Through It All: Reflections on My Life, My Family, and My Faith

Through It All: Reflections on My Life, My Family, and My Faith

by Christine King Farris

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Through It All, a unique, intimate portrait of the Kings, one of America's most extraordinary families, is written as only a beloved elder sibling of Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., could -- with insight, tenderness, and wisdom.

Christine King Farris, the only sister of Dr. King and his brother, A.D., is the surviving member of the family that together stood for the rights of all Americans at the forefront of the civil rights movement. They come from a long line of African Americans in the South who combined education and conviction not only to survive against the odds but to make life better for themselves and those around them, especially the poor. She offers a rare opportunity to learn more about the man behind the myth -- as she describes, Martin Luther King was "no saint, ordained as such at birth. Instead, he was an average ordinary man, called by a God, in whom he had deep and abiding faith, to perform extraordinary deeds."

The revelatory glimpses into her childhood with Dr. King are heartwarming. Her memories of, and insight into, her family's early years, including the brutal murder of their mother in church and the drowning of their youngest brother, are startling.

Ms. Farris has led a fascinating life, not only as the sibling of one of America's most internationally celebrated leaders, but in her own right as a wife and mother, activist, and career educator who has put in more than fifty years of service at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. Her children's book, My Brother Martin, was described by Kirkus Reviews as "a window to show Martin as a small boy in a loving extended family."

Through It All, Christine King Farris's first memoir, opens doors to let readers of all ages into her life, her family, and the faith that allows her, in the ninth decade of her life, to still stand for all the principles that make America great.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439155110
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 01/13/2009
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Christine King Farris is the sister of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the only surviving member of the King family. She is the author of the children's book My Brother Martin and has been on the faculty of Spelman College since 1958. She lives with her husband in Atlanta.

Read an Excerpt


God has given me many blessings, for which I am eternally grateful. It would be an understatement to observe that my life has been extraordinary. What appears on the following pages is the result of my having reached the vantage point of eighty years. It is my feeble effort both to take stock of my life and to share it with others, in the hope that my story might provide inspiration and, perhaps, speak to the need to stand tall through joy and pain, success and tragedy, and to fi nd a way to "keep on keeping on."

Generations of my family who came before us tilled the soil and gave us their shoulders to stand on. We have tried to respond to the call of conscience and the will of God.

Every now and then, I have to chuckle as I realize there are people who actually believe ML just appeared. They think he simply happened, that he appeared fully formed, without context, ready to change the world. Take it from his big sister, that's simply not the case.

We are the products of a long line of activists and ministers. We come from a family of incredible men and women who served as leaders in their time and place, long before ML was ever thought of.

My brother was an ordinary man, called by a God in whom he had abundant faith. He took on incredible challenges, and he rendered extraordinary service to his fellow man. At the outset, it is critical to recognize that many of the gifts with which the public later associated ML came from those in our family who preceded him, including my maternal great-grandfather, Willis Williams, who was a slave and a minister. Actually, he was an "exhorter," which is what "Negro" ministers were called during the era of slavery. He was from Penfield, a small town in Greene County, Georgia, about seventy miles east of Atlanta.

Penfield is famous for its cemeteries, and cemeteries have certainly figured prominently in my life. Among the notables buried in Penfi eld are Jesse Mercer, one of the founders of Mercer University, and General James Edward Oglethorpe, a founder of Oglethorpe University, which began originally in a Penfield church.

There is a lot about the background of Willis Williams that I do not know. I do know, however, that he was married to Lucrecia Williams, who was thirty years his junior.

Before the Civil War, Willis and Lucrecia attended Penfield's Shiloh Baptist Church. In a practice that was probably unusual for the time, Shiloh counted both slaves and whites as full members of its congregation. My great-grandfather was owned by William N. Williams, who was also a member of Shiloh.

Consider the irony of that sentence for a moment: concurrent Christian church membership and simultaneous slave ownership.

Interestingly enough, Willis and Lucrecia joined Shiloh in 1846, before his owner joined. The records show that my great-grandparents left the church after the Civil War.

The Williams family grew during the war. On January 2, 1863, one day after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a son, my grandfather Adam Daniel (AD), was born to Willis and Lucrecia. The early years of his life were spent with his parents on the Williams plantation. Although I didn't know much about her, Granddaddy Adam Daniel had a twin sister whose name was Eve. She died very early on. Following his father's death in 1874, Granddaddy AD left the plantation with his mother.

