Going vegan in 1987, advised by Dick Gregory, may have almost doubled Dexter King’s lifespan in long fight against cancer
MALIBU, California––Dexter Scott King, 62, second son of Martin Luther King Jr., influential for more than 35 years in boosting vegetarianism and veganism among African-Americans, on the morning of January 22, 2024 “transitioned peacefully in his sleep at home with me in Malibu,” his wife Leah Weber King said in a media statement distributed by the Atlanta-based Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change.
Dexter Scott King and Leah Weber King had been married since 2013.
Dexter King died from prostate cancer, a disease he apparently fought for most of his life.
“He faced this hurdle with bravery and might”
“He gave it everything and battled this terrible disease until the end. As with all the challenges in his life, he faced this hurdle with bravery and might,” Leah Weber King said.
According to a 1997 profile by Kevin Sack of the Tampa Bay Times, Dexter King “dropped out of his father’s alma mater, Morehouse College, because of an illness he will not discuss. He said the condition became manageable after he adopted a vegan diet and took ‘a journey of self-discovery.’”
In 1987 Dexter King visited a health spa that athlete, comedian, and activist Dick Gregory founded in the Bahamas.
Dexter King became vegan on 27th birthday
Influenced by Gregory, “On January 30, 1988, my twenty-seventh birthday, I became a strict vegetarian. I developed a passion for health and nutrition,” Dexter King testified in 2003. “My diet consists of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and legumes only, and has for the past 15 years now.”
“His family – mother Coretta Scott King, sisters Bernice and Yolanda, and brother Martin Luther III – greeted his new regimen with curiosity,” wrote Jill Howard Church in 1995 for Vegetarian Times.
Mother & friends followed Dexter King’s example
“My family has always been very open-minded,” said Dexter King, “but certainly [veganism] was not their orientation. They were not sure what to think.
“When I first became a vegetarian, I was very self-righteous about it,” Dexter King added. “As I’ve aged and become more seasoned with time, I’ve mellowed. The best testimonial is the proof in the pudding.”
Part of that proof was that Dexter King’s mother, Coretta Scott King (1927-2006), also persuaded by her lifelong friend Barbara Reynolds, became vegan in 1995 and remained vegan for the last 12 years of her life, as did several of her other friends.
Among them was Rosa Parks (1913-2005), whose 1955 refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, led to her arrest and touched off a boycott of the city-owned bus company led by Martin Luther King Jr., then a young local minister.
This led to the November 1955 U.S. Supreme Court decision that abolished segregation in public transportation, was among the first major victories of the 20th century civil rights movement, and projected Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence.
“I was not in the practice of eating a lot of meat,” Rosa Parks explained.
In childhood, she said, “We had peach, apple, plums. We would go into the woods and eat blackberries. It was not hard at all for me to not eat meat.”
Adds the Vegetarians of Washington website, “Among her favorite vegetables were broccoli, greens, sweet potatoes and string beans.”
Deeply involved in the affairs of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change, and quiet by nature, Dexter King except in that 1995 Vegetarian Times article relatively seldom spoke in public about veganism and animal advocacy.
Though noted in passing seven times in Dexter King’s 2004 memoir Growing Up King, his beliefs about animals and food were usually mentioned by others almost as a footnote to articles focused on the legacies of his father, Martin Luther King Jr., and, sometimes, Dick Gregory.
But Dexter King made his views clear to Jill Howard Church.
“Veganism has given me a higher level of awareness and spirituality,” Dexter King said, “primarily because the energy associated with eating has shifted to other areas.
“If you are violent to yourself by putting [harmful] things into your body that violate its spirit, it will be difficult not to perpetuate that [violence] onto someone else,” Dexter King added.
“I know more African-Americans who are becoming aware”
Dexter King also observed that, “Women in general are probably more sensitive to their health needs and sensitive to what they eat. Men generally are not as concerned.
“I don’t know a heck of a lot of African-Americans who are vegetarian,” Dexter King admitted, “but I know more who are becoming aware.”
That was 28 years before his death.
