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Actress, Producer, Author Yolanda King ’76 Dies

Yolanda King '76, who died May 15 in California, is being remembered for her role in carrying forward the civil rights work of her father, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yolanda King majored in theatre and Afro-American studies at Smith and returned to campus on a number of occasions to perform and speak about her father’s legacy.

New York Times: Daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. Dies

Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Yolanda King, Daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dead at 51 (registration required)

In 1999, Smith honored King among a group of "remarkable women" graduates, during a celebration marking the college’s 125th year. Following is an essay about her achievements prepared for that gathering.

Yolanda D. King ’76

Yolanda King at Smith (Yearbook 1976)

As an undergraduate student, Yolanda King ’76 sometimes struggled to find the words to “defend her father against Smithies who misunderstood his philosophy.” In 1989, she returned to her alma mater and spoke passionately to approximately 1,200 people about Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and the problems that still confront America. In the intervening years, she had found her voice, and the hour-long speech was acknowledged with a standing ovation.

Yolanda grew up burdened not only by the tragedy of her father’s death, but by the expectations placed on the children of those who die young with important work not yet completed. Each of Dr. King’s children has had to learn to live with and accept his legacy. Yolanda’s sister, Bernice, became a minister, her brother Dexter is now president of the non-profit Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, brother Martin, III is president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization founded by their father, and Yolanda seeks to promote social change and justice was through the performing arts.

At Smith, she majored in theater and Afro-American studies, going on to graduate from New York University with an M.F.A. in theater. Her love for the theater began in early childhood. At age eight, Yolanda wrote a play and persuaded her reluctant siblings to perform it for family and friends. As a teenager, she studied acting, speech and dance, and, while performing around Atlanta with the Actor’s and Writer’s Workshop, she found her calling.

Yolanda King during the "Remarkable Women" event during Smith's 125th anniversary in 2001

Though her father considered acting a “frivolous and unstable” vocation, it is his abilities as a compelling public presence that Yolanda has frequently and successfully evoked. She recognizes that acting requires not only an “ability to fully share one’s self and empathize with others,” but also that the arts can have a “dramatic impact upon people’s lives and contribute to shaping attitudes and values.”

A founding member of Christian Theatre Artists, Yolanda also served for 10 years as the co-director, with Malcolm X’s daughter Attallah Shabazz, of NUCLEUS, a company of performing artists that travels to high schools, colleges, and communities nationwide, promoting “positive energy through the arts.” A seasoned and respected actress, Yolanda has performed frequently in theatre, film and television projects. Through her company, Higher Ground Productions, Yolanda toured extensively with a one-woman play called Tracks, which she was inspired to produce after encountering an elderly woman who told her, “The tracks have already been laid; you just have to stay in them.”

Through this play and her current one-woman production Achieving the Dream, which she produced this past summer at the National Black Theater Festival in Winston Salem, Yolanda brings her father’s message to today’s youth. “I want everyone who hears my father’s words to feel empowered. I want them to know they hold the key to a better life,” she explained.



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