Aletha Cherry figured she’d see many familiar faces at her Spelman College homecoming in Georgia in 2019. But the longtime educator didn’t expect to hear this particular voice from her past as she walked down the street.
“Had no clue who it was,” she said.
“Next thing I know, I have an Atlanta police officer walking towards me and I’m trying to figure out what I did wrong,” she said.
As the officer got closer, Cherry quickly realized she wasn’t in trouble and was instead about to experience a pride-filled reunion.
“I recognized the smile and said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is Kyle,’” Cherry said. “This is one of my students.”
It was Kyle King, who was a seventh-grade student in Cherry’s class at Young Middle School in Atlanta during the 2001-02 school year. Back then, Kyle preferred to keep his last name—and his famous family tree—a secret to his classmates. He just wanted to be “Kyle, the student” and not Kyle King, the great nephew of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Over the years, Kyle has become more comfortable with the significance of his last name and its profound meaning to the civil rights movement. But the 32-year-old would still rather carry on the King legacy through his actions rather than by telling everyone he meets about his lineage.
“The principle of helping others, that’s what I do now,” Kyle said. “I think maybe just hearing it forever, it’s automatically instilled in me. Just helping others try to live right, treating everybody the same.”
Cherry, now an Elementary School Curriculum Lead for Gradient Learning, remembers King displaying those “golden rule” values as a student in her classroom. She also distinctly recalls how Kyle told her he wanted to forge his own path in life without being led in a certain direction.
That’s why Cherry burst with joyful admiration during that unexpected 2019 meeting when she saw Kyle approach her in a police uniform. The two have remained close since then and recently got together in-person for a reflective conversation that showcased a powerful teacher-student bond that began 20 years ago and remains as strong as ever.
“You wanted to carve your own way and be your own person,” Cherry told Kyle. “And when we ran into each other (in 2019), I was so amazed at how you were able to do that. You were able to carve your own way.”
Cherry and Kyle were speaking at the end of a special January day for the King family. Earlier, Kyle joined other members of his family for a private meet-and-greet with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who both traveled to Atlanta to pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. Kyle was also a part of a ceremony at The King Center, where Biden and Harris laid a wreath at the marble crypt of Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
“It’s not often that the President and the VP come together for something like this,” Kyle said. “It’s usually just one. So that was a surprise that they were both there and that actually spoke volumes for me.”
Kyle, whose grandfather A.D. King was Martin Luther King Jr.’s brother, still lives and serves in the same Atlanta community from when he was a student in Cherry’s class. He may tease his former teacher about not remembering many academic details from seventh grade, but it’s evident that Cherry’s guidance and mentorship from that year has had a lasting impact on Kyle’s life.
Their meaningful connection is seen in the way a conversation between the two can smoothly shift from playful banter to serious thoughts about what life is like as a Black police officer who happens to have a famous last name on the front of his uniform.
“Growing up, I didn’t want to tell anybody, but now people say it jokingly, ‘Oh, are you related to Martin Luther King?’ And I say, ‘Actually yes, I am. It’s an honor,’” Kyle said about interactions he’s had while working in his community. “Maybe that makes them want to listen to me more. Maybe that’s when they think of what the last name stands for. ‘OK, he’s in that known family, but he’s here talking to me today. He’s here in the streets. He’s really out here.’”
“Which is what I admire,” Cherry told Kyle. “Knowing that you’re still communicating and you’re still reaching out to people who are in the neighborhoods that you grew up in is really significant.”
Kyle always felt driven to service and initially planned to pursue a career in journalism “so everybody has a chance to get their voice heard.” But as a student at Georgia Southern University, it clicked for him that he could still accomplish those goals and be “on the side of the truth” through law enforcement.
“A lot of people don’t get heard,” Kyle said. “There are so many people that dislike the police just from how they were brought up in certain communities. If I can change what one person thinks, that person can say, ‘I ran into this officer that was cool.’ … I just want people to think before they react.”
Kyle would also love for others to think and reflect on his great uncle’s legacy throughout the year, rather than only on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in January or during Black History Month in February.
“They don’t think of what the family is doing or wonder, ‘How can I really put what he stood for in my daily life?’” Kyle said. “It’s all kind of like a trend-of-the-day when that day comes around.”
Hearing that, Cherry nodded in approval, and then celebrated the positive long-term change that her former student can make each day—in his own way—while proudly serving in their beloved city.
“I appreciate you,” Cherry said.
“I appreciate you,” Kyle said.