In a dimly lit church, just yards away from a housing project in central Memphis, a middle-aged black woman slowly ascended the pulpit.
"My name," she began, quietly, "is Alveda King."
With her first words she evoked the memory of her uncle, slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"My uncle said that we are the beloved community. He loved his family, his children, so very much." She told of watching her uncle playfully set his small children on top of the refrigerator then let them jump, squealing gleefully, into his arms.
She was there, on Tuesday night, as part of the week-long, 40th anniversary commemoration of his death, on April 4, 1968.
Like her uncle, King focused her message upon the plight of the powerless. "There are people dying in this country, everyday," she said. "They are unborn children." The room slowly grew quiet.
"The fight against abortion is a new frontier in the civil rights movement," she said.
Those who had come for a rousing sermon against racism weren't exactly disappointed - but they weren't exactly excited.
Earlier that day, in the lobby of a hotel less than half a mile from where her uncle was gunned down, King had sounded the same message.
"My uncle often said that we don't follow through."
She smiled as people filed toward her with copies of a new book, titled "Freedom," to which she had contributed an essay.
"He said that we admonish black women not to abort their babies but we don't show them how to care for them, don't give them options for life."
King, 57, an Atlanta resident and mother of six, works closely with a number of pro-life agencies, including Heartbeat International.
King's message has occasionally put her at odds with other black activists, particularly those who take a liberal stance on social justice issues. She publicly disagreed, for instance, with her late aunt, Coretta Scott King, who often spoke in favor of gay rights.
"I felt that Coretta's compassion was misguided," said King, adding that there was no anger between them.
That disagreement is indicative of King's overall proximity to her uncle's legacy and message: related, but different.
King said that many people assume that all African-Americans are social liberals. That, she said, just isn't so, and the book signing gave evidence: The room contained an inordinate number of self-avowed Republicans. King herself claims no party affiliation. She previously endorsed Sen. Sam Brownback, who dropped out of the presidential race in October 2007. Still, her positions speak volumes.
Wednesday morning, traveling from Memphis to Tupelo for another "Freedom" signing, King explained.
"Many blacks feel that their interests, their important issues, can be best served by the Democratic Party," she said, listing the war in Iraq, education reform, teen pregnancy, economics and incarceration. "Coretta called incarceration late-term abortion.'"
"African-Americans are seeing that it's not about conservative or liberal; it's about truth, a growing awareness."
Part of that growing awareness, King said, is discovering issues that have been "hidden" from blacks, like abortion.
"We didn't understand how dramatically abortion was affecting our community," she said. "The tradeoff between concentrating too much on other social issues and ignoring abortion has been a deadly tradeoff."
King's detractors claim that her conservative message is at odds with that of her uncle. In 1966, he received the Planned Parenthood of America Margaret Sanger Award.
Wednesday morning, at the offices of the American Family Association in Tupelo, King responded to that criticism.
"My uncle said that the Negro cannot prevail if he's willing to sacrifice the future of his children for immediate comfort and convenience."
Later, she added, "Seventy-eight percent of Planned Parenthood offices are in black neighborhoods. Blacks make up 12 percent of the U.S. population but have 37 percent of the abortions. If Martin could have foreseen 50 million babies murdered and thrown in the garbage since 1973 ... he would have given that award back."
Voice to the voiceless
King, who has an honorary doctorate from St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, was elected in 1978 to the first of two terms in the Georgia House of Representatives. She is a very different speaker than her uncle.
Whereas he employed a soaring oratory style, she favors stories about patriarchal figures in her family; figures like "Daddy King," her grandfather and her father, Dr. Alfred Daniel "AD" Williams King, Martin's brother, also a pastor and civil rights activist.
However, there's no mistaking the similarity between King and her uncle in their shared compassion for the oppressed.
"He worked to give a voice to the voiceless," she said. "I'm trying to do the same thing for a different group of voiceless people - the unborn." Just as her uncle's vision was forged in the heat of church fires, King's passion for the pro-life movement is rooted in personal experience. She has had two abortions.
Keeping the dream alive
In route from the AFA offices to Reed's bookstore, King checked her messages. She immediately returned one, from a minister.
"Pastor, can you take a minute to pray?" she asked. After a long silence, she hung up and said, solemnly, "If we're not speaking for the voiceless, not being strong for those who are weak, we're not living Martin's dream."
At Reed's book store, seated at the head of another signing line for "Freedom," she suddenly hesitated. "I want to say something," she said. "Being here with you all, I was thinking of the importance of freedom - the message of this book - and family. I was thinking about my uncle, who died 40 years ago, and how he loved family."
The impromptu speech suggested what she'd said in Memphis the night before: "The core of Martin's message was being a soldier of love. Martin said that we are the beloved community. If we protect the powerless, if we love when others hate, we keep his dream alive."
Originally appeared in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal 4/4/08