“I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it.” — James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time.”
On July 20, 1969, 15 months after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, his younger brother, A.D., sat agitated in his Mechanicsville home.
“They killed my brother. I’m gonna find out who did it,” he told someone on the phone, within hearing of his daughter Alveda.
A.D., who had been with Martin when he was cut down in Memphis, was still distraught. “He never recovered, because he felt it was his duty to protect his brother,” A.D.’s widow, Naomi King, recalls.
Martin, whose work would change America for good, died a martyr.
A.D., who had labored in the background of the civil rights movement, while other lieutenants — Ralph David Abernathy, Joseph Lowery, John Lewis and Andrew Young — flanked his brother, would die as a footnote.
His body was discovered the morning after that anguished phone call in the bottom of the family’s swimming pool.
Even his death was obscured by other events. As his body was being taken to the morgue, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the moon.
“How can you be forgotten if you never been known?” Naomi King asks.
Like the Kennedys, the King family has been stalked by tragedy — Alfred Daniel Williams King and his offspring no less so than his heroic elder brother, whose life and legacy the nation celebrates this week.
Born July 30, 1930, A.D was the youngest of the three King children — behind Christine and Martin, who was named for their father, Martin Sr., known as Daddy King. Of the children, A.D. was the most rebellious.
Instead of going to college and entering the ministry, he got married as a teenager and tried to raise a family.
King biographer and Stanford University historian Clayborne Carson, said that while Martin had his own disagreements with the sometimes domineering Daddy King, he was always careful not to damage the relationship.
“A.D. would cross the line,” Carson said. “Martin was always his father’s favorite son. He was older, he did well and he fulfilled his father’s ambition. … From what I understand about (A.D.), he had internal demons.”
Naomi Ruth Barber was 13 when she and her mother moved to Atlanta from Dothan, Ala., in the early 1940s. She met A.D. King at a YWCA dance.
“I saw a charming young man in him,” she said, adding that they soon started courting. “He was very lovable and outgoing and he had a wonderful personality.”
After graduating from Washington High School in 1949, she enrolled at Spelman College. But she had to drop out during her first year. Spelman had a rule against pregnant girls being on campus.
A.D. and Naomi married in June 1950 and Alveda, the King family’s first grandchild, was born in 1951.
As A.D. worked a string of jobs, his family settled into the old King family home, now known as “The Birth Home.” Four more children – Alfred, Derek, Esther and Vernon – followed.
In the mid-1950’s A.D. belatedly set his feet on the path his family had always envisioned. He enrolled in Morehouse College, graduating in 1959. He decided to follow his father and brother into the ministry, assisting Daddy King at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“A.D. King, if it hadn’t been for Martin and Daddy King, would have been a prominent preacher in this city, because he was very good,” Young said. “But he was Martin’s baby brother. The younger brother becomes the caricature. Somebody that they pick on.”
In 1961, A.D. took over as pastor of First Baptist Church of Ensley, just outside Birmingham, Ala..
Before Birmingham, his civil rights activities had been limited. But he and his church would play a key role in Birmingham, where he was arrested several times.
“He proved to himself that while he might not be his brother, he had his own commitment to the movement,” Carson said. “That was the first time he became his own man.”
But a man very much in his brother’s orbit, nevertheless.
“His strategy was to support his brother,” said the Rev. Willie Bolden, a long-time friend and civil rights soldier. “He never tried to usurp any of the limelight. Many people didn’t even know Martin Luther King had a brother.”
At the time, Birmingham was one of the most violent and thoroughly segregated cities in the country. On May 11, 1963, A.D. and his family felt the full force of the hatred that roiled the city nicknamed “Bombingham.”
“It was Saturday night before Mother’s Day and I had just decorated the table,” said Naomi King. “I was just sitting there reflecting on the goodness of the Lord, when I noticed my picture window had a crack in it.”
At that moment A.D. entered the room. They didn’t hear anything, but experience told them something was wrong.
“He said, ‘Let’s get out of here. It is too quiet,’” Naomi King said. “By the time we got to the middle of our home, the second bomb went off and the whole front of the house collapsed. It was just plain hatred. No more than that.”
A.D. King moved to Kentucky in 1965 to pastor Zion Baptist Church in Louisville, where he formed the Kentucky Christian Leadership Conference and fought for fair housing. On occasion, he would travel with his brother, and he was with Martin in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
A.D. was in his room directly beneath his brother’s at the Lorraine Motel when the gun blast went off. He had to be restrained by others — including Young, Jesse Jackson and Hosea Williams — on the balcony when he saw Martin lying mortally wounded.
Footage of A.D. King at his brother’s funeral show him as being inconsolable.
Nevertheless, Naomi King said, her husband rarely talked about the assassination and the impact it had on him.
“He made the decision to never privy me to such things,” she said. “They were close as breathing, so it hit him hard.”
After Martin’s death, A.D. moved back to Atlanta to co-pastor Ebenezer. Books have chronicled his drinking, which supposedly intensified at that time.
“Daddy King was so strong,” Young said. “He was just a giant of a man, and I can see him cussing A.D. out for being depressed. But that doesn’t mean he is not gonna be depressed.”
Family members said A.D. King was never clinically diagnosed with depression or even checked for it. In those days, people didn’t seek that kind of medical help.
“Of course he was depressed. The whole world was depressed,” Alveda King said. “But he was still functional. He was not depressed to the point of being ill. He just never got over that, because he was killed too soon.”
Although the death was ruled accidental, that’s what the family believes: that A.D., like Martin, was a victim of murder.
Naomi King was vacationing in Jamaica on the day when their son Derek found his father at the bottom of the family’s swimming pool in his underwear. A.D. was 38.
“Daddy was killed and put in the pool,” said Alveda, who was at work when the body was discovered. “When they pulled the body out, they began to pump his chest, but no water came out. One of the emergency people said he was dead when he hit the water.”
Naomi flew back to Atlanta and, after identifying his body in the morgue, came to the same conclusion.
“Absolutely, he was murdered,” Naomi King said. “He was an excellent swimmer. There was no water in his lungs. He was in the fetal position. He had a bruised forehead. Rings around his neck. And he was in his underwear. He was murdered.”
For his part, Daddy King said publicly that the civil rights movement killed both of his sons, furthering the family narrative.
“The easiest thing to assume is that there was something crazy about his death,” Young said. “I think he had a heart attack in the swimming pool. He was swimming at night by himself. There was never any evidence of foul play.”
Young points out that after A.D. King’s death, two of his children, Esther and Alfred, died young of heart attacks, suggesting a family beset by heart problems. A third child, Vernon, died in 2009 at the age of 49 of a heart attack.
“Losing my husband was one degree of sadness,” said Naomi King, now 82. “But losing three children was even more heartbreaking. You never get over it.”
She is now working to tell her husband’s story. She has created the A.D. King Foundation, in partnership with Atlanta Metropolitan State College professor Babs Onabanjo. It promotes non-violent conflict resolution in her husband’s name.
In 2009, they produced the documentary, “A.D. King: Brother to the Dreamer.”
“My beloved husband was always in the background,” Naomi King said. “But I want his memory to live on.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.