My grandfather was quite a man. He arrived in Atlanta at age thirteen and remained there for the rest of his life. I was only three and a half years old when he died of a heart attack in our home on Auburn Avenue. Because I was so young, my memories of him are vague and fl eeting. But I'm told he was tall and quite handsome.

I actually recall the spring day on which he died. It was March 21, 1931. I was in the kitchen trying to help my grandmother prepare breakfast. Suddenly we heard a loud thump on the fl oor. She sent me to find out what had happened. I returned and announced, "Granddaddy is sleeping on the floor." Apoplexy was ruled the official cause of death. Today, it would simply be called a stroke.

Following in the family's ministerial tradition, my grandfather A. D. Williams served as the second pastor of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church. His tenure lasted thirty- seven years, from March 14, 1894, until his death.

Ebenezer had been in existence for a mere eight years when he assumed the pastorate. At that point, the church had roughly fifteen members. In his fi rst year of leadership, he managed to add over seventy-five new members. He also found a way to purchase land in downtown Atlanta, on McGruder Street, where he constructed a new church.

My grandfather had a powerful, billowing voice. He was a great speaker and a superb organizer. He believed not only that the church should be involved in the lives of its members, but that it should be equally politically active in the community.

In those days, Jim Crow laws reigned supreme. They were given official sanction and undergirded by the U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Its ruling established the noxious "separate but equal" doctrine and gave legal justification to racial segregation.

Following the Plessy decision, the state of Louisiana adopted a new constitution, which contained a "grandfather clause." This clause held that for a person to be qualified to vote, the prospective elector's grandfather must also have been legally qualified to vote. Obviously, less than a generation removed from slavery, and following in Plessy's wake, this was a naked attempt by the state to disenfranchise newly freed blacks. It was clearly an attempt to roll back whatever gains were made following the Civil War during Reconstruction.

Naturally, other southern states soon followed and adopted their own versions of the "grandfather clause." Granddaddy Williams saw it as his duty and responsibility, as both pastor and community activist, to combat these laws, which sanctioned and codified the systemic mistreatment and oppression of those of God's children who happened to be black citizens of southern states.

In this horrible period in American history, his primary targets became segregation, disparities in public education, unfair wages, discriminatory employment practices, and the general campaign of terror so expertly employed by the Ku Klux Klan, among whose tactics were church and home arson, lynching, castration, murder, intimidation, and other forms of torture.

From its inception in 1866, a scant three years after Emancipation, the Klan's overriding purpose had been the harassment and attempted resubjugation of the newly freed blacks and their descendants. This was particularly true after these former slaves won the right to vote with the ratification of the Constitution's Fifteenth Amendment in 1870.

Today, most people are aware of the Klan's sordid past and its violent, racist nature. They probably do not know, however, the full scope of the organization's reach during the period of my grandfather's ministry. As he was publicly opposing and rallying resistance to the countless atrocities committed by the Klan, some estimates peg the Klan's membership at as many as two million.

The atmosphere and stifl ing restrictions growing out of the Klan's reign is practically incomprehensible today. It was quite real and extraordinarily tangible in those days. The dignity of grown men crushed at the whim of these cowardly men in hoods. Their devious acts usually took place under the cover of darkness. Fear and terror were rampant, widespread, and thoroughly ingrained in black communities across the South.

Against this backdrop, it is important to appreciate the extent to which Granddaddy's outrage, expressed at Ebenezer and in the community at large, was an act of courage and defiance. This was, after all, a time in which black men died for not clearing a path on the sidewalk fast enough to suit some passing white man. Likewise, it was a time when staring for what was perceived as "too long" at some "fl ower of white femininity" could result in death. Young Emmett Till's alleged whistling at a white woman in Money, Mississippi, comes to mind. Fortunately, my grandfather survived the Klan's grip.

A. D. Williams was a freedom fi ghter. He was an early president of Atlanta's NAACP chapter. It was in this capacity that he led a boycott against the now-defunct newspaper the Georgian, the city's major daily at the time, arising from the derogatory descriptions of blacks that routinely appeared on its pages. This kind of treatment by the press was quite common at the turn of the twentieth century. He knew Negro Atlantans were hard- working, God-fearing, taxpaying citizens who didn't deserve these slanderous characterizations.

