Editor’s note: Fifteen years ago this week, Metro Spirit reporter Stacey Eidson had the pleasure of speaking to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and his older sister, Christine King Farris, about the life and legacy of Dr. King. It was an interview she will never forget. Here is another look at that story.
On Jan. 15, 1929, in a small upstairs bedroom of a two-story Victorian home located at 501 Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta, a King was born.
Martin Luther King, Jr. – originally given the birth name of “Michael” until renamed Martin in 1934 – was one of three children of Martin Luther King Sr., pastor of neighboring Ebenezer Baptist Church, and his wife, Alberta Williams King.
Known by the family as “M. L.,” Martin Luther King, Jr. was the middle child in a close-knit household that often welcomed a number of extended family members into the home, including his maternal grandparents, a great aunt and uncle.
While the rest of the world knows Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of the most influential civil rights leaders in American history, his older sister, Christine King Farris, hopes that as the nation celebrates her brother’s 90th birthday this year, people will also stop to remember the more human side of King.
Farris fears that as the years passed since the assassination of her brother in 1968, many will forget that King was a spirited young boy from Atlanta who grew up to be a great man.
“My concern is that young people see Martin as an icon and that he’s way up beyond their reach,” said Farris, during a 2004 visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta. “I want them to understand that he was once a child, just like them, who occasionally got into mischief like everyone else.
“I’m interested in teaching young people about Martin so they will be able to share and have some understanding of the past. I want them to know that he grew up just as they grew up and that he was a real person.”
Christine King Farris
In 1980, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, was successful in convincing then-President Jimmy Carter to sign legislation creating the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site and Preservation District as a part of the National Park Service in honor of the King legacy.
The 23-acre park located east of downtown Atlanta includes the preservation of the King family home on Auburn Avenue; the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where three generations of King’s family preached; Fire Station No. 6, the oldest remaining fire station in Atlanta and the first to become integrated in the city; and a reflecting pool where Martin Luther King, Jr. is entombed.
All of these sites are free and open to the public to visit and learn about the history of Martin Luther King, Jr. Each year more than 650,000 visitors come to visit the King Center, but along with having the opportunity to tour this historic site, Farris decided she also wanted to lend her own voice to the memory of her brother.
In order to help preserve the story of her brother’s childhood, Farris has written a book entitled “My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” published by Simon & Schuster Books.
In this children’s book, Farris tells stories of how she and her two younger brothers, Martin and Alfred Daniel or “A. D.,” were like many curious sibling trios, known for occasionally stirring up a little trouble.
“Our best prank involved a fur piece that belonged to our grandmother,” Farris writes in her book, beautifully illustrated by artist Chris Soentpiet. “It looked almost alive with its tiny feet and little head and gleaming glass eyes.
“So, every once in a while, in the waning light of evening, we’d tie that fur piece to a stick, and hiding behind the hedge in front of our house, we would dangle it in front of unsuspecting passersby.”
But Farris’ book also deals with the realities of the times, telling the story of how their predominately black neighborhood in Atlanta, known as “Sweet Auburn,” sheltered her family from much of the negative, racial attitudes in the South.
It wasn’t until two white childhood friends, whose father owned a neighborhood convenience store, were told not to play with the King children that they began to realize the truth about segregation.
“The thought of not playing with those kids because they were different, because they were white and we were black, never entered our minds,” Farris writes. “Looking back, I realize that it was only a matter of time before the generations of cruelty and injustice that Daddy and Mother Dear and Mama and Aunt Ida had been shielding us from broke through. But back then it was a crushing blow that seemed to come out of nowhere.”
These are the childhood experiences that shaped her brother into the powerful leader that he one day became, Farris said.
“I want these memories to be available for generations to come,” Farris said, adding that after the death of her father in 1985, she is the last living family member that grew up in the house on Auburn Avenue. “So, when I’m not here anymore, I don’t want to leave things open to interpretation. I want people to remember Martin the way he truly was, because he’s more than a symbol. He was my brother.”
Home Sweet Auburn
Standing on the porch of the King family’s Sweet Auburn home on a cold January afternoon, Park Ranger Khaalid Geter tells a group of 15 area students and teachers to make sure to notice the renovated shotgun-style homes across the street.
“When you stand on this porch and look out, you will see essentially what Dr. King saw when he was growing up on Auburn Avenue more than 60 years ago,” Geter said. “The King birth home was built in 1895, but Dr. King’s grandfather, the Rev. A.D. Williams, didn’t purchase the home until 1909. The cost of the home was about $3,500.”
Williams actually served as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church prior to his son-in-law, Martin Luther King, Sr., taking over after Williams’ death in 1931.
As the visitors are led into the Queen Anne-style house, many comment on the large size of the home, which includes five bedrooms, a large porch, 12-foot-high ceilings and a modern coal furnace in the basement.
