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Ten Truths for You, Your Family, and Our Nation to Prosper
By ALVEDA KING
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2014 Alveda King
All rights reserved.
When people come to visit me in Atlanta, one of my favorite things is to take them to see the historic King family home at 501 Auburn Avenue, the home where my father, uncle, and aunt were born. The house, built in 1895, is now part of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. But it is also the house where my parents were living when I was born. And it's the house where my grandmother, Alberta Williams King, lived when she was a child.
Sometimes, as a special gift, I do private civil rights tours for people. I always take them to visit the "Birth Home." It resonates in some way with everyone. I think that is because it so strongly represents what home meant and still means to the King family.
My great-granddaddy, Adam Daniel Williams, bought the home with his young wife, Jenny Celeste Parks, a few years after moving to Atlanta and becoming pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was a large Queen Anne-style home a block and a half south of the church. Can you imagine how he felt? Great-granddaddy was born into slavery, but here he was the pastor of a growing congregation, living in a beautiful home with his beloved wife and a new baby daughter—Alberta Christine, my grandmamma. I always knew her as Big Mama.
Great-granddaddy and Jenny opened their doors to the people of their congregation, the community, traveling missionaries, and others during those days when blacks were not allowed to rest in the segregated hotels and establishments. Big Mike King was one of the men who came around back then. He walked from Stockbridge, Georgia, to Atlanta with his shoes slung over his back because he didn't want to wear holes in his only pair. He knew Atlanta would help him realize his dream of making a difference in the world, but the city didn't welcome anyone with the smell of the farm sticking to him. The city slickers poked fun at him and said he "wore the stench of the mule." So as soon as he was able to set some money aside, Big Mike bought plenty of soap and good-smelling lotion, promising himself that his peers would never laugh at his body odor again.
It must have worked. While Big Mike worked with Great-granddaddy in the ministry, he caught young Alberta's eye. They married in 1926 and started their own family—which is how I eventually came to know Big Mike as Daddy King, my granddaddy.
When Great-granddaddy Williams died in 1931, the Williams family home became the Williams–King family home. Great-grandmother Jenny and her widowed sister, Ida, lived there, and the home was cherished and regarded as a haven for the family and anyone else in times of need.
It was there that Aunt Christine, Uncle M.L., and Daddy A.D. King were born. It was in that home that they all learned the King Rules.
* * *
The parlor is the first room you see when you enter the house from the street, and the most notable thing is the Victrola and the piano. These pieces remind me of the music that has always filled our lives, wherever we lived. A home without music lacks a certain spirit. Whether classical, gospel, jazz, or pop music, it affects our souls. Any kind of music with strong healing qualities can soothe dark moods, uplift spirits, and create a soundtrack of joy and tranquility.
Singing plays an important role in the King legacy. My mother Naomi, Aunt Coretta, and Aunt Christine were concert soloists during their earlier days. Their voices helped to raise funds for the civil rights movement, because there were fund-raising concerts in churches and meeting halls back then.
Of course, there are the musicians also. My daddy played the violin, and they all played a bit of piano. Big Mama was a noted concert pianist, my sister Darlene had a beautiful touch on the keys, and several of my children are either singers or musicians. I'm known to sing and play a bit as well.
Not that everyone was always happy about learning to play. The truth is that Daddy and Uncle M.L. hated piano lessons. They disliked the experience so much they resorted to extreme measures. One time the piano teacher—by all accounts a stern instructor who rapped their knuckles if they made a mistake—arrived at the house to discover that the legs on the piano stool had been sawn off. My daddy and uncle were planning for "a fall from grace" to bring an end to their excruciating lessons. Another time Daddy and Uncle M.L. took to the keys with a hammer to make the instrument impossible to play. As a minister Granddaddy believed in the Bible. I'm sure you've heard, "Spare the rod and spoil the child." I believe that Daddy and Uncle M.L. felt the power of that verse that day.
Daddy and M.L. were unrepentant pranksters who found every opportunity they could to pull one of their good-natured tricks. Sometimes Aunt Christine joined in the fun. The three of them would borrow Grandma Jenny's fox fur stole. The wrap was so authentic it still had the heads of three little foxes attached. Aunt Chris, Uncle M.L., and Daddy would put the stole on a stick and poke it through the hedges in the front yard to scare passersby. One man was so frightened he went running down the street so fast that his fancy Sunday hat flew off in the wind.
