by Pam Johnson
Imagine you’re a writer, and you get a call one day from a friend asking if you might be available to provide speech-writing assistance to a colleague of his. And then imagine that the colleague turns out to be Yolanda Denise King, daughter of Coretta and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
That’s what happened to Janas Jackson, currently the Diversity and Inclusion Advisor for FedEx Express at the company’s headquarters in Memphis. The friend who called Janas was nationally-renowned author and motivational speaker Les Brown.
“When he told me Yolanda King was interested in talking to me about possible speech-writing help, I almost didn’t believe him. To say I was shocked would be an understatement.”
But the shock wore off a couple of days later when Janas got a call from Yolanda King herself. Thus began a friendship and collaboration that lasted until Yolanda’s untimely death in 2007.
Janas Jackson’s love of the written word has propelled her to a variety of communications roles that have taken her to various parts of the world.
A graduate of Carver High School in Memphis, she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and then a Master’s in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Her career accomplishments include serving as communications advisor and chief speechwriter to seven corporate CEOs. She has also served as communications liaison for FedEx operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. As a result of her accomplishments, Janas was awarded FedEx’s highest honor – the FedEx Five Star Award, as well as the Global Communications Excellence Award.
The first meeting
Days after that fateful call from Yolanda King back in 2003, Janas flew to Yolanda’s Los Angeles home for their first face-to-face meeting.
“As we climbed the stairs and entered her living room, I felt a certain eeriness because there were photos and memorabilia of her father that I had not recalled seeing in the media over the years. I could feel his presence in her home – not as the world’s most noted civil rights leader and Nobel laureate, but as somebody’s daddy.”
They spent the next several hours talking. Janas says Yolanda shared what it was like to grow up as a “King kid” with a larger-than-life father and mother. She recalls Yolanda saying how much she enjoyed when her father would come home, pick her up and put her on top of the refrigerator, then she’d jump down into his arms.
But then came the dark days of death and mourning. Yolanda was 12 years old when she lost her father, and was in high school when she lost her grandmother and uncle. What followed was pain, concerns about personal safety and an overwhelming sense that people expected things of her that she was not able to deliver.
Janas said she listened quietly as Yolanda told her story. At one point Janas asked Yolanda a question that startled her. “I asked her ‘if you had not been the daughter of Dr. King and Ms. Coretta, who would you be?’”
According to Janas, Yolanda paused for a second and then tears filled her eyes. “Of all the interviews I’ve had, no one has ever asked me that question.” After contemplating, she sat up straight and said “Drama is my calling and always has been. As a child, I always loved the theater and acting. I am an actress. I wrote and directed my first play when I was about eight years old and it’s always been a part of me.”
Janas said while reviewing Yolanda’s biographic information, she noticed Yolanda had earned an honorary doctorate, but Yolanda wanted Janas to remove that information. Janas asked her why. The response was “I only have one honorary doctoral degree. My mother has about 40 and so did my father.” Janas remembers laughing and saying “most people don’t even have one! You need to keep that in your profile. It’s seems you’ve been trying to walk and run in your parents’ big shoes.”
A friendship is born
Over the next few months Janas and Yolanda became close friends. Janas worked on revising Yolanda’s bio, and created some of the poetic monologues and speeches that spoke to Yolanda’s own vision for peace and personal empowerment and reemphasized her father’s mission. Yolanda would call her on a regular basis just to talk, or to ask for advice on how to best convey a certain idea or concept in one of the many public speeches she was asked to do all over the country.
Yolanda invited Janas to many of her performances, such as the one she did at the King Holiday event at the Tennessee Center for the Performing Arts in Nashville in 2005. Yolanda recited one of the poems Janas had written, which was a tribute to her father. The poem had been set to music by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.
That same poem, “My Father Was a King,” was read by Yolanda at the groundbreaking ceremony of the King Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 2006. * (The title was amended for that event to “Our Father was a King” because Yolanda’s siblings were present.)
Janas says some of the most endearing memories of Yolanda center on her warmth, humility and thoughtfulness.
Yolanda once starred in a production of “A Raisin in the Sun” at Cornell University. “I flew to Ithaca, New York to see the performance,” Janas recalls.
“When I happened to mention that I love waterfalls, Yolanda spent an entire day taking me around to all the beautiful waterfalls in Ithaca. Even though she was scheduled to appear on stage before a sell-out crowd in a matter of hours, she hiked around with me through the mud and mist just so I could enjoy those waterfalls.”
Yolanda celebrated her 50th birthday in November of 2005 with two parties – one in Los Angeles and one in Atlanta. Janas attended the one in Atlanta which included a host of famous friends and family.
“There were poetry readings, interpretive dances, songs performed by celebrity artists like Stephanie Mills and stars from Tyler Perry movies and speeches from people who knew her from childhood. And the party didn’t end until Yolanda had hugged everybody in the room.”
When Coretta Scott King died in 2006, Janas was invited to sit in the family and friends section at the funeral, which was attended by four U.S. Presidents. Yolanda asked Janas to create a tribute to her parents titled “Together Forever,” which was read by Yolanda, her sister Bernice and brother Martin II when their parents’ remains where entombed together at the King Center in Atlanta.
Continuing the legacy
Yolanda spent her last days organizing and archiving her mother’s belongings in Atlanta. It was a monumental task – there were so many artifacts, articles and years of documents that needed to be inventoried.
“I think at times it became overwhelming for her, not just physically but emotionally,” says Janas. Yolanda King outlived her mother by only 16 months, succumbing to complications related to a chronic heart condition on May 15, 2007.
“Like her father, she left us far too soon,” says Janas. “She spent her adult years trying to lift others to higher ground, encouraging them to find inner peace and to use their talents and strengths to improve their own lives and the lives of others.”
Janas attended Yolanda’s funeral in Atlanta and recalls thinking how similar the home-going services were to the 50th birthday celebration – with poems, songs, dance and speeches from longtime friends.
“While she wasn’t there to hug everybody at Ebenezer Church, we could still feel her warmth because she hugged everybody while she lived.”
(To see Yolanda King reciting “(My) Our Father Was a King” at the King Memorial dedication event, visit https://www.cspan.org/video/?c4613063/yolanda-king.}