Martin Luther King Sr. Lost His Son & Wife to Assassins
Civil Rights Icon’s Father “Daddy” King Played Key Role in Two Presidential Elections
President Joe Biden told the attendees of his inauguration that former President Jimmy Carter, who at 96 has suffered from health problems, couldn’t be there today, but was with them in spirit. Biden also committed the country to battling systemic racism.
The Carter presidency initially seemed to be a bridge between two eras, that of the old Jim Crow south and the new South. Carter had promised to health the nation, not just of the hammerblows to the national psyche that was the debacle in Vietnam, but to mend the moral fabric of America, torn by centuries of racism.
The cauldron of American race relations boiled over during the era of “Long Hot Summers” of the mid-to-late 1960s, when America was rent by urban riots.
The first riot of the decade was occurred on the night of Mother’s Day 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama. The riot was in response to two bombings targeting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his brother, who was a pastor in Birmingham. After the bombing of the residence of Dr. King’s brother, the Rev. A.D. King, a bomb went off at the Gaston Motel, an African American owned business where Rev. Ralph Abernathy were staying. The most likely culprit for the bombing was the Ku Klux Klan, and President John F. Kennedy had to mobilize Army units under future Vietnam War Theater Commander Creighton Abrams to make sure that a white backlash against the riot resulted in an African American bloodbath.
In the Bicentennial Year of 1976, the father of both A.D. King and MLK, Jr. — Martin Luther King, Sr. — played a key role in Carter’s ascension to the Presidency, as he had a generation earlier, when JFK beat Republican Richard Nixon in the 1960 Presidential election.
A Baptist Minister who was a stalwart member of Atlanta’s black community for decades, as well as the father of 1964 Nobel Laureate for peace, Daddy King played host to ex-Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter in the spring of 1976. Then little-known nationally, Carter was a one-term chief executive of a place that, before the onset of the Civil Rights Movement, billed itself on its license plates as “The Empire State of the South.”
Carter launched his Presidential campaign at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where he received both Daddy King’s blessing as well as that of his daughter-in-law, Correta Scott King, widow of MLK, Jr. Maynard Jackson, the young black man who had become the first person of his race to be elected mayor of Atlanta in 1973, also was there.
Carter and Jackson were symbols of the “New South” that, at the time, was being forged from the crucible of Jim Crow. It would take a half-century before the New South, in 2021, reached its fruition, when the voters of Georgia awarded their Electoral College votes to a Democrat for the first time since Carter’s Bicentennial Year win, and elected an African American to the U.S. Senate.
If Jimmy Carter was known at all outside of the Deep South in the Spring of 1976, it was for succeeding the virulent racist Lester Maddox as governor of the newly christened “Peach State,” a more friendly moniker for a state that was wooing businesses from the North. Maddox had made his name chasing civil rights activists out of his Pickrick Cafeteria with an axe handle. The axe handle was an artifact that subsequently graced the redneck-in-chief’s beanery, which was located on Georgia Tech’s Atlanta campus.
A living, breathing symbol of the reactionary, tough-on-black-asses South of the Jim Crow South, Maddox — a confirmed segregationist — had stormed off Dick Cavett’s late-nite talk show, where he had shared the seating with NFL all-time great Jim Brown. In some ways the Colin Kaepernick of his time, Brown was known for brooking no shit from The White Man.
Jimmy Carter’s start of his campaign at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, arguably was the tabernacle of the black civil rights movement, was hugely symbolic. It also gave him an “In” with African American voters in the Democratic Primary, which proved as critical as black support for Joe Biden, the vice president of the country’s first African American president, proved for him in 2020.
It was a phenomenon that the northern press couldn’t understand, black support for a white Southerner. The North was still fixated on the sight of Alabama Governor George Wallace’s “Stand in the School House Door,” when the segregationist refused entry to the first black students to enter the University of Alabama.
When Jimmy Carter made his pilgrimage to the Ebenezer Baptist Church, it was the immediate post-Watergate era, little more than a year since the huge influx of Democrats into Congress in the wake of the fall of Richard Nixon,. Ironically, Nixon was a man whose political fate Daddy King had played a role in dictating.
In Tricky Dick’s first shot at the Presidency, back in 1960, he had won the endorsement of Daddy King. The Republican Party was still the party of Abraham Lincoln, and outside of the northern cities, many African American voters still voted Republican. The “Solid South” of the segregationists was entirely dominated by Democrats, who, in turn, dominated Congress.