For those who believe that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. emerged from Big Mama's womb as a paragon of perfection, I hope this reality check isn't too traumatic for your sensibilities. But Uncle M.L. was a normal little boy, and he and his brother engaged in childish pursuits.
When she wasn't helping them get in trouble, Aunt Christine was always there to remind them of their upbringing. And when things became too exciting, their parents were there with loving discipline and guidance. They were being prepared for leadership, allowed to develop their personalities in preparation to yield those very individual personalities over to a Higher Purpose.
* * *
This speaks to me about a very different aspect of a home—it needs to be a place where all members of the household can express themselves. It's important that every voice be heard. When parents take time to listen, they can hear the errors, which is important. They can also hear evidence of the unique traits that need to be cultivated in their child, which is even more important. In both cases it's essential that parents have the final say in using God's Word while teaching children the way they should go.
This might be one of the most significant lessons about the tradition of home we have in the King family. From the time we were very young, we were encouraged to express ourselves; we learned that we could talk about anything we wanted, as long as we did so respectfully. I think this is tremendously important, because it develops healthy self-image at an early age and it teaches the value of communication. This pays back big as children get older.
I always felt that I could express myself to my parents and grandparents, especially my mother and grandmother. One of my mother's favorite sayings was, "You can't clean house by sweeping the dirt under the rug. Bring it into the light." She meant we couldn't cleanse our souls by hiding our sins. Instead, agape love, repentance, forgiveness, and humility can fix our problems. In this spirit she made it clear I could talk to her about anything.
Because I had such an open avenue of communication with my elders, I was able to avoid many of the pitfalls in life that other children—especially teenagers—encounter. I often told them exactly what I'd been doing when I was out, and as a result received wise counsel that helped me to avoid many serious scrapes and more serious trouble. Because open communication was often the rule, many of these communication sessions took place in the family rooms of the various King households. I tend to follow this same rule today with my children and grandchildren, and it pays off.
* * *
Today the term "family room" seems to be old-fashioned. We tend to use words like "den" and "great room" instead. Thankfully I have fond memories of our various family rooms.
In the old days the room down the hall from the parlor in the Birth Home was the family room, which also doubled as a pastor's study. This was the room where everyone would go to relax after the evening's chores were done. Family members would listen to shows on the radio or play board games. Whatever they were doing, they always put a premium on being together.
This premium family interaction is something that was passed down through every generation and remains relevant in our lives now. When I was young, the family branches often came together for big family dinners. There were holiday gatherings, weddings, and just plain wanting-to-be-together times. Sometimes we went out to restaurants, but usually we were at the homes of family members. For us these weren't traditional family reunions; they were less formal and more impromptu.
Times like these are tremendously valuable for two reasons. The first is that it exemplifies for every member of the family the importance of the family as a unit—that there's something stronger about all of us together than we can ever be as individuals. The second is that it shows each member of the family that his or her presence is cherished.
I have always found it important to send the message that in a loving family, competition is secondary. Fellowship and camaraderie come first. In our family we have had to work hard to ensure that the members are not only loved, but that they're liked as well. Sometimes we have missed the mark; but believe me, this practice becomes extremely valuable when political and emotional differences arise—and you know they do. People are people. Knowing how to love and respect each other in spite of our differences helps to keep the love alive.
* * *
In the Birth Home there is another room where the family gathered every day, the dining room. Harmony is good for the digestion, and differences were rarely aired in that room. Instead, the dining room was a place where delicious meals for the body were served along with food for thought and development of the soul. Daddy King was absolutely adamant about having dinner together every night, even if he was working late. If he was in town, then the food didn't go down on the table until he was home.
Every dinner was preceded by one of the children reciting a verse from the Bible, which ensured the family always understood that they first needed to praise God before partaking of His bounty. Legend has it that the children's favorite Bible verse was "Jesus wept," because it was short and reciting it assured a speedy mouthful of delicious dinner. Granddaddy was on to that little trick, though, and he insisted they learn longer verses. It would seem that this practice set the foundation for Daddy's and Uncle M.L.'s love for the Bible. It instilled the Bible in their hearts from an early age, which served Uncle M.L. and Daddy faithfully as they became men and leaders in the community.