You can imagine the editor's shock when Granddaddy Williams and his delegation appeared in his office, not seeking menial jobs but demanding a new policy toward African Americans. Shortly after the boycott ended, the paper crumbled fi nancially. But not before it had denounced my grandfather and "his kind" for attempting to take the city from its law-abiding white citizens.

On another occasion, he led a protest that stopped a proposed municipal bond issue in its tracks. The city fathers had intentionally designed a proposal with no provision for the high school education of black children. His activism and leadership on the bond question was responsible for the establishment of Atlanta's first black high school; as a result, Booker T. Washington High School for Negroes opened its doors in 1924.

That same year, my grandfather joined with Reverend Frank Quarles, pastor of Friendship Baptist Church, and over two thousand other delegates and supporters in establishing the National Baptist Convention.

Planning and protest strategy meetings took place in numerous black churches, often lasting until well into the night. My grandfather, and Ebenezer, were at the forefront of many of these meetings, meetings that, in fact, laid the foundation for what some fi fty years later would become known as the modern Civil Rights Era.

Granddad's wife, my maternal grandmother, was born Jennie Celeste Parks in April 1873. She was the daughter of William and Fannie Parks, both of whom were born in Georgia, in 1825 and 1830, respectively. She married Granddaddy on October 29, 1899. This was a departure from the prevailing southern religious tradition of the times; my grandfather had been single and the pastor of Ebenezer for over five years before they wed.

"Mama," as we called her, served as president of Ebenezer's Women's Missionary Society. She also helped organize various fund-raising drives and participated in other activities to serve the church and community. She assisted the needy with food, clothing, and shelter. She worked with other women in the church as they discussed how best to assist their husbands in working to improve the lives of others during this period of second- class citizenship and segregation.

I have often wondered how Mama was able to accomplish what she did. What motivated her and gave her strength? Having avoided being born into slavery by less than ten years, she could easily have fallen victim to the residual mentality of the times: timidity, a feeling of hopelessness, shattered dreams, and psychological trauma. Or she could easily have slipped by the wayside and led a simple, nondescript life.

Clearly, she chose not to. Her life was extraordinary. It was characterized by unselfi shness and by an unwavering commitment to God and to the community. She always put the needs of others before her own.

Many women of her day worked in the home. They were expected to tend to their families, raise the children, cook, clean, sew, and make few waves. My grandmother was a bold exception to this formula. She had her own unique trajectory, one that was created and not dictated.

For example, education was a major factor in her life. For most blacks during this period, education was simply unattainable. Many were barely literate. Sheer survival was the objective of most of her contemporaries. There was a widespread perception that education was reserved for whites, and only on rare occasions, for a few select blacks.

Mama's inner drive and determination caused her to buck this trend. Her quest for an education led her to Spelman Seminary which then, as now, was the pinnacle of educational excellence for African American women. My grandmother's admission to Spelman marked the beginning of a rich and proud tradition for the women of our family.

Her matriculation set an example of achievement and high standards for all the women of the King family who followed. In her own special, quiet way, she demonstrated to the community, and most important, to us, the realm of possibility and the capacity to dream.

Mama was also known for two other things: a love of cooking and her impeccable sense of style.

Cooking and the loving preparation of family meals were a big part of her life. Wonderful food was always plentiful, but never more so than on Sundays. I can remember the table overflowing with fresh greens from the garden, baked macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, glazed ham, smothered pork chops, and corn on the cob. Desserts included cakes and pies, bread pudding, and various cobblers.

As for her fashion sense, Mama kept it simple. She loved shoes, gloves, hats, and her black purse. She was understated and never chose anything outlandish. Whenever Mrs. A. D. Williams appeared in public, she was so elegant that Gordon Parks himself could have been preparing to photograph her for the latest issue of Life or Jet magazine. I remember as a little girl hiding near the screen door and watching her as she stepped onto the porch preparing to leave the house. She always wore wonderful fragrances and would stand regally waiting on my grandfather to pull the car up to whisk her away. I watched all this with fascination, silently praying that God would make me just like her when I grew up.

On Sunday, May 4, 1941, Mama had a speaking engagement at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Atlanta. She was to deliver the keynote address for the Women's Day Service. While sitting on the pew awaiting her turn to speak, she slumped over. Mama died right there in church. We learned this tragic news as we returned home from our own regular service at Ebenezer.

We were all in shock, particularly ML, who, against my father's directions, had snuck downtown to see a parade. He believed Mama's death was God's way of punishing him for having disobeyed our father. Finally, Dad had to explain to him that death always occurred according to God's plan.

