Birth of a King: Life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.(part 1)

Christine King Farris

(Editor’s note: Fifteen years ago, reporter Stacey Eidson had the pleasure of speaking to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and his older sister, Christine King Farris, about the life and legacy of Dr. King. It was an interview she will never forget. Here is a look at that story.)

On Jan. 15, 1929, in a small upstairs bedroom of a two-story Victorian home located at 501 Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta, a King was born.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (originally given the birth name of ‘Michael’ until renamed Martin in 1934) was one of three children of Martin Luther King, Sr., pastor of neighboring Ebenezer Baptist Church, and his wife, Alberta Williams King.

Known by the family as ‘M.L.,’ Martin Luther King, Jr. was the middle child in a close-knit household that often welcomed a number of extended family members into the home, including his maternal grandparents, a great aunt and uncle.

While the rest of the world knows Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of the most influential civil rights leaders in American history, his older sister, Christine King Farris, hopes that as the nation celebrates her brother’s 90th birthday this year, people will also stop to remember the more human side of King.

Farris fears that as the years passed since the assassination of her brother in 1968, many will forget that King was a spirited young boy from Atlanta who grew up to be a great man.

“My concern is that young people see Martin as an icon and that he’s way up beyond their reach,” said Farris, during a 2004 visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta. “I want them to understand that he was once a child, just like them, who occasionally got into mischief like everyone else.

“I’m interested in teaching young people about Martin so they will be able to share and have some understanding of the past. I want them to know that he grew up just as they grew up and that he was a real person.”

In 1980, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, was successful in convincing then-President Jimmy Carter to sign legislation creating the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site and Preservation District as a part of the National Park Service in honor of the King legacy.

The 23-acre park located east of downtown Atlanta includes the preservation of the King family home on Auburn Avenue; the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where three generations of King’s family preached; Fire Station No. 6, the oldest remaining fire station in Atlanta and the first to become integrated in the city; and a reflecting pool where Martin Luther King, Jr. is entombed.

All of these sites are free and open to the public to visit and learn about the history of Martin Luther King, Jr. Each year more than 650,000 visitors come to visit the King Center, but along with having the opportunity to tour this historic site, Farris decided she also wanted to lend her own voice to the memory of her brother.

In order to help preserve the story of her brother’s childhood, Farris has written a book entitled My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. published by Simon & Schuster Books.

In this children’s book, Farris tells stories of how she and her two younger brothers, Martin and Alfred Daniel or ‘A.D.,’ were like many curious sibling trios, known for occasionally stirring up a little trouble.

“Our best prank involved a fur piece that belonged to our grandmother,” Farris writes in her book, beautifully illustrated by artist Chris Soentpiet. “It looked almost alive with its tiny feet and little head and gleaming glass eyes.

“So every once in a while, in the waning light of evening, we’d tie that fur piece to a stick, and hiding behind the hedge in front of our house, we would dangle it in front of unsuspecting passersby.”

But Farris’ book also deals with the realities of the times, telling the story of how their predominately Black neighborhood in Atlanta, known as ‘Sweet Auburn,’ sheltered her family from much of the negative, racial attitudes in the South.

It wasn’t until two White childhood friends, whose father owned a neighborhood convenience store, were told not to play with the King children that they began to realize the truth about segregation.

“The thought of not playing with those kids because they were different, because they were White and we were Black, never entered our minds,” Farris writes. “Looking back, I realize that it was only a matter of time before the generations of cruelty and injustice that Daddy and Mother Dear and Mama and Aunt Ida had been shielding us from broke through. But back then it was a crushing blow that seemed to come out of nowhere.”

These are the childhood experiences that shaped her brother into the powerful leader that he one day became, Farris said.

“I want these memories to be available for generations to come,” Farris said, adding that after the death of her father in 1985, she is the last living family member that grew up in the house on Auburn Avenue. “So, when I’m not here anymore, I don’t want to leave things open to interpretation. I want people to remember Martin the way he truly was, because he’s more than a symbol. He was my brother.”