Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries
Alberta Williams King, mother of Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta in 1903, the only surviving child of Jennie Celeste Williams and Adam Daniel Williams, pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. King often spoke of the positive influence his mother had on his moral development, deeming her “the best mother in the world” (Papers 1:161). In a piece he wrote as a student at Crozer Theological Seminary, he described his mother as being “behind the scene setting forth those motherly cares, the lack of which leaves a missing link in life” (Papers 1:360).
Williams attended high school at Spelman Seminary and went on to enroll in Hampton Normal and Industrial Institute, where she obtained her teaching certificate. Before attending Hampton, Williams met a young minister named Michael King. Shortly after completing school, Williams and King announced their engagement during Sunday services at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Because the local school board did not allow married women in the classroom, Williams taught only briefly before her marriage on Thanksgiving Day 1926. After their wedding, the newlyweds moved into an upstairs bedroom in the Williams’ home on Auburn Avenue, where King, Jr., and his two siblings, Willie Christine and Alfred Daniel, were born.
After the death of A. D. Williams in 1931, Michael King succeeded his father-in-law as Ebenezer’s pastor and began using the name Martin Luther King. Alberta Williams King followed in her mother’s footsteps as a powerful presence in Ebenezer’s affairs. She founded the Ebenezer choir and was an organist there from 1932 to 1972. She continued her studies at Morris Brown College, receiving a BA in 1938. She was also organist for the Women’s Auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention from 1950 to 1962, and was active in the YWCA, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
As a mother, Alberta worked diligently to instill a sense of self-respect within her three children. King remembered his childhood as one of harmony spent “in a very congenial home situation,” with parents who “always lived together very intimately” (Papers 1:360). King, Jr., maintained a close relationship with his mother throughout his life. Writing to her from the Connecticut tobacco farm where he worked during the summer while a high school student, he requested, “Mother dear, I want you to send me some fried chickens and rolls” (Papers 1:116). Four years later, as a first-year student at Crozer, he wrote his mother, “I met a fine chick in Phila who has gone wild over the old boy” (Papers 1:161). Although her soft-spoken nature compelled her to avoid the publicity that accompanied her son’s international renown, she remained a constant source of strength to the King family, especially after King, Jr.’s assassination.
In 1974, as she played the organ during Sunday services at Ebenezer, Alberta Williams King was shot by Marcus Chenault, a 21-year-old man from Ohio who claimed, “All Christians are my enemies” (“Atlanta: Another King Killed”). Alberta Williams King died later that day at the age of 70.
“Atlanta: Another King Killed,” Newsweek (8 July 1974): 33–34.
King, “An Autobiography of Religious Development,” 12 September 1950–22 November 1950, in Papers 1:359–363.
King to Alberta Williams King, 18 June 1944, in Papers 1:115–116.
King to Alberta Williams King, October 1948, in Papers 1:161–162.