Alberta Williams King, mother of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was a groundbreaking church leader and powerful force behind the famed civil rights icon. (Courtesy Photo)

By Donna Lewis Johnson
Special to the AFRO

It’s safe to say that most Black people, young and old, can easily give a detail about the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But what do we know about Alberta Williams King, mother of the Nobel Prize Laureate and slain civil rights leader? According to sociology doctoral candidate Anna Malaika Tubbs, not much.

In her debut book, “The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation,” scheduled to be released in February, Tubbs says Alberta King, Louise Little and Berdis Baldwin, have been “almost entirely ignored throughout history…ignored in ways that are blatantly obvious when the fame of their sons is considered,” according to an excerpt shared by the magazine Kirkus Reviews.

So, what do we know about the life of Dr. King’s mother and the impact she had on her iconic son? Alberta Christine Williams King was born on September 13, 1904 in Atlanta, to the Rev. Adam Daniel Williams, then pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Jennie Celeste Parks Williams. From high school to college, Alberta matriculated at Spelman Seminary, Hampton Normal and Industrial Institute and Morris Brown College. She taught school for a while before marrying Martin Luther King Sr., on Thanksgiving Day in 1926. Once married, she stopped teaching because married women, then, were not allowed to work in the profession. She and her husband had three children, Willie Christine, Martin and Alfred Daniel (A.D.).

Mother King, was a “purposeful” parent, according to the women’s magazine Elysian. According to Elysian, Martin described his mother “as a caring, dedicated parent and a consummate housekeeper,” in an essay he wrote as a student at Crozer Seminary. “My mother, Alberta Williams King,” Martin mused aloud in the paper, ”was behind the scenes setting forth those motherly cares, the lack of which leaves a missing link in life.”

Mother King was integral to her son’s upbringing and career trajectory and was considered to be his moral foundation. Tubbs writes, “Each woman believed in the importance of education for her children, and each advocated for civil rights.” The men, Tubbs continues, “carried their mothers with them in everything they did.”

In addition to being a defining, positive influence on Martin, Mother King was an accomplished musician, serving as the choir director and organist at Ebenezer, where her father, husband, and son served as pastors. Elysian compared Alberta’s virtuosity to Martin’s oratory brilliance.“ As her son was known for his rousing speeches…Alberta was known for her spirited renditions of gospel standards such as “I’m Gonna Do My Best” and “Where Shall I Be.””

Truly, Mother King was resolute in her faith and compassion. Days following the assassination of her son Martin, on April 4, 1968, black-and-white photographs show Alberta standing in solemn solidarity with her newly-widowed daughter-in-law Coretta Scott King. A year later, Alberta suffered the loss of her son A.D. to a drowning accident. Still, the grieving mother continued to play a leading role in the spiritual life of her church. 

A few years later, tragedy struck the King family  again. As Mother King sat at the organ at Ebenezer, June 30, 1974, having just played the opening bars of “Just a Little Walk with Jesus,” she was shot and killed by Marcus Wayne Chenault, a 23-year-old Black man from Ohio. She was 69. News reports say Chenault said he was on a mission to kill Christian pastors, viewing them as threats to Black people, and his original target was her husband. Chenault also killed a church deacon, Edward Boykin.

This assassination sent shockwaves of deep sadness throughout the country, as mourners wondered how on earth Mother King could have suffered the same demise as her son. “A little more than six years ago she had stood in this same church, a few feet away, and wept over the coffin of that slain son, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” The New York Times reflected.

The record is clear that Alberta Christine Williams King was a woman of strong faith who instilled in her son Martin the values of courage, justice and Christian service. The world community owes endless gratitude to the memory of this matriarch, who like her son, lost her life through an act of violence, while living a life of peace.