Although likely born in 1861, A. D. Williams, the grandfather of Martin Luther King, Jr., celebrated 2 January 1863, the day after the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation, as his birthday. Williams was one of the pioneers of a distinctive African American version of the social gospel, endorsing a strategy that combined elements of Booker T. Washington’s emphasis on black business development and W. E. B. Du Bois’ call for civil rights activism. As pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church for over 25 years, Williams infused his ministry with social activism by helping found the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Born in Greene County, Georgia, to slaves Willis and Lucrecia Williams, A. D. spent his childhood on the William N. Williams plantation. After the death of his father in 1874, he and his family moved to nearby Scull Shoals, a rural community on the Oconee River. Williams’ desire to follow his father, “an old slavery time preacher,” into the ministry was evident even as a child, when “it was his greatest pleasure to preach the funeral of snakes, cats, dogs, horses or any thing that died. The children of the community would call him to preach the funeral and they would have a big shout” (Papers 1:1; 4). Although he was unable to attend school because of the demands of sharecropping, the seven-year-old Williams reportedly “attracted the people for miles around with his ability to count” (Papers 1:4). Taught by several ministers in the community, Williams earned his license to preach in April 1888.
During the late 1880s and early 1890s A. D. Williams tried to make a living as an itinerant preacher while supplementing his income with other work. An injury in a sawmill accident left him with only the nub of a thumb on his right hand. Seeking better opportunities elsewhere Williams joined the black exodus from Greene County. In January 1893 he left for Atlanta, where he was called to the pastorate of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Although Ebenezer had only 13 members when he arrived, the congregation grew to 400 members by 1903. Recognizing that his long-term success as an urban minister required that he overcome his academic limitations, Williams enrolled at Atlanta Baptist College (later named Morehouse College) and, in May 1898, received his certificate from the ministerial program. While in Atlanta Williams met Jennie Celeste Parks. The two were married on 29 October 1899. On 13 September 1903 she gave birth at home to their only surviving child, Alberta Christine Williams, the mother of Martin Luther King, Jr.
In September 1895 Williams joined 2,000 other delegates and visitors at Friendship Baptist Church to organize the National Baptist Convention, the largest black organization in the United States. By 1904 Williams was president of the Atlanta Baptist Ministers’ Union and chairman of both the executive board and finance committee of the General State Baptist Convention.
In 1906 Williams helped organize the Georgia Equal Rights League to protest the white primary system. Early in 1917 he became involved in an effort to organize a local branch of the NAACP. Williams—described in one account as “a forceful and impressive speaker, a good organizer and leader, a man of vision and brilliant imagination, which he sometimes finds it necessary to curb” (Papers 1:15)—experienced early success as an NAACP leader, becoming branch president in 1918. During his tenure the branch grew to 1,400 members within five months, and the newly invigorated NAACP spearheaded a major effort to register black voters. In a speech to the NAACP national convention the following year, he convinced the delegates to meet in Atlanta in 1920, the first national NAACP convention to meet in the South.
In 1926 Williams’ daughter Alberta Christine married Martin Luther King, Sr., who eventually succeeded him as pastor of Ebenezer. When Williams died in 1931, his obituary was effusive: “‘A. D.’ was a sign post among his neighbors, and a mighty oak in the Baptist forest of the nation.… He was a preacher of unusual power, an appealing experimentalist, a persuasive evangelist, and a convincing doctrinarian” (Papers 1:28).