By then the downtown Atlanta neighborhood surrounding the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change had become one of the national hubs of the fast-growing African-American vegan/vegetarian movement.
Traci Thomas, who founded the Black Vegetarian Society of Georgia in 2002, the first of an international string of Black Vegetarian Societies, credited Dick Gregory rather than Dexter King with inspiring her to give up meat in 1994, but when in Atlanta, Dexter King was a regular customer at the tiny Black Vegetarian Society of Georgia restaurant.
Thomas was among the first vegans––of any ethnicity––to win national media notice as a vegan teacher and advocate without initially achieving celebrity as an athlete, entertainer, or spiritual leader. Her 2002 recommendation of corn on the cob as a simple vegan focal food for summer picnics won extensive notice in Midwestern small town newspapers that might never before have published the word “vegan.”
Thomas followed up by popularizing vegan recipes consisting of five ingredients or fewer, to appeal to anyone whose time for shopping and cooking is limited.
Later, fellow Atlanta resident Pinky Cole founded her Slutty Vegan burger counter in the neighborhood.
“Slutty Vegan became the place to be seen waiting, especially if you’re an African-American celebrity,” observed New York Times reporter Kim Severson on July 1, 2019.
Since then, the vegan burger restaurant has expanded successfully to five locations serving majority African-American neighborhoods around Atlanta; Athens and Columbus, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; and Brooklyn and Harlem in New York City.
Taking care of business
Dexter King meanwhile established himself as a businessman on another front.
“After succeeding his mother as both the head of the King Center for Social Change and executor of Dr. King’s estate, Dexter King quickly consolidated control over the family’s social agenda and financial affairs,” recounted Kevin Sack of the Tampa Bay Times.
Dexter King’s first tenure heading the King Center, in 1989, was brief, as his initial attempts to exercise leadership met intense opposition from within.
When Dexter King returned, in 1994, the King Center was reportedly almost bankrupt.
“Cobbled together a vision”
“Since then, with halting, often awkward steps,” Sack wrote in his 1997 profile, Dexter King has cobbled together a vision for preserving his father’s legacy that relies more on the Internet and intellectual property rights than on the cause-oriented mission that Mrs. King established for the King center in 1968.
“In many ways,” Sack observed, “the transition from mother to son has highlighted the generational differences between the marchers and dreamers of the civil rights era and the deal makers and realists of today.
James Earl Ray
An early bizarre misstep was a March 1997 televised prison meeting with the terminally ill confessed Martin Luther King Jr. assassin James Earl Ray––who later recanted his own testimony.
“Without any showing of evidence,” summarized Sack, “Dexter King declared that his family believed Ray innocent of any knowing involvement in the killing.”
“Dexter King later implicated President Lyndon B. Johnson in a government conspiracy,” Sack continued, “a theory promoted by Ray’s lawyer, William Pepper.”
“I have never seen myself the way the media has portrayed me, as a leader,” Dexter King told Sack. “I’m not trying to have a constituency. I’m not trying to be preachy or be on a pedestal. I’m not trying to effect change on that level, not because it’s not something that should be done, but that’s just not my best destiny.”
Sack noted “intense opposition or, at the very least, befuddlement,” from “civil rights veterans who marched at Dr. King’s side, from board members of the King Center, from the pulpit of the church where Dr. King, his father, and his maternal grandfather had been pastor, and from the liberal black editorial page editor of the Atlanta Constitution.”
Lawsuits filed against Dexter King in 2008 by his sister Bernice King and brother Martin Luther King III followed, including a case filed by Bernice King on behalf of the estate of Coretta Scott King. All three lawsuits were settled out of court in 2009.
The Dexter King legacy as regards the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. may remain controversial for years to come.
His “best destiny,” meanwhile, may be a statistic: when Dexter King became vegan in 1988, only about 3% of Americans of European descent were vegans and vegetarians, and barely 1% of Americans of African descent.
Today the percentage of Americans of European descent who are vegans or vegetarians is still only about 3%, but the percentage of Americans of African descent who are vegans or vegetarians is at 8% and rapidly growing.