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Yolanda Renee King on voting rights, 'critical race theory' and her grandfather's legacy

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

This week, we celebrate the birthday of civil rights legend the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. NPR's Alana Wise spoke to King's granddaughter, Yolanda, who is a budding civil rights activist in her own right.

ALANA WISE, BYLINE: You'd never guess Yolanda Renee King is in middle school. On the phone, she comes across a bit shy but incredibly well-spoken and thoughtful on issues that even adults struggle to talk about gracefully. That could be because she's been speaking on national platforms since before she hit double digits.

YOLANDA RENEE KING: My first speech where I really participated in a rally, I believe I was 9, but I really already had a concern about these issues at a very, very young age.

WISE: She's the daughter of Martin Luther King III and Andrea Waters King. And when she speaks about her grandfather, Yolanda talks in thinky, conceptual terms about his legacy and how educators should talk about his work.

KING: In most schools, they don't really break down - like, this is how he was able to accomplish this. Many times, schools just idolize him. And while it is great to acknowledge that he was a leader and a civil rights giant, it is so important to study his legacy.

WISE: She also speaks passionately about what she sees as education shortcomings and accurately depicting the civil rights movement and the work that's ongoing.

KING: Whether or not you get involved in the movement, it doesn't matter your party. I think all kids and all adults really need to learn about - take some time and learn about the movement.

WISE: And while her paternal grandfather is the most well-known activist in her lineage, King makes clear that there are powerful women in civil rights history who are often overlooked, like her grandmother, Coretta Scott King.

KING: People just think that she was the widow and wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But she was phenomenal, and she actually was the one who got him in the movement. And so I think it's so important to also talk about the Black women in the movement.

WISE: King says these women inspired her to be involved on issues she cares about, like gun violence, poverty and systemic racism. Activists like Yolanda are inspiring their adult counterparts.

STEPHEN A GREEN: We draw inspiration from their purity. Their moral vision is not tainted.

WISE: That's New York Reverend Stephen A. Green. The 29-year-old is embarking on a hunger strike, along with dozens of young people and faith leaders, in support of voting rights legislation. He says young people play a unique role in the movement.

GREEN: They still have a hunger and thirst for righteousness and a zeal for transformation that is not diluted.

WISE: King says that at times, it can be discouraging seeing that activists are still fighting many of the same battles her grandfather did. But she takes heart in the work ahead.

KING: He left clues for us, so it's not like when he left, we didn't have anywhere to start from. Like, he left a blueprint of what we have to do next.

WISE: The eighth-grader is spending the long weekend traveling to promote the two voting rights bills that have stalled in the U.S. Senate. Her next stop is to Washington, D.C., with her parents on Monday to deliver remarks on the Frederick Douglass Bridge. It will be 59 years after her grandfather's famous "I Have a Dream" speech. For NPR News in Washington, I'm Alana Wise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.