The tour begins in the parlor of the home with a story that, according to Geter, came straight from King’s sister, Farris, herself.
“Here is the parlor where the young boys, M. L. and A.D., used to terrorize their piano teacher by loosening the legs of the piano bench so that when the teacher sat on the bench, it would fall to the floor,” Geter said, as several children on the tour giggled. “They even took a hammer and beat on top of the piano so that the piano would play out of tune.”
King’s birth home in Atlanta
Geter pointed to the family piano in the corner of the parlor and asked a young girl in the crowd if she noticed anything strange about it. The child just shyly laughed and glanced up at her teacher.
“If you look right above the piano bench, you’ll see that one key is actually chipped and broken,” Geter said. “Because, of course, when you beat a piano with the hammer, you are going to break some of the keys right? That’s what A.D. did to that piano.”
The only song on the piano that the two King boys learned to play, Geter said, was “Moonlight Sonata.”
“So every time a special guest came into the home, that’s the one song that they played because that was the only song they knew,” Geter said.
As the tour reached Farris’ childhood room, Geter said that despite Martin Luther King Jr.’s dedication to nonviolent protest of discrimination in the South, King wasn’t always so peaceful.
“Martin used to take the legs and arms off of his sister’s dolls,” Geter said, smiling. “He even twisted their heads off and used them as baseballs. So, that’s an example of him not always being nonviolent.”
One of the most profound moments on the tour is when visitors are invited to look into the master bedroom upstairs.
“This is Dr. King’s parents’ bedroom and this is where all three of their children were born,” Geter said. “They were actually born in this very room.”
Because Farris arrived a little earlier than expected in 1927, the family hadn’t purchased a crib for the baby yet.
“So, she actually slept in a dresser drawer in the bedroom until a crib could be purchased a few days later,” Geter said. “Fortunately, by the time Martin was born in here, there was a crib already ready to go.”
From the tour, visitors can get a genuine understanding of how the King family played a significant role in helping form Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream for equality.
In the 1998 autobiography developed from King’s writings by writer Clayborne Carson, King describes how both of his parents wanted their children to grow up with confidence, despite all odds.
“My mother taught me that I should feel a sense of ‘somebodiness,’ but that on the other hand I had to go out and face a system that stared me in the face every day saying you are ‘less than,’ you are ‘not equal to,’” King wrote. “She made it clear that she opposed this system and that I must never allow it to make me feel inferior. Then she said the words that almost every Negro hears before he can yet understand the injustice that makes them necessary: ‘You are as good as anyone.’”
King described his father, a sharecropper’s son from Stockbridge, Ga. as a fearless man with an unstoppable will to achieve.
“I remember a trip to a downtown shoe store with Father when I was still small,” King wrote in his autobiography. “We had sat down in the first empty seat at the front of the store. A young white clerk came up and murmured politely: ‘I’ll be happy to wait on you if you’ll just move to those seats in the rear.’”
King’s father was outraged.
“‘We’ll either buy shoes sitting here,’ my father retorted, ‘or we won’t buy shoes at all,’” King wrote. “Whereupon he took me by the hand and walked out of the store. This was the first time I had seen Dad so furious.
“I still remember walking down the street beside him as he muttered, ‘I don’t care how long I have to live with this system, I will never accept it.’”
At the very end of the tour, Geter wanted to make sure that students had a better sense of the real Martin Luther King Jr., beyond what they are taught in history classes.
“I hope you understand that Dr. King is just like you and me,” Geter told the students as they exited. “And he was able to go on to achieve great things. So, I hope that encourages you to try and do the same.”
King’s Spiritual Home
It’s impossible to separate Martin Luther King Jr.’s devotion to God from his determination to peacefully achieve significant social change in this country.
And those spiritual beliefs began in a brick church about two blocks from his Auburn Avenue home, called Ebenezer Baptist.
Often referred to as King’s “second home,” Ebenezer was founded in 1886, but according to the King Center, the congregation did not move to its current location on the corner of Auburn Avenue and Jackson Street until 1922.
Both King’s father and maternal grandfather served as pastors of Ebenezer and in 1960, King continued that tradition by accepting a co-pastorate position at the church, alongside his father.
By that time, King had returned to Atlanta from Montgomery, Ala. where, as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he successfully led Montgomery citizens in a 382-day bus boycott protesting the city’s unconstitutional Jim Crow laws.
This boycott began as a result of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white passenger as the city’s segregation policy required.
In 1957, King also organized a number of black leaders around the country to unify their civil rights efforts by forming a group known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
When King returned to Ebenezer, he moved the SCLC’s headquarters to Atlanta and held many of the meetings at the church, instantly giving the place of worship an international reputation. But for King, Ebenezer was his religious foundation.
“Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church was the spiritual home of Dr. King during his formative years,” said Frank Catroppa, superintendent of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. “He was baptized here at the age of 5, gave his first sermon from his pulpit at the age of 17. He served as co-pastor with his father from 1960 to 1968 and his funeral was held here in 1968.
“It is essential to the history of this country that this church be preserved for future generations.”
In March of 1999, because of the growing number of Atlantans attending Ebenezer, the congregation moved to a new building called the Horizon Sanctuary that was built directly across from the former church.
That same year, National Park Service officials recognized the need for drastic renovations to Ebenezer and therefore, applied for and received a $620,000 grant from the federal Save America’s Treasures program.
That funding along with more than $500,000 in corporate donations and $522,000 from private individuals, allowed the national historic site to complete several restoration projects in 2002, including the upgrading of the building’s electrical system and the heating and air-conditioning units.
The park was also able to restore Ebenezer’s historic neon sign attached to the front of the church. On Jan. 9, 2004 Ebenezer hosted an exclusive preview of Home & Garden Television’s program, “Restore America: A Salute to Preservation,” featuring the National Park Services’s efforts to restore Ebenezer.
In addition to showing the program to a near capacity audience at the church, organizers announced that an additional $2.8 million of federal appropriations will be used to completely restore Ebenezer to the way in which it looked during King’s service to the church in the 1960s.
Attending the premiere of the 2004 program was King’s widow, the late Coretta Scott King, who told the crowd of more than 200 elementary students that it is truly gratifying to see the restoration of Ebenezer.
“Ebenezer was the spiritual incubator for the young Martin Luther King Jr. as he served alongside his father, Daddy King, as co-pastor of our congregation from 1960 to 1968,” she told the students in 2004. “Ebenezer had a global congregation during Martin’s co-pastorate. People came from around the world to give praise to the Ebenezer family.”
Ebenezer was a cornerstone for community activism during the civil rights movement, Coretta Scott King said.
“I have so many poignant memories of historic events that are associated with this historic church,” she said. “For example, I remember standing in for my husband and presenting his agenda to some 60 pastors from across the South who gathered in Ebenezer’s Christian Education Building on Jan. 10, 1957.
“This was a preliminary meeting leading up to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference a month later in New Orleans, Louisiana.”
Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr.
Coretta Scott King told the children in 2004 that she was filling in for her husband and Ralph Abernathy, minister of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church, because tragedy had struck in Montgomery earlier that morning.
“Martin and Ralph Abernathy had to return to Montgomery early that morning on Jan. 10 because four churches and two homes had been bombed,” Coretta Scott King said. “These are events that cannot be forgotten.”
Therefore it’s imperative that organizations like the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site protect these symbols of the past, she said.
“During the civil rights movement, under my husband’s leadership, Ebenezer became the symbol of struggle, freedom and liberation,” Coretta Scott King said. “It was a place were the leadership and the foot soldiers came to be informed, inspired, renewed and recharged for continuing the struggle. … As we celebrate the restoration of Ebenezer Baptist Church, we can take great comfort that this precious heritage will be preserved as a bright beacon of hope and inspiration for generations to come.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King at home with their family
Following the ceremony, Jethro and Auretha English, a couple that have been members of the church for more than 70 years, said if Atlanta ever lost Ebenezer Church, it would be a tragedy.
“There’s been a lot of good and bad things happen at this church,” Jethro English said in 2004. “I met my wife downstairs and we’ve been married 66 years. I remember seeing M. L. running up and down these isles as a child. But I also remember his funeral.”
Jethro English paused for a moment and looked around the church.
“I remember the people crying,” Jethro English said, about the day of King’s funeral. “They just cried and cried. People, everywhere, were saying, “What are we going to do?’ The only thing I could say is, ‘He’s gone, but he would want us to go on.’ And he taught us, if you are going to follow Jesus, you can’t follow him mad. So, get your attitude right and get sincere about what you’re doing.”
That was a message that Jethro English said he repeated over and over in his mind several years later when King’s mother, Alberta, was shot and killed in 1974 by Marcus Chenault, a 21-year-old from Ohio, as she played the organ during Sunday services at Ebenezer.
“I was here when that boy came in and shot Mrs. King,” Jethro English said. “He came in here as a visitor saying, ‘I want to see Rev. King (Sr.).’ And I said, ‘He is on business today, he won’t be here today.’
“So, he was sitting right over there,” Jethro English added, pointing over to a corner pew. “And when he got ready, he stepped up on the pew screaming and went over there and shot her. She fell down and we got a robe and put it under her neck.”
The Englishes said that is something that they will never be able to forget.
“I’ll remember that forever,” Jethro English said. “ You have mixed emotions when things like that happen, but you can’t turn your back on it. Whether it’s good or bad, it’s history and it needs to be preserved.”
For more information on events held during this month’s King holiday, contact the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site at 404-331-5190 or visit www.nps.gov/malu