Yolanda Renee King, 14, the only grandchild of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., took the stage in front of an at times enthusiastic, at times emotional crowd to deliver the keynote speech at Clemson University’s 41st annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Keynote Program in the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts on January 17.
In contrast to the fact her grandfather’s name is uttered in the same breath with American immortals like George Washington, Paul Revere, and Benjamin Franklin, her youth was a reminder that the triumphs and tragedy of his story played out not nearly so long ago.
“I am honored to welcome Yolanda King to Clemson,” said Clemson President Jim Clements in his opening remarks. “Yolanda is an author, a passionate speaker and a difference maker who not only brings much-needed attention to important issues but also seeks to find solutions. We are fortunate to have her with us tonight to share her thoughts and perspective.”
King was accompanied by her mother, Arndrea Waters King, the wife of Martin Luther King III, who sat in the audience as her daughter delivered a 30-minute speech with confidence, humor and a concise tone that belied her years.
She began her speech by thanking the organizers with the Harvey and Lucinda Gantt Multicultural Center, who invited her to the event, and noting that Clemson is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its integration.
“I salute all of the African Americans who were the first students to integrate schools, colleges and universities,” said King. “Many of them braved gauntlets of hate and violence just to get a decent education. But they walked the walk, and because of them, we have more freedom and educational opportunities than previous generations. The best we can do to honor them is to be courageous and work for improved opportunities for the young people of the next generation.”
King said that her paternal grandparents died before she was born, but she feels like she knows them well, having heard stories about them since she was a child. She has also studied their writings, listened to their speeches on tape and watched videos that show them in action.
“I feel that somehow, they are with me and that our spirits are joined in the quest for a just, loving and peaceful world,” King said to applause. “I am very proud to be their granddaughter, but I am also challenged by their inspiring legacy of vision, courage and their competent leadership. And I know that I’m not alone. Their examples belong to all of us. We are all challenged to carry forth their unfinished work.”
For her part in carrying forth, King said she feels called to campaign for social justice initiatives that fight homelessness, pollution, and most poignantly, gun violence, having lost not just her grandfather to it but also her great-grandmother, Alberta Williams King, who was shot and killed by a domestic terrorist as she sat at the organ of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta six years after her son was assassinated.
“Gun violence is very real to me,” King said to a hushed house. “Many people won’t take a 14-year-old seriously when it comes to addressing gun violence, but I know it is time for change, and it is my duty as an American to use the platform given to me by my grandparents’ sacrifices to uplift the voices of my peers.”
King said one quote from her grandfather comes to her mind in the wake of the country’s ongoing gun violence tragedies:
“‘We will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,’“ she recited. “‘That is our call to action. Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.’”
King said problems like gun violence can only be addressed by legislation reforms, which is why she’s made fighting for voting rights another one of her life missions.
“As my grandfather once said, ‘The most important step you can take is the short walk to the ballot box,’” said King. “That’s why he and my grandmother Coretta Scott King led the Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965.”
It’s in their honor, she said, that she has decided to take the torch passed down by her famous family and run with it.
“Even though I’m too young to vote, I am not too young to get involved.”
King said she is committed to educating herself and her peers about needed reforms in her home state of Georgia. She then suggested maybe it’s time to start a national discussion about lowering the voter age, noting that a person can vote at age 16 in about a dozen countries and jurisdictions, including Austria, Brazil, Argentina, Scotland, Wales, Ecuador and Nicaragua, among others
“Some people might think, well, 16 is pretty young. Do 16-year-olds really have the maturity to vote?” she asked. “My response simply is that maturity doesn’t automatically begin at any particular age. I know some young people who are better informed and more mature than older voters.”
King concluded her speech with a quote from her grandfather’s final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”:
“On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
King said her parents have never pushed her into social activism. She decided on her own to do everything in her power to make her grandfather’s dream for the world a reality. It’s a legacy that could weigh heavily on someone so young, but King said she’s thankful for it, looking forward to the challenges ahead, and offered hope for the future to those in attendance of older generations.
“I’m 14 years old, and I’m just getting started.”