It took ML months to come to terms with Mama's loss. After this experience, more than one person observed that he seemed to have grown more mature.

Mama's sister, "Aunt Ida" Worthem, who lived with us, was devastated by her loss. Aunt Ida had always taken excellent care of us. She loved telling stories of the "old times" and reading to us, often directly from an encyclopedia. Right after Mama died, Aunt Ida seemed to lose the will to live. She barely ate and hardly talked anymore. She stayed confi ned to her room more often than not. Shortly after we lost Mama, Aunt Ida died as well. I miss them both, terribly, to this day.

James Albert King was my paternal grandfather. He was born in Ohio in December 1864. The King Papers Project has looked into his background. Unfortunately, not much information exists on the record. We do know that he was not a slave. More likely than not, he was an indentured servant of some sort.

My paternal grandmother was Delia Linsey. She was born in Henry County, Georgia, in 1875 to Jim Long and Jane Linsey.

My paternal grandparents married in Stockbridge, Georgia, on August 20, 1895. They produced my father, Michael King (later to become Martin Luther King, Sr.), and nine other children: my aunts Woodie, Cleo, Lenora, Lucille, and Ruby, and my uncles James, Henry, and Joel. They had one son, Uncle Lucius, who died as an infant. Into this brood my father was born December 19, 1899.

Granddaddy King was a lean, tough man, who also was troubled. His problems led him to drink — occasionally at fi rst, but eventually he progressed into full- fl edged alcoholism. He worked in a Stockbridge rock quarry where he lost a portion of his right hand in an explosion. Unable to do quarry work after the explosion, he looked for full- time work as a sharecropper. As part of this lifestyle, the family moved quite often. This situation affected him and his family the rest of his life.

It was against this backdrop that Granddaddy King struggled to provide for his family as best he could. There were nights when, returning home after being marginalized and exploited all day, he would pick fi ghts with his oldest son, my father. Some of these confrontations lasted until well into the night. He'd often fall asleep on the kitchen fl oor with a bottle inside his hat near his head. Incredibly, the mornings following these tirades were often filled with the jokes and laughter of a confl icted father trying to love and provide for his family. The family, in turn, naturally lived on edge. They knew nightfall was likely to bring more of the violence and the unknown to which they had grown accustomed.

The story of how my parents, Michael King and Alberta Christine Williams, came to meet is romantic and charming. As a young man, Daddy attended Atlanta's Bryant Preparatory School.

Following in her mother's footsteps, my mother was a boarding student at Spelman Seminary. Bryant Prep was a few blocks from the home my mother shared with her parents on Auburn Avenue. Having heard stories of Reverend Williams's beautiful, intelligent daughter, a member of one of the city's most respected families, Michael King made it his business to walk past the home on his way back and forth to class. He hoped to catch a glimpse of Alberta on the porch but he never did.

When Dad finally did see my mother, she was hobbling down Auburn Avenue on crutches after breaking her ankle. Although he got a glimpse of her, they didn't actually meet. His opportunity finally came when he saw her walking home from Ebenezer. That very evening, the first time they had spoken, he got up the nerve to formally ask if she would consider "courting." After much contemplation, he got his answer.

They began "keeping company" during the summer of 1920. The courtship lasted for six years. On Thanksgiving Day 1926 they were married in a ceremony at Ebenezer. Reverends James M. Nabrit, Peter James Bryant, and E. R. Carter offi ciated. Their marriage lasted for forty- eight years, until my mother's death. Into it, three children were born — me and my two siblings, ML and AD.

As I think back on my childhood, one of the things that's definitely different today is that so few families sit together at the dinner table. This is a shame and, I think, something of a tragedy. In our home sit-down dinners were not optional. They were mandatory. The dinner table seating arrangements were carved in stone and unchanging. Daddy sat at the head of the table — no exceptions. My mother sat to his left. Mama and Aunt Ida sat to his right. To Dad's right sat ML and AD, in that exact order...and me. At the opposite end of the table from Daddy sat Mother Dear.

These meals were fi lled with laughter and joy, good eating, and most important, lessons from Mother and Daddy that I still cherish. They reinforced in us that we were as good as anybody, and that the segregation we saw all about us was mandated by law, that it was not proper, nor was it in keeping with our social and religious beliefs.

