Father and son had much in common. The son was the namesake of the father. Both were graduates of Morehouse College. Both married women of musical distinction. Both answered the call to the Baptist pulpit. Both championed civil rights for African-Americans.
How much did the father shape the destiny of the son, Martin Luther King, Jr.? In his “Daddy King: An Autobiography” the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. does not pose the question in so many words. Yet this engaging window on the King family history serves to inform the answer.
“Daddy King” is not the first or the most complete volume by a member of the family. Martin Luther King Jr., dipped into the subject, in 1958, with his “Stride Toward Freedom.” His widow, Coretta Scott King revealed more in “My Life with Martin Luther King Jr.,” which appeared in 1969. But the elder King’s version offers the unique perspective of a parent. It was out of print for many years. It has now been re-released in paperback.
For dedicated readers of the great trove of books by and about the King family, much of “Daddy King” will seem familiar. Most compelling is the first third of the book. In earthy, gripping language, King describes the astonishing arc of his life from a sharecropper’s son on a farm outside Stockbridge to a vaunted pastorate at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
How he survived and thrived in the Jim Crow South of the early 20th century is a story of mythical proportions. His mother instilled in him from a young age her deeply religious Baptist faith. “Church was a way to ease the harsh tone of farm life,” he writes, “a way to keep from descending into bitterness.” As a young boy, he saw himself as a preacher. He imitated revivalists’ every gesture and cadence. He memorized Scripture.
Compounding the misery of farm life was his father’s alcohol-fueled abuse and the oppressively brutal racism of rural Georgia. At age 14, though hamstrung by the limits of a sixth-grade education, he fled the farm to fend for himself in Atlanta. By dint of hard work and self-discipline, he survived.
Still, Atlanta was not always welcoming. City folks scorned him as an illiterate bozo, a “comical, country bumpkin,” he recounts. There was then no public high school in Atlanta open to African-Americans. He enrolled in the private Bryant School, scraping along with odd jobs, struggling through five years of torturous study. Rejected at first by Morehouse, he barged into the president’s office and pleaded his case. He was admitted.
Though his friends mocked the idea, he announced that he would court and marry Alberta Williams, the daughter of Ebenezer pastor A.D. Williams. Once again, King prevailed. He won her heart and converted her skeptical father.
When his father-in-law died, in 1931, King succeeded him as the pastor at Ebenezer. That lofty perch afforded him a platform for civil rights advocacy, and he embraced the cause in earnest. He devotes much of “Daddy King” to describing how he and other activists tugged Atlanta toward racial equality in teachers’ pay, voting rights and the like against resistance from the white, and sometimes the black, powers-that-be.
“Daddy King” airbrushes some unseemly facts from the family history. His portrait of son A.D. King omits the fact that he struggled with alcoholism for years before his unexplained drowning, at age 38, in a swimming pool. King acknowledges that he tired to dissuade Coretta Scott from marrying his son, “hinting that both she and M.L. were just experiencing a little infatuation,” as he puts it. Not hinting, insulting, Coretta suggests in “My Life.” King harped on the “intelligent, talented girls” in Atlanta that his son had been dating, insinuating that she was neither.
King’s portrayal of his elder son, who was called M.L. by his parents, has the feel of a pared-down family album containing snapshots discretely selected for public display. The image they depict seems nonetheless valid as far as it goes. He tells of escorting the son into a store to buy new shoes for him. When a sales clerk directed them to a rear section for blacks, King marched M.L. out the door. The lesson was clear: proud defiance of bigotry.
From an early age, M.L. exhibited a host of remarkable qualities. His schoolwork was top notch, he was a natural-born speaker and he had a fine singing voice. He was “one to negotiate a dispute instead of losing his temper,” the elder King says. Not that M.L. was utterly incapable of a violent impulse. Once, during a fight, he whacked his little brother over the head with a telephone.
It was a rare lapse. “Daddy King” exudes a father’s reverence for his son. He notes the “probing quality of his mind, the urgency, the fire that makes for brilliance in every theological setting.”
A subtext of the father-son dynamic was the elder King’s unrelenting pressure on M.L. to follow his example and enter the ministry. In his first few years at Morehouse, M.L. charted a different course. He contemplated a career in medicine or the law. By his senior year, however, he was bowing to his father’s wishes and prepared to become a clergyman.
The father’s spell over the son did not last forever. After M.L. completed theology study in graduate school, his father implored him to accept a co-pastorate at Ebenezer. He declined, opting for a pulpit at Montgomery, Ala. Once the son’s life was in mortal peril as a highly visible and controversial leader of a national civil rights movement, his father desperately sought to redirect his son’s future.
The father pleaded with the son to quit the movement. M.L. refused. Instead, he answered to a higher calling that he had defined for himself.
Joseph Rosenbloom is a freelance writer based in Newton, Mass. His book, “Redemption: The Last Journey of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” will be published by Beacon Press in April 2018.
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