The Reverend Martin Luther King, Ebenezer Baptist’s charismatic pastor, taught his son “not to hate the white man, but that it was my duty, as a Christian, to love him.” The Reverend Martin Luther King fought segregation by riding “the Whites Only” elevator in Atlanta’s City Hall and marching against segregated water fountains. The Reverend Martin Luther King fought for equality, not just liberty, chairing the Committee on the Equalization of Teachers’ Salaries. And the Reverend Martin Luther King, aka “Daddy King,” did all this in the 1930s and 1940s, years before his son, Martin Luther King Jr., began campaigning for justice.
Sometimes, you wonder how impressive children like Bill Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt emerged, despite alcoholic fathers. By contrast, the Nobel Prize-winning younger King, known in the family as “M.L.,” so followed his father that the honorific “Daddy King” risks defining the elder King only by his more famous son. However, to the extent that the nickname reinforces Daddy King’s reputation as a guiding light of Civil Rights, it fits just right.
More than his son, who grew up in a comparatively protective cocoon, the man originally named Mike King lived the American dream. Born in 1897 in hardscrabble Stockbridge, Georgia, this grandson of slaves grew up hard. Once, his mother thrashed a white man who beat him—forcing his father, having then protected his wife with a rifle, to hide for three months until white tempers calmed. A teen preacher, King moved to the big city, Atlanta, to refine his style. He ended up with the training he sought—and more than he dared hope—marrying the daughter of one of Atlanta’s great preachers, the Reverend A.D. Williams, whose pulpit both Kings ultimately inherited.
If it sounds easy; it wasn’t. King courted his wife Alberta for eight years before marrying her in 1926. The happy marriage to the woman he lovingly called Bunch brought a “grandness” into their lives, he recalled. They had three children: Willie Christine in 1927, Michael Luther Jr. in 1929, and Alfred Daniel Williams in 1930. In 1934, he visited Germany and the Holy Land. ‘‘In Jerusalem, when I saw with my own eyes the places where Jesus had lived and taught, a life spent in the ministry seemed to me even more compelling,’’ King later wrote. The pilgrimage inspired King to rename himself and his oldest son, Martin Luther.
Daddy King was old school. M.L.’s friends feared his strict father, who administered the occasional whipping. But he also set what M.L. called a “noble example.” Once a policeman addressed him as “boy.” Pointing to his son, King explained: “That’s a boy, I’m a man,” and insisted on being called “Reverend.” The flustered cop complied.
Despite his earlier heroic stands against segregation, Daddy King often cautioned his son in the 1950s and 1960s. Although seeming softer than his father, M.L. refused to yield. After racists blew up M.L.’s front porch during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in January 1956, Daddy King drove 170 miles to beg M.L. and his family to return to Atlanta. “Better to be a live dog then a dead lion,” the father advised. The son refused.
Eventually, the father played second fiddle to the son. Daddy King hired M.L. as co-pastor in February 1960. This job preserved M.L.’s credibility and salary as a preacher, as he ministered more broadly, to America.
Like the Biblical forefathers, this great man wasn’t always good. Daddy King played favorites and could be immodest, publicly admitting that the younger brother, A.D., “was not his brother, and not his father either.” And when John Kennedy reassured Coretta Scott King with a phone call during the 1960 presidential campaign after Georgia’s police jailed M.L., Daddy King proclaimed: “I’ll take a Catholic or the devil himself if it’ll wipe the tears from my daughter-in-law’s eyes.” When Kennedy and his aides marveled, “Imagine Martin Luther King having a bigot for a father,” JFK, aware of Joseph Kennedy’s anti-Semitism, said, “Well, we all have fathers, don’t we?”
As M.L. progressed, the elder Kings worried about their son’s safety. Daddy King remembered: “The sound of a telephone, our doorbell ringing, any call that brought with it some news, edged up on us like a series of loud, sudden, alarms.” When James Earl Ray murdered their son, it started a string of tragedies that made the Kings America’s black Kennedys – American liberalism’s star-crossed stars.
Daddy King would recall driving to church that awful April day in 1968, watching curiously as people gesticulated at him and his wife. Soon, they realized what passersby had tried conveying. He would remember crying out during the funeral: M.L.! Answer me, M.L.!”
A year later, on July 21, 1969, the surviving son A.D. died in an “accidental drowning” in his family’s swimming pool. Some suspected foul play. Daddy King wrote: “Later I realized that he had simply decided, sitting in the living room of his home one night, that he didn’t want to be here anymore. His brother’s death had been the severest kind of blow.”
Five years later, in 1974, a psychotic black man hunting Daddy King murdered Bunch, as she played the organ during church. She was shot right in that Ebenezer Baptist Church which Daddy King had led since 1931, and a hundred yards from M.L.’s grave.
Two years later, the late A.D.’s 20-year-old daughter Darlene died suddenly of a heart attack.
Nevertheless, Daddy King didn’t stop. During the 1976 campaign, when Jimmy Carter stumbled by respecting particular neighborhoods’ “ethnic purity,” King held Carter’s hand on television, vouching for his fellow Georgian. As president, Carter would say: “And the people all over the nation saw it, and it healed the wound that I had done to myself.”
Amid this barrage of pain, despite all the injustice, Daddy King never stopped loving either. “There are two men I am supposed to hate,” he wrote in his autobiography—just re-released: “One is a white man, the other is black.” But King insisted: “I don’t hate either” killer. “Nothing that a man does takes him lower than when he allows himself to fall so far as to hate anyone.”
Americans in Trump’s America need Daddy King’s faith in America – and love for one another. King saw Jim Crow’s toxic America of Whites Only become the King family’s America of We Shall Overcome. Despite enduring the stings of race hatred and the daggers of personal loss, he still believed America can change, that life progresses. He never excused his enemies, but he did love them. In appreciating everyone’s common humanity beyond the ugliest political differences, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Senior, offered an example we all should follow.
FOR FURTHER READING
Clayborne Carson, ed., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (2001). A well-edited compilation of the junior King’s writings that tell his story comprehensively.
David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986). The Pulitzer-Prize winning classic based on 700 interviews.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., An Autobiography (1980, 2017). Daddy King’s compelling life story, published four years before his death and being re-released this month by Beacon Press.