They talked to us about the realities of the world that we inhabited in the 1930s and 1940s, a world in which there was a deeply ingrained system constructed to hold black people back and in "our place." It was a world in which our progress and achievement were frustrated and denied. They taught us that our existence in such a world was the residual result of our being descendants of African slaves. They went on to explain that it was the present-day, tangible consequence of the fact that our skin was darker than that of our white contemporaries.

It was a world, for example, in which we were not allowed in the downtown movie theaters or department stores. Similarly, Negroes didn't visit the Grant Park Cyclorama, the diorama depicting the Civil War Battle of Atlanta, which was, at most, a few miles from our house.

Daddy taught us how to speak out against hatred and bigotry, and how to stand up for what was right. He would tell us, "If you stand up for what you believe in, and what's just, God will always be on your side." It was this simple philosophy that sustained us, time and time again, through tough times, tough decisions, and tough circumstances.

My father was the type who taught through example. No pun intended, but he vigorously practiced what he preached. He was a profound infl uence on us and certainly on ML, for above all else, Daddy was a man.

Once, when Daddy and ML were together in his car, a police officer pulled Dad over and referred to him as "boy." It was not uncommon in those days for whites to consciously degrade grown men by calling them "boy," or to refer to adult women as "gal." Daddy was having none of it. He pointed directly to ML, seated next to him, and said to the policeman, "This is a boy. I am a man, and until you call me one I will not listen to you." I have never believed that it was just some kind of cosmic happenstance that years later, as ML undertook the campaign for economic justice, the signs worn by striking sanitation workers in Memphis defi antly proclaimed, "I AM A MAN."

On another occasion, a shoe salesperson told Daddy and ML that he could not serve them in the front of the store because they were black. Daddy promptly left and went to another store where they could indeed be served at the front.

Not everything that occurred at the dining room table was political. Other lessons were learned and shared, too. We learned to stand upright and not slump over in the presence of others. We were taught to look people directly in the eye when we spoke to them. We learned to dress properly and appropriately at all times. In terms of dress, I'm not sure I can ever recall a time when my father was not wearing a necktie. Even if he had his sleeves rolled up, he would still have on his tie.

Respect for our elders was a given. This was also reinforced at the dinner table. Use of the words "No, ma'am" and "Yes, sir" was integral in determining whether a young man or woman had received the proper upbringing, whether he or she had "good manners" and had been "raised right."

Another major topic for discussion, of course, was education. We would talk about our day at school and the night's homework assignment, right there at the dinner table. We did our homework and memory work. Math and English lessons had to be recited. Grammar corrections were made; nobody got away with asking, "Where's that at?" Mother would quickly launch into a discussion of the proper use of prepositional phrases. These lessons stuck so well that, even in her absence, we took to correcting each other's use of the English language.

The lessons at the dinner table, the dialogue, and the food were all nourishing. We often had guests who contributed to the stimulating atmosphere and conversation as well. Among our frequent visitors were Reverend Sandy Ray of Brooklyn's Cornerstone Baptist Church and Dr. Melvin Watson, whose father was the clerk at Ebenezer. Dr. Melvin Watson went on to earn his doctorate from Boston University and would later give me valuable encouragement and support as I prepared to attend Columbia University. Copyright © 2009 by Christine King Farris

Table of Contents


Section One

1 The Williams and King Families: From Whence I Have Come

2 Big Sister Christine, ML, and AD

3 Spelman and Morehouse College Days

4 Graduate School

5 My First Real Job at W. H. Crogman

6 My College Teaching Career

7 Taking Spouses and Starting Families

Section Two

8 Watching ML Answer the Call to Destiny: Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

9 Birmingham: The Struggle Continues

10 The March on Washington: One of ML's Finest Hours

11 Travel to Norway and the Celebration of ML's Nobel Peace Prize

12 Selma and the Struggle for the Right to Vote

Section Three

13 Losing ML in Memphis

14 So Soon After Losing ML: My Brother AD Dies

15 Unspeakable Horror: Mother's Tragic Death at Ebenezer

16 Sudden Deaths of a Niece and a Nephew

17 Losing Daddy

18 My Dear Sister Coretta

19 Another Death from Out of the Blue: Yolanda Denise King

Section Four

20 Work at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change

21 Founding The Martin Luther King, Jr., Child Development Center

22 Ebenezer Baptist Church: My Spiritual Rock

23 Eternally Grateful and Moving Forward -- Going Strong



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