At just 13, Yolanda Renee King is already a seasoned speaker and activist.
Many might have first noticed the similarities between her and her grandfather, the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., when she took the stage at the 2018 March For Our Lives student-led demonstration in Washington, D.C., to talk about gun control. Or perhaps when she spoke about racial equality on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 2020.
The granddaughter of King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, Yolanda is using her voice this MLK Day to call attention to the importance of voting rights, and why younger generations should be involved with the fight.
“My family and I have been working on getting two major bills passed that can make it easier for people to vote, because one of the fundamental rights is the right to vote. Everybody needs to have access to voting,” she said.
President Joe Biden addressed the urgency to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act during a speech in Georgia on Tuesday. Each bill aims to create more accessibility and equality in the voting process. Advocates of these two bills argue it will allow more people of color to participate in elections, while also implementing regulations to prevent election day challenges, like waiting several hours in a line to cast votes.
While Yolanda is not yet old enough to vote, she said she’s always felt compelled to help others.
“There are even times my parents have told me about, that I don’t even remember ... for instance, every day, we would drive to school and we would see homeless people,” she said, “And when I was 3 or 4, I was already talking about them, and asking, ‘What are we going to do to help?’”
Yolanda said she has been learning about her influential family both at home and in school.
“Throughout my life, my parents have told me that ‘your family has done some really phenomenal work.’ And ‘you are the granddaughter of really phenomenal people who changed this country and the world,’” she said, “I didn’t really understand the significance of it until I got older.”
Her grandfather’s birthday officially became a federal holiday in 1986 — the third Monday in January honors King, who would have been 93 years old this year.
“MLK Day is not a day off,” Yolanda said, but instead, “it should be treated as a day on. It’s a day of service.”
While some might be inclined to celebrate the day by reflecting on her grandfather’s life, she said, there are more impactful ways to spend the holiday.
“I think that instead of idolizing my grandfather, pick a service project and do something to help the community,” Yolanda said. “It could be something as simple as picking up trash around your neighborhood park.”
With her family’s legacy and prominence helping to elevate her voice to the national stage, she said she has always felt like she could carry her own message.
“When you realize the significance of what comes with that name, it can be a lot of pressure. But I am also lucky enough to have parents who have told me 'you don’t have to be like your grandfather, you don’t have to be like your grandmother,'” Yolanda said.
“They never really forced me to do activism, this has been a decision of my own.”
On Jan. 18, Yolanda will be reflecting on the holiday herself and speaking at the Washington National Cathedral. For those who are not yet old enough to vote, she suggests using the power of their voice and influence to move the needle of progress in their own way.
“You have to go out and support those movements,” she said. “Although you may not be old enough to vote, you are the future. You and your decisions determine the future of the world.”