou wrote a tribute to her, which was read during the memorial service. She wrote "Yolanda proved daily that it was possible to smile while wreathed in sadness. In fact, she proved that the smile was more powerful and sweeter because it had to press itself through mournfulness to be seen, force itself through cruelty to show that the light of survival shines for us all." Many former classmates of both Grady High School and Smith College attended to remember her. Raphael Warnock stated; "She dealt with the difficulty of personal pain and public responsibility and yet ... she emerged from it all victorious. Thank you for her voice."