Even after becoming a civil rights leader and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, in the “quiet recesses” of his heart Martin Luther King, Jr., remained a Baptist preacher. “This is my being and my heritage,” he once explained, “for I am also the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher” (King, “The Un-Christian Christian”). The tightly knit extended family in which King, Jr., was raised had a profound influence on his worldview. “It is quite easy for me to think of a God of love mainly because I grew up in a family where love was central and where lovely relationships were ever present” (Papers 1:360).
King, Jr.’s maternal great-grandfather, Willis Williams, who was born in 1810, was described as “an old slavery time preacher” and an “exhorter” (Papers 1:1). In 1846, when Willis joined Shiloh Baptist Church in Greene County, Georgia, its congregation numbered 50 white and 28 black members, with African Americans actively participating in church affairs and serving on church committees. In 1855 nearly a hundred blacks joined the congregation, including 15-year-old Lucrecia (or Creecy) Daniel. She and Willis were married in the late 1850s or early 1860s, and she bore him five children, including Adam Daniel (A. D.) Williams, King, Jr.’s grandfather. The family left Shiloh Baptist Church when it, like other southern congregations, divided along racial lines at the end of the Civil War.
Born in Atlanta in April 1873, Jennie Celeste Parks, King, Jr.’s maternal grandmother, was one of thirteen children. Her father, William Parks, supported his family through work as a carpenter. At age 15, Jennie Parks began taking classes at Spelman Seminary, but she left in 1892 without graduating. Married to A. D. Williams on 29 October 1899, she was a deeply pious woman who always kept a Bible nearby and was “a model wife for a minister” (Papers 1:7). On 13 September 1903, she gave birth at home to their only surviving child, Alberta Christine Williams, the mother of King, Jr. During the early years of the century, the family lived in several houses in the Auburn Avenue area, which was then home to both whites and blacks. The Williamses transformed nearby Ebenezer Baptist Church from a struggling congregation without a building in the 1890s into one of black Atlanta’s most prominent institutions.
As “First Lady” of Ebenezer, Jennie Williams was involved in most aspects of church governance and headed the Missionary Society for many years. She represented the church in local Baptist organizations and the Woman’s Convention, an auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention. Known as “Mama” to her grandchildren, she was particularly protective of her first grandson and “could never bear to see him cry” (Papers 1:29). Referring to her as “saintly,” King, Jr., acknowledged her considerable impact on his childhood. “She was very dear to each of us, but especially to me,” he later wrote. “I sometimes think that I was [her] favorite grandchild. I can remember very vividly how she spent many evenings telling us interesting stories” (Papers 1:359).
King, Jr.’s paternal ancestors can also be traced back to slavery. King, Jr.’s paternal great-grandfather Jim Long (born ca. 1842) had been used by his owner to breed slaves, conceiving children with several women. Census records show that after the Civil War, Long maintained at least two families in Henry County, Georgia, where he also registered to vote during Reconstruction. Long’s relationship with Jane Linsey (born 1855) produced a daughter, Delia, in 1875, who married James Albert King (born 1864) in 1895. Like many families, the Kings were poor; the county tax lists record little personal property for James King.
The family of Delia and James King included nine children. Michael King (who later changed his name to Martin Luther King, Sr.), was born on 19 December 1897, the second child and first son. During his childhood, King, Sr., later recalled, “My mother had babies, worked the fields, and often went during the winter to wash and iron in the homes of whites around town” (Papers1:21). His father’s life followed the unchanging seasonal labors of a sharecropper; the rewards were paltry, made even more so by the inability of powerless blacks to prevent cheating by white landlords.
For Delia King and her children, the rituals of the black church offered relief from this life of hardship. Although the family occasionally attended a local Methodist church as well as the Baptist church, they established enduring ties with Floyd Chapel Baptist Church in Stockbridge. Its Sunday services, Wednesday prayer meetings, baptisms, weddings, funerals, and special Christmas and Easter services offered welcome diversions. King, Sr., wrote: “Papa was not religious, and although I don’t think he was very enthusiastic about my attending so many church affairs, he never interfered with Mama’s taking me” (Papers 1:21). Unable to find solace in religion, James King became increasingly cynical in the face of the economic and racial hardships of his life. His family became targets of his angry outbursts, fueled by alcoholism.
On Thanksgiving Day 1926, Martin Luther King, Sr., married Alberta Williams, who gave birth to Willie Christine King (Farris) in 1927, Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1929, and Alfred Daniel King in 1930. The first 12 years of King’s childhood were spent in the home at 501 Auburn Avenue that his parents shared with his maternal grandparents, A. D. and Jennie Celeste Williams. Martin Luther King, Sr., succeeded his father-in-law as Ebenezer’s pastor, and Alberta Williams King followed her mother as a powerful presence in Ebenezer’s affairs.