On a trip to Atlanta, Nixon had been impressed by the great turnout of people to see him. In his political calculus, he believed that he could win Georgia.
Unlike the man he served as Vice President, Dwight Eisenhower, he meant to do it NOT by supporting civil rights for the “Negro,” as black folk were called in polite circles then. Ike had been behind the only civil rights bills to pass through Congress since the end of Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the Civil Rights Act of 1960. The first act created a federal Commission on Civil Rights, and the second allowed the federal inspection of voter rolls.
In 1952, the 5-star general who had headed “The Crusade in Europe” during WWII, Ike won the Confederate states of Florida, Tennessee, Virginia, and Texas, as well as the “Border States” of Delaware and Maryland. These were all states that traditionally were won by a Democrat, and Ike won them all but Tennessee in 1956. He did pick up Louisiana and one Electoral College vote in Alabama.
In October 1960, Matin Luther King, Jr. was arrested and moved from jail to jail, to keep a write of habeas corpus from being served. Ike counseled Nixon to reach out to Daddy King, but he did not. This gave John F. Kennedy an opportunity. After JFK called Correta Scott King to show his concern, Daddy King shifted his endorsement from Nixon to the Democrat.
Nixon was sadly disappointed in November. Georgia had the highest percentage of votes for the Democratic slate of electors (62.5% overall), except for Rhode Island, the most Catholic of all states.
A candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Carter was a moderate in a field of noted liberals such as Sen. Birch Bayh, U.S. Rep. Mo Udall, and former Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver.
Daddy King endorsed Jimmy Carter, and it was crucial to Carter’s march from Atlanta back to the North. In New York City, Carter secured the Democratic nomination and, late on election night, New York’s vote put him over the top in the Electoral College.
Carter became the first true Southerner (Lyndon Baines Johnson being considered first, foremost and always a Texan) to be elected President of the United States since James K. Polk of Tennessee in 1844, and the first true Southerner to serve in the White House since Tennessee’s Andrew Johnson, elevated to the presidency by the murder of Abraham Lincoln, unassed the place ignominiously on March 4th, 1869. (General U.S Grant, the great hero of the War of the Rebellion, refused to share a carriage with Johnson, who reacted by skipping the festivities.)
Jimmy Carter was deeply committed to his Southern Baptist faith. And so was Daddy King. The Southern Baptist Convention had its beginnings in a schism that occurred in 1845 over the issue of slavery.
A King is Born
Martin Luther King, Sr. was born Michael King six days before Christmas in 1897, the first son of James and Delia King, sharecroppers in Stockbridge, Georgia. This was one year after the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Fergusson decision gave the constitutional imprimatur to segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine. Separate but equal, de jure, but de facto, separate and highly unequal. The Supreme Court, in one of the most shameful decisions in the court’s history, legitimated the segregationist Jim Crow laws that successfully kept African Americans, freed by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and then by the post-war civil rights constitutional amendments (13th, 14th and 15th Amendments), in bondage for another 70 years.
The young Michael King bore witness to the brutalities of the Jim Crow South. Under the legal fiction “separate but equal,” he attended the Stockbridge Colored School, which King remembered as an institution of learning that lacked books and even a blackboard. Despite the deprivations, he enjoyed school.
Another institution that made a lasting impression on young Michael was the Baptist Church. His mother Delia took Michael and his siblings to church as a respite from the hard life endured by black sharecroppers, who essentially were bound to the land in legal peonage to the white landowners. Michael King developed an interest in preaching the gospel, and was impressed by those African American preachers who would not accept the status quo, but spoke out against oppression despite the danger it put them in. Lynchings were common in the south, and King even witnessed one.
Ebenezer Baptist Church
Michael King decided to become a preacher sometime near the end of 1917, the year America entered the “War to End All Wars,” and he moved to Atlanta in the spring of 1918. His sister Woodie lived in Atlanta, and by 1919, she was a boarder with the minister of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Rev. Adam Daniel Williams. That connection would prove fateful for Michael King. He met and fell in love with Rev. Williams’ daughter, Alberta. They became formally engaged in March of 1924.
