Daddy King: An Autobiography By The Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. (224 pg.)
Euphoria after the ratification of the 13th Amendment was momentary at best. The limits to freedom for southern blacks after the end of slavery soon became apparent. The “separate but equal” era tended toward separate and unequal. Sharecropping was a hard life in general. A black sharecropper in Georgia as the 20th Century began was that much worse.
The second child of ten, “Mike” King (born 1899) discovered that religion was a way to ease the harshness of sharecropping, a means to resist being bitter. He followed his father’s lead.
King became a licensed Baptist preacher in his teens. King from an early age was not content with his life as a sharecropper. He tried to run away as a young teen to work for the railroad, but his mother brought him home. But, at eighteen, he went to Atlanta to stay.
King met Alberta Williams, the daughter of the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and they started to date. They eventually married. King graduated from Morehouse College and eventually took over as pastor. In the 1930s, he took a tour with other ministers to Europe and the Middle East. And, he changed his and his son’s name to “Martin Luther King.”
King continued to resist the injustices of racial discrimination. He believed in the decency of all while not accepting the evils of segregation. He was active in the Atlanta Voters’ League and hoped Atlanta would be a model of equality for the rest of the South. King was a key role model for his son, Martin Luther King Jr.’s ministry and activism.
He had to deal with multiple family tragedies (son assassinated, second son died in an accident, wife murdered). But, King did not let hate overwhelm him. He retained his ideals, including support of non-violence and belief in Christian love as a path to action. King died in 1984.
Martin Luther King Jr. expressed in his own writings how his father was a key role model. This quote provides a window into his father’s conscience.
Should I Read It?
The 2017 edition of this book has a brief foreword by Issac Newton Farris Jr., the grandson of Martin Luther King Sr. and nephew of Martin Luther King Jr.
It is one more chance to obtain a perspective from members of Martin Luther King Jr.’s family, his wife and sister also writing autobiographies.
This autobiography is not just useful as a historical resource. It is well written in a down-to-earth way, often with a sense of humor and bluntness. As a preacher, King has some lessons to teach us. And, like his son, universal lessons, even if particularly motivated by Christiaan faith.
Written near the end of his life, the book provides insightful introspection of the events from a long life. Martin Luther King Sr. is not just a father of a great man. This book shows him as a person in his own right.
A book about a life lived over eighty years that is two hundred pages long is not likely to be as complete as some might like. The lack of notes also will bother some. But, its size also provides a more approachable volume for those who might find a longer one too overwhelming.
It also has eight pages of black and white photographs.
Benjamin Mays, a leading black Baptist minister and intellectual in the civil rights movement, wrote the book’s foreword. Mays cites acts of courage by Martin Luther King Sr. as a child.
Andrew Young Jr., the former ambassador of the U.N., a civil rights figure from the 1960s, wrote the introduction. King’s concern for education and rejection of hate are cited.
The 2017 edition has an additional foreward (“Granddaddy”) from Issac Newton Farris Jr. Farris speaks of King’s “faith in God, strength, courage, character, sacrifice and determination.”
Daddy King Autobiography
The book provides an account of his life from his childhood to about 1980, which is a few years before his death. There are no specific chapter headings, but the text is basically a linear account of his life. While talking about his life, King also provides various lessons learned.
The book begins with King remembering one day when he announced to his friends that he would marry Alberta (“Bunch”) Williams, a minister’s daughter. It provides the reader with a good sense of the time and place and the characters involved. He had a Model T Ford car. He was a still “wet behind his ears” country preacher in a big city (Atlanta). One of his sisters was already there to help him fit in. And, his self-confidence and drive to improve himself is clear.
We then learn about him growing up, a child of poor black sharecroppers in rural Georgia. Church was a way to ease the harshness of life, prevent bitterness. He saw the evils of racism, including a black man murdered (“n” word used in his account). King explains how life made his father bitter, without hope for change.. King himself hated farming life, wanted more.
