"Dr. Martin Luther King’s Mother is Slain” and Lessons from Gendered History

On June 30th, 1974 an armed gunman strode into the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The church, located in the heart of the black neighborhood of Auburn Avenue, employed both Martin Luther King Sr. and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as pastors. While the gunman sprayed bullets, by standers recalled: “the only person he seems to have pointed to was Mrs. King.” Major news outlets like the Washington Post reported “Mrs. King was shot while she was playing the organ in the church where her son once preached non-violence, and where her husband, Martin Luther King Sr., had been pastor for more than four decades.” After devoting considerable space to describing the gunman, M. W. Chenault, the Post lamented: “Mrs. King lost her life in the same red brick church that had been the center of her life since she was born Alberta Williams in 1904. Her father Rev. A. D. Williams founded Ebenezer Baptist Church. And when he died in 1931, Alberta’s husband Dr. Martin Luther King Sr., succeeded as pastor, a position he still holds.”

This weekend, the country collectively celebrates Dr. King’s life and promotes a national narrative of integration and non-violence. I do not focus on Alberta Williams King to diminish the life or importance of Dr. King, but rather to engage in a celebration of the richness and complexity of his life. In order to avoid over simplifying Dr. King and his political message, it is important that we think about the many men and women who shaped his thinking and activism. It is equally important not to truncate his political legacy with his engagement in civil rights. While many are now acknowledging the broad range of Dr. Martin Luther King’s politics; little is known about the women who shaped his life and lived in the shadow of his legacy. We have even less information about women like his mother Alberta Williams King, his wife Coretta Scott King, and his daughters Bernice and Yolanda King. This is certainly because of the important role King played in the Civil Rights Movement. But it also reveals the gender bias inherent in how we remember and record history.

For example, the Post identifies Alberta King as “Dr. King’s Mother” for the majority of the coverage. It isn’t until the final paragraph that the reader gets any insight about who she was as a woman or even her first name. There are no other details about her life, her thinking, or her politics. Even if the Post covered the shooting only  because of her famous son, we are left with few clues as to how Alberta King carried on her life in the aftermath of his assassination or her thoughts on or dedication to his legacy. Instead, her life is told only in relation to the three male preachers of Ebenezer Baptist Church and a lone gunman. The New York Times and other major news outlets offered similar headlines and coverage of the shooting, lamenting the fact that she died in the same church where the men in her life were leaders.

Remembering Alberta Williams as a woman in her own right can not only transform how we think about black history but also add nuance to the celebration of Dr. King. For example, several months later, in November 1964, Dr. Lois Wasserman noted that:

Alberta King was a typical black mother who had suffered the degradation and humiliation other Black Americans have historically suffered. She was concerned about the effects of segregation upon her children and taught them about the history of Blacks in America – the history of slavery, oppression, and discrimination. She tried to explain the jim crow [sic] system as a “social condition.” Mrs. King wanted her children to like all people regardless of skin color or other superficial characteristics … She believed in the law of love (agape) and not the practice of hate… She taught her children to love. [2]

While this treatment of Mrs. King may be colored by her son’s principles, there is no doubt that she had a profound effect on him. From this brief article, we get a sense of her politics, her analysis of race and racism, and her definition of liberation and freedom. Wasserman also contends that Mrs. King sought to shape her children’s views on race and racism. If we had not recorded her history in such a male-centered format, perhaps we would know more about the complexities of her politics or if she was, in fact, a “typical” black woman. Most importantly we might understand her as an African American woman engaging with the Jim Crow south and be able to better understand what influence this had on her children – one of whom became a civil rights icon.

We should continue to honor all of King’s politics including his work with economic rights, human rights, and opposition to the Vietnam War.[3] But we should also think about how historical narratives and national mythologies have simplified political legacies and leave us with a “great man” narrative of history. King was undoubtedly a great leader slain before his time. But his political ethos did not develop in a vacuum. Black women were key figures in the knowledge production that culminated in the politics that black male leaders espoused. Exploring the rich but mostly invisible history of the women around King provides an opportunity to discover new dimensions to his political trajectory as well as the dynamic life stories of African American women. It could also guard against the use of King to elide deeper conversations about race and the co-optation of his image for political convenience. It is often asked what Dr. King would make of race in America today. Had we recorded the lives and politics of the women around him in the same detail as we do men, we might have a better answer to this question.

Ashley Farmer