While attending Bryant Preparatory School to further his education, King served several churches as a pastor. He entered Morehouse College in 1926 to study theology, and married Alberta on Thanksgiving Day later that year at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Now known as Michael Luther King, he and his bride Alberta moved into the Williams family home at 501 Auburn Avenue, N.E., where they would live until 1941. It was there that their first child, a daughter, Willie Christine, was born in 1927, followed by Michael Luther King, Jr. in 1929. Alfred Daniel Williams was born in 1930, shortly after his father received his bachelors degree.
As a man of faith, Michael Luther King was greatly influenced by his father-in-law. A. D. Williams believed in a social gospel that held that the teachings of Christ should be applied to the problems faced by black folk. Many ministers and religious people believed in a separation between the spiritual and material worlds, that one did not inform the other. It was a doctrine rejected by Rev. Williams and by the Rev. King, as it would later be rejected by King’s son and namesake, the future Nobel Peace Prize winner, Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Rev. A.D. Williams, the second pastor Ebenezer Baptist Church, had transformed a struggling congregation without its own church building into one of the most prominent and influential African American churches in Atlanta and the South. After his father-in-law passed away in 1931, Michael Luther King, Sr. succeeded A.D. Williams as the pastor of Ebenezer.
Becoming an Activist
One of the watershed events in Michael Luther King, Sr.’s life was his attendance at the World Baptist Alliance meeting in Berlin, Germany in 1934. In addition to seeing Europe, King and a group of ministers visited the Holy Land, an experience which solidified his commitment to his ministry. His trip to Europe was reported in the local press, which gave him an elevated social prominence when he returned to Atlanta. It was at this time of his life that he formally changed his name to Martin Luther King, Sr. (and his son to Martin Luther King, Jr.), likely when he applied for his passport to travel to Europe. (Relatives and close friends continued to refer to both Sr. & Jr. as “Mike” or “M. L.” Martin Luther King, Jr. was referred to by his father as “M.L.”)
Martin Luther King, Sr., became an activist, and was prominent in the Atlanta Civic and Political League and the Atlanta Chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., the premier organization representing the interests of black folk. As part of his commitment to a social gospel, he proposed a march on Atlanta City Hall to herald a voter registration drive among African Americans. The year was 1939, and his son Martin Luther King, Jr. sang in the Ebenezer Baptist Church choir that was a part of the world premiere of the movie Gone With the Wind, a politically reactionary film that upheld the myth of the chivalrous South and its loyal plantation darkies. Despite its distorted view of history, Gone With the Wind would go on to supersede the even-more racist and vile The Birth of a Nation, a.k.a. The Clansman, as the most popular American film in history. The choir was dressed as antebellum plantation slaves.
However, Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, and his First Lady, Eleanor, and his Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace, had made efforts to improve the lives of African Americans. There was hope, as the Roosevelt Administration took steps to reverse somne of the more egregious manifestations of segregation and to direct financial aid to black folk and increase opportunities for African Americans. (Woodrow Wilson, a Southerner who was the last Democrat to be President before F.D.R., was a die-hard racist and segregationist. The Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln, generally was the political home of African Americans until the 1964 Presidential election and the nomination of the anti-desegregation candidate Barry Goldwater. Most African Americans who could vote cast their ballots for the Republican candidate until 1960, when a majority for the first time voted for the Democrat, John F. Kennedy, who had made a phone-call to Martin Luther King, Sr.’s son M.L. when he was in jail. Senior actually broke with his habit of endorsing Republicans — he had already given his stamp of approval to the 1960 Republican nominee, Richard Nixon — and gave his nod to JFK after the phone-call.)
Martin Luther King, Sr. kicked off the voting rights drive with a rally at the Ebenezer Baptist Church that attracted a crowd of over 1,000. In his speech to the assembled activists, the Rev. King declared, “I’ll never step off the road again to let white folks pass.” It was this bravery in the face of great oppression that a huge impact on his son, Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1940, Martin Luther King, Sr. was named the chair of the Committee on the Equalization of Teachers’ Salaries, a group created to pressure authorities for equal pay for teachers in the separate and very unequal black schools. The N.A.A.C.P. got behind the Committee and offered legal assistance, with the result that there was and increase in pay for black teachers.
In 1941, Martin Luther King, Sr.’s mother-in-law Jennie Celeste Williams died, and he moved the family to 193 Boulevard N.E. in Atlanta. His eldest son, Martin Luther King, Jr., later remembered that conversation at the dinner table often revolved around politics, and that his father talked of “the ridiculous nature of segregation in the South.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s entire life was influenced by the loving family he was raised by.