King as a Young Man
After failing to run away to work on the railroad, King left his family farm at age eighteen. King had already become a preacher and made some money as a trader. He honestly talks about how his rural preaching was seen as too uncivilized (too “country” without enough “Atlanta vocabulary”). King moved to Atlanta, married, and graduated from Morehouse College.
(Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, president of Morehouse, wrote a foreword to this book.)
King eventually took over his father-in-law’s ministry at Ebenezer Baptist Church and started a family. He had two sons and a daughter. Buying a brick house in the city was a major act of accomplishment. In the 1930s, he went with some other ministers on a trip to Europe and the Middle East. It spiritually refreshed him.
King was vocal about the racial injustice of the South (“I became a chronic complainer.”) The “N” word (which he again bluntly uses) summed up how whites treated blacks; the resentment blacks felt. King talks about some things he did to resist racial injustice, including equal pay for black (he used “Negro”) schoolteachers. About how he experienced racial segregation, including being forced out of a “white section” of a shoe store with six-year-old King Jr.
[The use of “Negro” was commonly seen as an appropriate label to use, including by older members of the civil rights community. For instance, Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1989 still used “Negro,” not being a big fan of the word “black.” He started to use “Afro-American” near the end of his term on the Supreme Court. Today, the word “Negro” would generally be seen as inappropriate. This is an example of the changing usage of sensitive language.]
Early Civil Rights Movement
King’s discussion shows that racial injustice was protested in various ways before the major wave of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and beyond. Atlanta showed some signs of possibility, especially for well-off blacks. But, a lot more had to be done, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s public career showed this. We get a view of things from his father’s perspective.
The last years of King’s forty years as minister involved multiple personal tragedies, not limited to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. King’s other son became co-pastor at the church, but soon after drowned in his pool. And, then a mentally deranged person murdered King’s wife at the church. (MLK Jr. himself was nearly killed by a mentally ill woman in the 1950s.)
But, King says he refused to be bitter, to hate, or to longer trust in God. King retained his faith. He ends the book reaffirming his belief in non-violence and the need of the younger generation to continue to fight for a better world. Family, “going on ahead,” loving life and glorifying God continued to be important for him and the King family as a whole.
King himself retired from his pulpit in the 1970s though he continued to travel around the country to give speeches. He also discusses his support for Jimmy Carter’s presidential run. Martin Luther King Sr. died in 1984, a few years after the book was published.
Points to Ponder
Rev. King at one point argues that “people can see love as an action.” (emphasis in the original) What does that mean to you? How does it show the power of what some might think is a “soft” emotion? Many might understand how love in practice is just darn hard.
King suggests he followed in the footsteps of his mother, both in respect of her religion and ability not to be controlled by bitterness. His father was more of a cautionary tale. Is this dichotomy a bit too simplistic? Does some of his father show up in King as well?
About the Author
Martin Luther King Sr. (1899-1984) was not only the father of Martin Luther King Jr., but also a preacher and major civil rights leader in his own right.
He became pastor of the influential Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, continuing as leader there into the 1970s. King delivered the invocation at the 1976 and 1980 Democratic National Conventions, after playing an important role in Jimmy Carter’s nomination for president.
This is his only book, though as preacher, radio broadcaster, and public speaker, King clearly wrote and spoke publicly quite a lot.
Is Daddy King a Reliable Source?
This is an autobiographical account written near the end of King’s life. There are no endnotes though an index is provided. Thus, we need to trust the memory and judgment of the writer.
Someone who wants a complete biography of Martin Luther King Sr. and others involved in this book should go elsewhere. This is a short account that does not provide a full look of all of his life. Like most autobiographies, it also provides some “spin” such as “airbrushing” his pressure on Martin Luther King Jr. to marry someone other than Coretta Scott.
But, taking that grain of salt, King overall is a reliable witness to a long and remarkable life.