Hundreds Mourn Eldest of King Children

( [email protected] ) May 25, 2007 03:57 PM EDT

ATLANTA (AP) - Hundreds gathered Thursday to mourn Yolanda "Yoki" Denise King, the eldest daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who carried his legacy through her art and activism.

Her sister, Bernice, and brothers Martin and Dexter each lit a candle in her memory. Several veterans of the civil rights struggle attended, including Rep. John Lewis, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and the Rev. Joseph Lowery.

Yolanda King died May 15 in California after collapsing.

Many in attendance did not know the 51-year-old actress, producer and motivational speaker, but came to pay tribute to the King family's legacy of nonviolence and social justice. She was eulogized at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where her father preached from 1960 until his death in 1968.

"She dealt with the difficulty of personal pain and public responsibility and yet ... she emerged from it all victorious," said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer. "Thank you for her voice."

Poet Maya Angelou wrote a tribute that was read during the memorial service.

"Yolanda proved daily that it was possible to smile while wreathed in sadness," Angelou wrote. "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."

Children of Martin Luther King Jr.'s lieutenants in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were among those to remember their lifelong friend.

Juandalynn Abernathy read a letter to Yolanda King.

"It's strange to be here today, without your smiling face," said Abernathy, daughter of King's right-hand man, Ralph David Abernathy. "You are my oldest friend, whom I met in the crib."

Elizabeth Omilami, actress, activist and daughter of activist Hosea Williams, thanked her friend through a dramatic tribute.

"She could make anything sound like Shakespeare," Omilami said. "She was more than an actress. She was an actress on a mission."

Omilami vowed to use King's example to keep pursuing her own dreams and urged mourners to do the same.

"Don't wait. If you got that one thing in your heart that you really want to do ... she showed us the way," Omilami said. "Go and do it and be."

Yolanda King was also honored by former classmates from Grady High School in Atlanta and Smith College in Langhorne, Pa.

King's siblings recalled her warmth and independence.

"She gave me permission," said Dexter King. "She allowed me to give myself permission to be me."

Bernice King described her loss as one of the most difficult she has ever experienced, more even than their mother, who died last year. "It's 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 reminisced about being the Kings' second-born child, a role he said made Yolanda jealous. He said his older sister was always overcommitted but still found time for the things that were important to her.

"Yolanda is still in business," he said. "She just moved upstairs."

The siblings spoke to the media after the five-hour service. Dexter King, who was with Yolanda King when she died and tried to resuscitate her, said the preliminary cause of death was congestive heart failure.

Dexter King said that he had spoken to his older sister about an hour before she died and that she told him she was tired. He said he thought nothing of it because of her hectic schedule.

Bernice King said she plans to get examined for possible heart conditions, and King III said he was examined about a month ago and does not have any problems.

"This is a wake-up call for all of us," he said.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.