“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,” he later reminisced. “It is quite easy for me to think of the universe as basically friendly mainly because of my uplifting hereditary and environmental circumstances. It is quite easy for me to lean more toward optimism than pessimism about human nature mainly because of my childhood experiences.”
On October 17, 1940, Martin Luther King, Sr. delivered a speech to clergyman on “the true mission of the Church.” The Rev. King reaffirmed his commitment to the social gospel of A.D. Williams. Admonishing the other clergy to not forget the gospel, he declared, “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 broken-hearted, poor, unemployed, the captive, the blind, and the bruised.”
His son, Martin Luther King, Jr. would preach the same message a generation later, when in the last years of his life, he mounted a poor people’s campaign to pressure the federal government for a reallocation of wealth. His father would become known as “Daddy” King as M.L., Jr. become more prominent. Daddy King reigned as a civic leader among Atlanta’s African American community, and served on the boards of Atlanta University and his & his son’s alma mater, Morehouse College, as well as the National Baptist Convention.
His Father’s Footsteps
Martin Luther King, Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps, fully committed to civil rights and the ending of segregation. M.L. said of his father, “He set forth a noble example that I didn’t mind following.”
Installed in his first ministry was at the Dexter Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr. became the leader of the 1955–56 Montgomery bus boycott touched off by Rosa Parks’ refusal, after a hard day at work, to go to the back of the bus, which was legally segregated. This was the time of the early civil rights movement coming to life in the South, that had seen the killings of civil rights activists, such as the daylight assassination of the Rev. George Washington Lee in “Bloody Belzoni,” Mississippi. After becoming the African American to register to vote since the end of the Reconstruction Era in Humphreys County, the population of which was approximately 40% black, Rev. Lee was ambushed and murdered while driving his car on May 7, 1955. It was also the time when the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till on August 28, 1955, in Money, Mississippi horrified the nation.
Naturally, Daddy King was concerned about the safety of his son M.L. and his family. Daddy King even tried to talk his son to stay in Atlanta and abandon Montgomery, but Martin Luther King, Jr. refused. His son’s commitment deeply impressed his father.
“I could only be deeply impressed with his determination. There was no hesitancy for him in this journey,” Daddy King wrote in his autobiography.
After Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, Daddy King traveled with his son to Oslo, Norway to accept the honor. Daddy King wrote in his autobiography, “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.”
Tragedy Strikes the King Family
Daddy King lost two of his sons in 1968 and ’69: Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, and his son Alfred Daniel drowned in his swimming pool in 1969 in what might have been a case of foul play. A civil rights activist himself, the Rev. Alfred Daniel King, was co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he headed the youth ministry.
Tragedy still stalked the King family, and in 1980, his wife was shot to death as she played the organ at the Ebenezer Baptist Church by a deranged gunman. And still, Martin Luther King, Sr. persevered, tending to his flock and still actively spreading the social gospel.
Freelance writer Greg Griffith, who met Martin Luther King, Sr. while a student at Morehouse College in the 1970s, remembered Daddy King as a titan. “He taught me how to love people even if they didn’t love me. Daddy King loved everyone. He told me that he loved his greatest enemy, because that is what God requires of us.”
Loving one’s enemies was a difficult lesson, but Griffith learned from Daddy King’s example. “Daddy King a frequent visitor on campus would always tell us to love everyone even those who hated us. This was a hard concept for me to accept until I witnessed his life. Here was a man who had lost a son and wife to unspeakable violence. Mrs. Alberta Williams King, Daddy King’s wife had recently been murdered at Ebenezer Baptist Church while playing Amazing Grace on the organ. How could this man love everyone?”
As a member of the Morehouse College board of trustees, Daddy King had been held hostage by student activists in 1969.
An enthusiastic supporter of former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King, Sr., was instrumental in securing the support of liberals and civil rights activists for Carter’s 1976 bid for the Presidency. Daddy King bore witness to Carter’s efforts to end segregation in Georgia. He was asked by Jimmy Carter to deliver invocations at the Democratic National Conventions of 1976 and 1980.
Martin Luther King, Sr. suffered an heart attack and died in Atlanta on November 11, 1984.
A version of this article originally appeared on Google Knol in 2011