Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries
In a speech expressing his views on “the true mission of the Church,” Martin Luther King, Sr., told his fellow clergymen that they must not forget the words of God: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor.... In this we find we are to do something about the brokenhearted, poor, unemployed, the captive, the blind, and the bruised” (King, Sr., 17 October 1940). Martin Luther King, Jr., credited his father with influencing his decision to join the ministry, saying: “He set forth a noble example that I didn’t [mind] following” (Papers 1:363).
King, Sr., was born Michael King on 19 December 1897, in Stockbridge, Georgia. The eldest son of James and Delia King, King, Sr., attended school from three to five months a year at the Stockbridge Colored School. “We had no books, no materials to write with, and no blackboard,” he wrote, “But I loved going” (King, Sr., 37).
King experienced a number of brutal incidents while growing up in the rural South, including witnessing the lynching of a black man. On another occasion he had to subdue his drunken father who was assaulting his mother. His mother took the children to Floyd Chapel Baptist Church to “ease the harsh tone of farm life” according to King (King, Sr., 26). Michael grew to respect the few black preachers who were willing to speak out against racial injustices, despite the risk of violent white retaliation. He gradually developed an interest in preaching, initially practicing eulogies on the family’s chickens. By the end of 1917, he had decided to become a minister.
In the spring of 1918, King left Stockbridge to join his sister, Woodie, in Atlanta. The following year, Woodie King boarded at the home of A. D. Williams, minister of Ebenezer Baptist Church. King seized the opportunity to introduce himself to the minister’s daughter, Alberta Williams. Her parents welcomed King into the family circle, eventually treating him as a son and encouraging the young minister to overcome his educational limitations.
In March 1924, the engagement of Alberta to Michael King was announced at Ebenezer’s Sunday services. Meanwhile, King served as pastor of several churches in nearby College Park, while studying at Bryant Preparatory School. He followed the urging of Alberta Williams and her father to seek admission to Morehouse College and was admitted in 1926. King found the work difficult; however, he relied on the help of classmate Melvin H. Watson, the son of a longtime clerk at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Sandy Ray of Texas, a fellow seminarian. “We shared an awe of city life, of cars, of the mysteries of college scholarship, and, most of all, of our callings to the ministry,” King recalled (King, Sr., 77).
On Thanksgiving Day 1926, Michael Luther King and Alberta Christine Williams were married at Ebenezer. The newlyweds moved into an upstairs bedroom of the Williams’ house on Auburn Avenue. The King family quickly expanded, with the birth of Willie Christine in 1927, Michael Luther, Jr., in 1929, and Alfred Daniel Williams in 1930, a month after King, Sr., received his bachelor’s degree in theology.
After the death of A. D. Williams in 1931, King, Sr., succeeded his father-in-law as pastor of Ebenezer. According to King’s recollections, A. D. Williams inspired him in many ways. Both men preached a social gospel Christianity that combined a belief in personal salvation with the need to apply the teachings of Jesus to the daily problems of their black congregations.
The Kings raised their children in what King, Jr., described as “a very congenial home situation,” with parents who “always lived together very intimately” (Papers 1:360). Hidden from view were his parents’ negotiations regarding their conflicting views on discipline. Although King, Sr., believed that the “switch was usually quicker and more persuasive” in disciplining his boys, he increasingly deferred to his wife’s less stern but effective approach to childrearing (King, Sr., 130).
In 1934, King, Sr., attended the World Baptist Alliance in Berlin. Traveling by ocean liner to France, he and 10 other ministers also toured historic sites in Palestine and the Holy Land. “In Jerusalem, when I saw with my own eyes the places where Jesus had lived and taught, a life spent in the ministry seemed to me even more compelling,” King recalled (King, Sr., 97). A story appearing in the Atlanta Daily World upon King’s return to Atlanta in August 1934 increased his prominence and relative affluence among Atlanta’s elite. This was also reflected in the final transformation of his name from Michael King to Michael Luther King and finally Martin Luther King (although close friends and relatives continued to refer to him and his son as Mike or M. L.).
In Atlanta, King, Sr., not only engaged in personal acts of political dissent, such as riding the “whites only” City Hall elevator to reach the voter registrar’s office, but was also a local leader of organizations such as the Atlanta Civic and Political League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1939, he proposed, to the lack of opposition to more cautious clergy and lay leaders, a massive voter registration drive to be initiated by a march to City Hall. At a rally at Ebenezer of more than 1,000 activists, King referred to his own past and urged black people toward greater militancy. “I ain’t gonna plow no more mules,” he shouted. “I’ll never step off the road again to let white folks pass” (King, Sr., 100). A year later, King, Sr., braved racist threats when he became chairman of the Committee on the Equalization of Teachers’ Salaries, which was organized to protest discriminatory policies in teachers’ pay. With the legal assistance of the NAACP, the movement resulted in significant gains for black teachers.
Although too young to fully understand his father’s activism, King, Jr., later wrote that dinner discussions in the King household often touched on political matters, as King, Sr., expressed his views about “the ridiculous nature of segregation in the South” (Papers 1:33). King, Jr., remembered witnessing his father standing up to a policeman who stopped the elder King for a traffic violation and referred to him as a “boy.” According to King, Jr., his indignant father responded by pointing to his son and asserting: “This is a boy. I’m a man, and until you call me one, I will not listen to you.” The shocked policeman “wrote the ticket up nervously, and left the scene as quickly as possible” (King, Stride, 20).
King, Sr., was generally supportive of his son’s participation in the civil rights movement; however, during the Montgomery bus boycott, he and his wife were very concerned about the safety of King, Jr., and his family. King, Sr., asked a number of prominent Atlantans, such as Benjamin Mays, to try to convince King, Jr., not to return to Montgomery; but they were unsuccessful. King, Sr., later wrote, “I could only be deeply impressed with his determination. There was no hesitancy for him in this journey” (King, Sr., 172). King, Sr., traveled with the delegation to Oslo in 1964 to see his son accept the Nobel Peace Prize. In his autobiography, King, Sr., recalled, “As M. L. stood receiving the Nobel Prize, and the tears just streamed down my face, I gave thanks that out of that tiny Georgia town I’d been spared to see this and so much else” (King, Sr., 183).
Throughout his life, King, Sr., was a prominent civic leader in Atlanta, serving on the boards of Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and the National Baptist Convention. After the assassination of King, Jr., he spoke at numerous events honoring his son. A strong supporter of Jimmy Carter, he delivered invocations to the Democratic National Convention in 1976 and 1980. After serving Ebenezer for 44 years, he died in Atlanta in 1984.
Introduction, in Papers 3:14.
King, “An Autobiography of Religious Development,” 12 September 1950–22 November 1950, in Papers 1:359–363.
King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.
King, Sr., “Moderator’s Annual Address,” 17 October 1940, CSKC.
King, Sr., with Riley, Daddy King, 1980.
“Rev. King Is Royally Welcomed on Return From Europe,” Atlanta Daily World, 28 August 1934.