There is a secret about Bernice King that not everyone close to her wants you to know.

"She has a shoe fetish," says Angela Farris-Watkins, a cousin. "She has shoes to go with every outfit. She likes all kinds of shoes: sandals, heels, open-toed and different colors. She buys shoes like bread."

It's not surprising that the youngest child of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would care so much about what she puts on her feet. She has been walking in the footsteps of one of history's greatest moral leaders all of her life.

With the nation poised to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the daughter of the dreamer seems to be stepping out of his shadow.

A guarded woman who once contemplated suicide, the Rev. Bernice King is openly confronting some of the painful and controversial episodes in her life. She is engaging in a flurry of interviews with journalists to mark the commemoration of her father's most famous speech. Now 50, she was born just months before her father told the world, "I have a dream."

She also is lowering some of the walls that she admits she erected over the years to protect herself from stinging criticism directed at her and her family.

"People just don't know me, period," she says. "The first tendency is to make a judgment. Part of that has to do with people feeling like I'm stoic, standoffish. Some people feel like I'm arrogant. It's unfortunate because people don't know my heart.''

For some, she is freeze-framed as the bewildered girl who rested her head on her mother's lap at her father's funeral in 1968. For others, she is one of the King children, accused of aggressively seeking to profit off their father's legacy while embroiled in legal feuds with each other. Still others see her as the daughter who invoked her father's legacy while marching against same-sex marriage.

In one of her most candid interviews, King talked with CNN about all of those episodes in her life.

It couldn't have been easy for her. She sighed loudly at times at some questions and once flashed a hint of exasperation. To be so publicly vulnerable is not easy for a woman who carefully plans everything, even if it's just walking to her mailbox, friends and family say.

"If you're out among the people, and everybody thinks you belong to them and you've never met them, you, too, would walk a little quieter," says another cousin, the Rev. Alveda King.

'I have walls for a reason'

On a recent afternoon, King is walking into the spiritual birthplace of her family, Ebenezer Baptist Church. She is running 40 minutes late, and a crowd of photographers and onlookers -- including several Buddhist monks -- gather to watch.

Before she poses for photographs, King asks about the type of pictures that will be taken and mentions some earlier photos of her that she didn't like.

Farris-Watkins, a psychology professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, says King is a "Type-A person" who is not comfortable with spontaneity.

"You can say, 'Let's go and do so and so' on the spur of the moment, and she will rarely answer yes," Farris-Watkins says. "She would rather have planned that."

Even small gestures have to be planned, Farris-Watkins says.

"I don't care if she's just going to the mailbox," she says, "she won't come out unless she is in makeup and dressed."

Unplanned moments have not been kind to King's family. Sudden bursts of tragedy are part of her history. It goes beyond her father. Nestled in the basement of Ebenezer is a picture of her grandmother, Alberta Williams King. She was shot and killed by a gunman in 1974 while sitting at the church's organ one Sunday. Bernice King's uncle, the Rev. A.D. King, was found dead in his swimming pool a year after her father's assassination.

There have been more recent losses. In 2006, her mother, Coretta Scott King, died from ovarian cancer. And only a year later, her only sister, Yolanda, a warm and vivacious woman who some say held the King children together, died suddenly of a heart attack at 52.

"I have walls for a reason," she says. "When you grow up with the kind of tragedy we've grown up with, you're cautious. I was 5 when he was assassinated. Some of the distrust and walls come up automatically. It's kind of comes second nature. That probably bothers me the most."

King has had to assume a resolute public face in the face of all these tragedies, says W. Imara Canady, a longtime friend and Atlanta regional office area director for the United Negro College Fund.

"Most of us get the opportunity to deal with tragedy privately," Canady says. "I don't know if she's even had the space to grieve."

Beyond the upcoming march commemoration, King is assuming a more public role for another reason: She was appointed chief executive officer of the King Center last year. She sees the King Center as an educational institution that teaches nonviolence, not an activist group that protests the burning issues of the day.

Still, she speaks bluntly about issues such as economic inequality and racial justice. She criticized the recent U.S. Supreme Court voting rights decision. The court voted 5-4 to essentially gut the mechanism in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that forced certain states to "pre-clear" or get prior approval from the federal government for any changes in voting procedures.