Fellowship has always been key in the King family, and eating together helped everyone reconnect at the end of the day. The dining room provided an easy place for communication. Everyone was encouraged to speak about his or her day, which not only gave each family member a moment in the spotlight but also gave a chance to air any concerns or worries or to get advice from loved ones. The dinnertime ritual granted security to the children and communicated that they were loved and valued. It also gave the parents a chance to see how their kids were doing as they prepared their jewels to shine.
We were expected to come to the dinner table as a family seven days a week. Daddy King instituted this requirement when his children were young, and this practice was only suspended under extreme circumstances, not on the almost daily basis that happens in so many families now. Again, this wasn't an arbitrary rule. What my family has understood for a long time is that the lines of communication are open wider when you sit down together every night. It is also invaluable for a family to see itself as a unit at least once a day. It serves as a subtle reminder of the strong bonds that unite all of us and how much bigger we are when we are all together.
This kind of family ritual has so much value. These days it might not be realistic to sit everyone down in one place every single day, especially as children get involved in school and community projects and parents take on considerable responsibilities to keep the household moving forward. But having certain days when the family always eats dinner together, or at least insisting that you do so several times a month, can be worth so, so much.
I saw the benefit of these practices growing up and tried as hard as I could to maintain them when my children were young, even as our lives sped up. Now that they are adults, some of them with children of their own, I still try to gather them together from time to time. I'm convinced there's something deeply restorative about everyone being in one place at one time as often as possible, particularly around the table.
Another place good times were had was the kitchen, down the hallway on the first floor in the back. This was everyone's favorite room in the Birth Home, and considering what great cooks Great-grandmother Jenny and Aunt Ida were, I can understand why.
Of course, Southern cooking was the order of the day back then, and fried chicken was a favorite. Staples like collard greens, fried corn, candied yams, sweet potato pie, coconut cake, and all of those "fixin's" were to be found in abundance. Other delicacies would find their way to the table. Fancy dishes of peas and salads and even wild game were not off limits. It was all usually chased down with ice-cold lemonade or tea; and in winter the family often enjoyed a mulled spiced tea blended with apple cider called Wassail.
For our family cooking has always been an essential part of the home, and we like to get everyone involved. My daddy was a gourmet cook—that's where I got my passion for it. My children are all good cooks, and even my grandchildren contribute in the kitchen. We keep them away from hot stoves and sharp knives, but they enjoy banging on pots and pans, stirring up dishes of their own, and getting involved in preparing the family meals.
To me this is an indispensable part of creating a sense of community in a household. Not only is it important that everyone eat together as often as possible, but it's also important that they create meals together when they can. When everyone gets involved with basic tasks like feeding each other, an invaluable feeling of unity develops. You can't buy that at any restaurant.
* * *
Granddaddy refused to have his children born in a segregated hospital. Big Mama gave birth to her three children upstairs in the master bedroom, also known as the Birth Room. It is said that when Uncle M.L., the firstborn son, was born, Granddaddy wiped away his tears of compassion shed for his wife over the long and hard delivery, let out a loud yell, and jumped high enough to touch the twelve-foot ceiling, yelling, "I have a son!"
Uncle M.L. and Daddy shared the adjoining room with their Uncle Joel, Daddy King's younger brother. Uncle Joel was there while he was completing school. Daddy and Uncle M.L. shared the trundle. They were taught to always respect their elders and naturally understood that Uncle Joel got the larger bed. There was a tremendous amount of honor and respect for parents and all elders in the King home. This custom is still maintained in our family today.
It's a miracle Uncle Joel got any studying done in that room. By all indications it was a flurry of boys, toys, books, games, and clothes strewn about. Big Mama kept an immaculate house, but gave the boys a little leeway in their room. Daddy and my uncle always had something going on up there. It was impossible to keep everything tidy. I'm guessing Big Mama scolded them about it from time to time—but with a twinkle in her eye. She knew the messiness was a sign her sons were growing and playing and figuring out life.
Surely this is a meaningful truth to consider in all homes. The Kings have always believed that a house should be clean, but we also believe that a house should look like people actually live in it. Children should be taught to respect their things and to cherish the valuables in a house, but they shouldn't feel so restricted by rules that they can't have fun or let their imaginations soar. How else are they going to grow?
The house on Auburn Avenue was a source of great comfort and security for my grandparents and their children. Aunt Christine still talks about it fondly even though she moved out long ago. Her bedroom is on the first floor, directly across from the dining room. If you ever visit the home, you can see her original furniture is there today.
Excerpted from KING RULES by ALVEDA KING. Copyright © 2014 Alveda King. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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