Living in the Shadow of a King

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Growing up Knig:

An Intimate Memoir

By Dexter Scott King with Ralph Wiley

(Warner Books, $24.95)

One day in the early 1990s, shortly after he turned 30, Dexter Scott King toured the former Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the site where his father was shot in 1968. The motel had been converted into the National Civil Rights Museum, a creative but bizarre showcase of momentos that led viewers almost unknowingly up to the second-floor balcony, where the room Martin Luther King Jr. rented-- 306 - has been neatly preserved.

There, the youngest King son, who many say is a near replica of his dad, witnessed an eerie technological feature, a blue laser that traces the path of the assassin's bullet. "It all suddenly seemed morbid," King, 42, writes. "I could feel a cold sweat, and blood rising in my neck -- where my father took the fatal shot. I thought of a song played in the documentary, Montgomery to Memphis, "The King of Love Is Dead" by Nina Simone.

That vivid scene of a boy confronting the death of his father is just one reason to read Dexter King's memoir, Growing Up King, a flawed but revealing book co-written by journalist Ralph Wiley. It sheds new light on Black America's first family, and on the man-child who's leading the institutional legacy of his martyred father, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-- Violent Social Change in Atlanta.

Scholars who ache to study the Kings will no doubt pick the book apart for its many failures - dates that aren't remembered, recollections that aren't supported, footnotes that aren't supplied. But the book illuminates subjects the Kings have left dark until now: what it must have been like to be the child of a man who is widely considered to be the nation's conscience; what it must've been like to be watching television and learn that Dad was dead in a special bulletin; and what it must've been like to grow up in the shadow of a legend, where parents were afraid to allow their daughter to date you because they irrationally thought you might be gunned down at any second.

There are parts of the book that are surprisingly honest, like the King Center board's rebellion against Dexter's selection as president by his mother in 1989. He was thoroughly unaccomplished, having abandoned his studies at Morehouse College, where he excelled only at being a partying deejay and worked as an Atlanta police officer who liked to visit the King Center with a loaded gun. He struggled with attention deficit disorder that wasn't diagnosed until he was 28, and wrecked an insane number of cars in accidents. …