While Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the forefront of the civil rights movement and remains an unequaled champion for freedom and justice, his foundation can easily be traced to his namesake — the man who raised and helped shaped the icon.
King’s father, Martin Luther King Sr., was born Michael King in 1899 in Stockbridge, Georgia. The elder King moved to Atlanta and boarded with A.D. Williams, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, who encouraged King’s education.
King went on to earn a theology degree from Morehouse College and marry Williams’ eldest daughter, Alberta, according to the King Center in Atlanta. They had three children; the middle child, Michael Jr., was born Jan. 15, 1929.
In 1931, King succeeded his father-in-law as pastor of Ebenezer and he led efforts to register African-American voters and to equalize the pay of African-American teachers. Inspired by a visit to Germany, he changed his and his son’s name to Martin Luther in honor of the Protestant reformer, King Center officials said.
King, affectionately known as Daddy King, was a mentor to many in the movement. He survived his wife, shot while playing the organ at Ebenezer Church in 1974; a son, A.D., preacher and civil rights activist, who drowned in 1969; and Martin Jr., on whose behalf he accepted numerous awards before his own death in 1984.
“I would draw attention to what King Jr. said about his father in the autobiographical statements that I included in ‘The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.,’” said Clayborne Carson, history professor at Stanford University in California and founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, who edited the King autobiography.
“Martin Luther King Sr. is as strong in his will as he is in his body. He has a dynamic personality, and his very physical presence (weighing about 220 pounds) commands attention,” Carson quoted King as saying. “He has always been a very strong and self-confident person. I have rarely ever met a person more fearless and courageous than my father, notwithstanding the fact that he feared for me. He never feared the autocratic and brutal person in the white community.
“If they said something to him that was insulting, he made it clear in no uncertain terms that he didn’t like it,” King said in the autobiography. “A sharecropper’s son, he had met brutalities at firsthand, and had begun to strike back at an early age. His family lived in a little town named Stockbridge, Georgia, about eighteen miles from Atlanta.
“One day, while working on the plantation, he keenly observed that the boss was cheating his father out of some hard-earned money,” King said of his father. “He revealed this to his father right in the presence of the plantation owner. When his happened the boss angrily and furiously shouted, ‘Jim, if you don’t keep this nigger boy of yours in his place, I am going to slap him down.’”
The elder King’s own father had urged him to keep quiet because he had been dependent upon the boss for economic security.
Carson related that King said his father, looking back over that experience, said that at that moment he became determined to leave the farm. He often said humorously, “I ain’t going to plough a mule anymore.”
Later, as pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, King said his father wielded great influence in the black community and perhaps won the grudging respect of the whites.
“At any rate, they never attacked him physically, a fact that filled my brother and sister and me with wonder as we grew up in this tension-packed atmosphere,” King wrote. “With this heritage, it is not surprising that I also learned to abhor segregation, considering it both rationally inexplicable and morally unjustifiable.
“I have never experienced the feeling of not having the basic necessities of life,” he said. “These things were always provided by a father who always put his family first. My father never made more than an ordinary salary, but the secret was that he knew the art of saving and budgeting. He has always had sense enough not to live beyond his means.
“So for this reason he was able to provide us with the basic necessities of life with little strain. I went right on through school and never had to drop out to work or anything,” King wrote. “The first twenty-five years of my life were very comfortable years. If I had a problem I could always call Daddy. Things were solved. Life had been wrapped up for me in a Christmas package. This is not to say that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth; far from it. I always had a desire to work, and I would spend my summers working.”