Health and civil rights: an iconic family counts the costs

This week marks 55 years since civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee while assisting striking sanitation workers. Dr. King’s death left a deep and indelible impact on America and sparked mass protests across the country.

For the King family, however, the assassination would only be the first of many tragedies to come. Now, an upcoming podcast explores the link between intergenerational trauma and future health outcomes. Host Lee Hawkins, veteran journalist and author of Nobody’s Slave: How Uncovering My Family’s History Set Me Free, takes a deep dive into the King family and their story of early deaths.

“I thought it was important to ask the King family about the impacts of this and the fact that so many people died prematurely from heart attacks,” Hawkins said in an interview with David Brancaccio. from Marketplace. “Dr. King’s daughter, Yolanda, died at age 51. Her brother, AD, had five children. Three of them died of heart attacks, one of them at age 20.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancacio: 55 years after the terrible events in Memphis, you reflect on the stress experienced by Dr. King’s extended family. Truly, even in newer generations, trauma preceded murder, and new trauma followed for family members. It continues.

Lee Hawkin: Yes. And the fact that Dr King’s brother drowned just a few years after he was murdered and then his mother was also murdered while she was playing the organ in church – in Ebenezer Baptist Church . And back then, the King kids were just kids. And so losing Dr. King, their uncle, and also their beloved grandmother was really something that put a lot of stress on the kids from an early age. And as a result of that, there were a lot of health implications.

Brancacio: Yesuh, I mean, post-traumatic stress, the word stress is there, but it’s really the word trauma that is the most evocative in this sentence.

Lee Hawkin: I think so. And as you see racism is now considered a public health crisis, the effects of accelerated aging are being studied in the context of racism by experts across the country. And I thought it was important to ask the King family about the impacts of that and the fact that so many people died prematurely from heart attacks. Dr King’s daughter, Yolanda, has died aged 51. Her brother, AD, had five children. Three of them died of a heart attack, including one at the age of 20. When this happened, many other members of the King family went to get tested and they found that many of them had heart complications. And now it could also be genetic because Dr. Martin Luther King, when they did the autopsy on him, it turned out he had a heart of a 60-year-old man and he didn’t was only 39 years old. And so it raises serious questions about the impact of racism.

Brancacio: And this research that is currently taking place in this area. I think you did a podcast with experts put together by the famous Mayo Clinic. I think the main theme was racial equity in health, but you’ve heard biological evidence that trauma, post-traumatic stress, and other stresses can cause people to age faster.

Lee Hawkin: Yes, indeed, it can. In the scientific community, there is real pressure to start collecting data on patient profiles and move forward on the possibility of preventing some of these diseases. We know that chronic childhood stress, negative childhood experiences, having four or five or more can dramatically increase a person’s likelihood of dying 20 years earlier. So to be a young kid and go through this, it wouldn’t be surprising if someone had a long-lasting effect and impact after all that trauma.

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