“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.”[1]

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.

alberta_williams_king1

Alberta Williams King

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.

 

[1] “Dr. King’s Mother is Slain” Washington Post, July 1, 1974, A1.

[2] Dr. Lois D. Wasserman, “Alberta King in Memoriam,” New Pittsburg Courier, November 16, 1974, 7.

[3] For more information see: Thomas F. Jackson, From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Economic Justice (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) or King’s speeches “Beyond Vietnam” (1967) and “The Casualties of the War in Vietnam” (1967).


Ashley Farmer

Ashley Farmer is an Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at Boston University. She is a graduate of Spelman College and holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies and an M.A. in History from Harvard University. Her book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, is the first intellectual history of women in the black power movement. Follow her on Twitter @drashleyfarmer.

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

  • I agree the women surrounding MLK did play a huge role in his politics and his views about life. I agree the women have never had a clear voice and for the first time I witnessed their voice when I watched the movie “Selma.” Black women were out in front in a way I never knew. It’s all in the history but everyone is too busy to search and read….including me. MLK’s mother, no doubt set the foundation of many of his ideals and values and she is never mentioned. I did not know she was murderd. I do think at that time the roles of women were still stereotyped as being mothers, caretakers and home providers and their stories and Impact were sadly quiet. I’m happy to see this being brought out into the open.

  • I also did not know she was murdered.

    America your gun laws are inhumane.

    • The Jews guns were taken from them. That worked out well as more and more ppl had no way to protect themselves from an out if control government. So then what, only the ‘bad’ ppl and government have guns? How fast do you think a 911 call will protect you and those who rely on you or those you love? If you have access to a gun legally and learn to utilize it, carry it with a concealed carry license for 6mths while living within 75 miles of a metro area, you come back and say the same. Gun laws are made so a free people can protect themselves, not be enslaved by government control…which would RE-enslave African-Americans… The inhumanity comes from the people who obtain illegal guns or whose mental state becomes unstable…not from law-abiding Americans who own a gun or guns. The whole ‘people kill people, guns don’t kill people’ is dead on…no pun intended. Your thought process equates to ppl who leave there dog in a car on a hot day and it ”roasts to death” that the car is at fault or having a dog is inhumane…even the freedom to take yr dog is inhumane, not the FACT that the RESPONSIBLE PARTY THEMSELVES be held accountable… The inhumane isn’t an object ie the gun, the inhumanity is in the action of the person… A law against guns removes a free persons right to protect themselves. I mean, inner city blacks can walk to abortion clinics and convenience stores where overt priced lack of nutritional valued food can be purchased with food stamps…not a whole lot of transportation to utilize, the schools stink, hard to keep yr kid from being a drug runner, daughters taken advantage of, graduation rates fall, no child services involvement, police stay away, I mean…no checks and balances and even IF you happen to live in a state with programs that are decent there is little networking for anyone in an inner city area to utilize them without oppression from INSIDE due to control and threats and fear of leaving family and almost 8 YEARS of the 1st Black President who went into these areas to register ppl to then go back in fir their votes he has done SQUAT for the system that ENSLAVES them to more of the same! I’m a white girl from a shall town in NE OHIO and I worked at a chicken plant pulling guts for 3yrs with limited family and friends because of my love for Jesus made others uncomfortable… my state had incomparable programs I utilized but also of which were not offered to everyone equally so I observed the stereotyping racist behavior at the source…when I escaped ie worked my way from it I spent 5 yrs writing and all I received were THREATS to keep my mouth shut regarding what was not my business ie where did the monies ‘go’ when the tax payer programs weren’t advertised or ‘promoted’ do to eligibility based on income but the funneling was untraceable…these are programs that are piggybacked and porkbarreled and have no checks or balances on the left and the right looks the other way because they get this or that from the multi deal. Do ya’ll not understand the idea that both sides morally blackmail you with their ‘you owe me’ loyalty feeling BS? Obama has had almost 8yrs TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE FOR THE PEOPLE WHO PUT HIM IN THAT SEAT and Healthcare is ALL ya’ll got from it? REALLY? Poor ppl ALREADY were eligible for health care!!! Children have Healthy Start. Politicians play the poor as stupid and the blacks as more stupid. People need to revolt as a whole, not loot and race bait. I’m pissed off the black president did NOTHING but give more free to those who need SUSTAINED to rise up not more FREE to keep them under control and feeling more loyal to that which doesn’t pull them up but holds them down. In ’89, even though I couldn’t vote in the primaries I went from a registered Democrat to Independent so that neither side could count on me as there own. They morally blackmail ALL of us who are too afraid to vote for just and truth. We vote fur what is best fire our immediate scenario because we see no hope for the future we SHOULD be able to SEE because we view 5 for more of the Establishment both sides coat with sugar but instead of fresh milk we see it’s curdled right away and take it in stride and try to make the best of it as not to lose face. Pride and arrogance then propel our fevers and we begin to believe the BS we tell others, ourselves…we are too enraptured with hope to acknowledge the fear we truly great of stepping out abs away from what we’ve trusted that has only let us down. The government is meant to protect our country, not control is ppl. It’s ppl take care of its own. Families, churches, communities, etc…its what we do as Americans abs color had only made its way back into the limelight the last decade because I remember the end of the 70s it being not like it is now and that’s ALL PROPELLED AND INSTIGATED BY OUR OWN GOVERNMENT. I’d like to see a strong black woman pick up Ben Carson and they run together. No more Ken & Barbie (Romney &Ryan) bullcrao that doesn’t represent this county or understand the poor. We as a ppl are obligated to take care of the widowed, the ophaned and the infirm… People walk away from their families and our of traditional values, adhere to no accountability nor responsibility, deny the church to become an individual and scream their community’s don’t accept their individually then rely on the government to take care of what they have walked away from due to what can be seen add only a rebellion from mainstream society…sounds like the dumbass disease of white ppl? It is. Both sides shame the African American community as if it’s all their fault but it’s a cover, its race baiting, its pitting Americans against Americans. Its brought on by OUR government. You REALLY want the government to take yr right to bare arms away? And what…stuff yr wallet with food stamps and a limited medical card for yr kids? Continuing to raise taxes instead of a straight tax so ok who spend more pay more? So that eventually there are less ppl paying into the system than pulling from it? Then what? Then one program after another goes under? My son’s and I would have froze & or starved to death due to arrogance due to my white grandparents shame…had I not decided to utilize the programs that were meant to be. There are so many people who are angry like I am…its truly sad that what’s happening is being tolerated by all of us…

  • I remembered reading Dr. King’s mother tragic death, but I didn’t elaborated on the details. Thank you for the article and for having this site for history buffs like me.

  • Very grateful for having memory jogged on this. Embarrassed that I did not recall since I was very conscious of what was happening in the civil rights movement at the time–and still am.

  • Glad I came across this info, a lot I didn’t know. Thank you

  • Thank you all for reading. There is a little bit of information on Alberta King:

    Jet Magazine had a cover story on her death:
    https://books.google.com/books?id=68oDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA14&dq=%22alberta+king%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ogy9VNDeJOuwsASQ9oDgDg&ved=0CCQQ6wEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Fredrick Downing also fills in the gaps on some of the personal and political details of her life in the book: To See the Promised Land: The Faith Pilgrimage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    There are also a few mentions of her in other books related to Dr, King. But again, there is not much information about her in her own right. A point that should make us rethink how we record history and and about what stories we choose to tell and why.

  • this is why we have Women’s History month in March, or Women’s HERstory month! women are often discounted or “disappeared” from history when they actually played pivotal roles in a lot of famous men’s lives. This applies to women of any race.

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