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Martin Luther King, Jr.
SMACK! WENT THE doctor’s hand gently but firmly on the naked buttocks of the newborn baby. The doctor frowned. He was concerned because the newborn baby didn’t cry out. The doctor’s helpers waited and watched. They were concerned, too, that the baby did not cry out. They wanted to see some sign of life in him.
The doctor gripped the baby’s feet more firmly. He held him up and tapped him on the buttocks again. The baby’s eyes were closed, but he let out a weak cry. Then he made a stronger cry. The doctor and his helpers seemed relieved. The new baby was alive!
This was January 15, 1929. The place was Atlanta, Georgia. It was a cold, cloudy Tuesday. The baby’s father had paced the floor of the 12-room house, waiting for his second child to be born. The house was located at 501 Auburn Avenue near the crest of a hill.
Everything in the big house was spotlessly clean. A bed had been set up in one of the rooms downstairs. Many babies in those days were born in homes rather than hospitals. In fact, few hospitals in any part of the country had beds for Negro mothers. It was expected that Negro babies would be born in the home.
There was a threat of flu in the community. Seven thousand cases had been reported. Great care had been taken to keep flu germs outside the house. The doctor’s helpers, who were friends of the family, had bustled about in spotless clothing. They had worked hard, trying to make the mother, Alberta King, comfortable.
When the doctor finally tapped life into the baby, everyone quietly rejoiced. The mother fell asleep, as if exhausted. She smiled as she slept. She had given birth to her first son, but little did she know how great he would become.
The big gray and white house on Auburn Avenue was very attractive. It had a porch that extended across the front and around one side. There were neighboring houses not far away on either side. In front was a yard, which was covered with beautiful grass during the summer. A hedge extended across the front of the yard which was kept neatly trimmed. In the spring and summer pretty flowers bloomed in the yard. There was a very large backyard where the baby would someday play with his family and friends.
Two Christian leaders lived in this big house on Auburn Avenue. One was Alberta King’s father and the baby’s grandfather, the Rev. Adam Daniel Williams. He was the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, which was a very large church in Atlanta. The other leader was the baby’s father, Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. He was the assistant pastor of the same church where the baby’s grandfather was pastor.
Rev. King had been very quiet as he had walked the floor. He already had a daughter named Christine, who was a little more than a year old. Now he was happy. He had a son, Martin Luther King, Jr., who could follow in his footsteps as a great leader.
The new baby boy was born at the beginning of a great depression. Jobs were scarce and many people were out of work. They had little money to spend and little food to eat.
Negroes were having especially hard times, but the new baby was well cared for. The King family had a place to live, food to eat, and clothes to wear. Rev. Williams, however, had to help many people through his church.
The members of the church looked to Rev. Williams, and he never failed them. He never seemed too tired to work on first one problem and then another. The church had many problems, but it always was filled with joy, too. The singing was full of spirit, and the members were helpful, one to another.
Rev. Williams had begun his leadership in a small church in Atlanta in 1894, just twenty-nine years after the freeing of the slaves. At that time many Negroes were trying to find jobs and places to live. Many left the rural areas and moved into the nearby cities. Some left the South entirely and traveled many hundred miles to cities “up North.”
Most Negroes from the Georgia rural areas moved into Atlanta. After they found homes, they looked for nearby churches to attend. Many of them found their way to Rev. Williams’s church, which made them welcome. They found friendly members in the church and a capable and dedicated leader who could help them find better ways of living.
The new citizens were looking for better opportunities for their children. They sought someone who would help them make more out of their lives, so they could do more for their children. All in all, they hoped for a better tomorrow.
Day after day and night after night the newcomers filled the benches of Rev. Williams’s church. They heard his fiery sermons against the evils of segregation. They listened as he encouraged them to work hard for their own betterment and to stand up for their rights. They believed in his plea for unity among themselves.
Within a few years the church became Ebenezer Baptist Church. More and more people crowded into the church each Sunday. They came to hear Rev. Williams and to find hope and courage for the coming week. Each and every one of them obtained help from the pastor.
Rev. Williams lived and worked at about the same time as two other famous Negro leaders, Booker T. Washington and Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, both college professors. Booker T. Washington was the head of Tuskeegee Institute in Tuskeegee, Alabama. He taught his students to work hard, mainly with their hands, and urged them not to worry too much about fighting for their rights as citizens.
He felt that if they worked hard, white people ultimately would give them their rights. Then in 1895 he made a famous speech at Atlanta. He encouraged Negroes to make the best of segregated conditions until the conditions could be changed for the better.
The other Negro leader, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, was a professor at Atlanta University. He agreed with Rev. Williams in believing that Negroes should fight for their rights as citizens. DuBois and Williams felt that Negro citizens should have opportunities to develop their minds as well as learn to use their hands.
At the same time Rev. Williams realized that many members of his church would have to earn a living mainly by using their hands. Many were domestic workers in homes, janitors of buildings, or held other similar jobs. These persons needed to be encouraged to lead the best possible lives on meager means.
By the time Martin Luther King was born, Atlanta had become a great educational center for Negroes. Many teachers had come down from the North to start private schools for Negroes. One of these schools was Atlanta University where Dr. DuBois taught, and another was Spellman Seminary.
Rev. Williams had sent his daughter, Alberta, the new baby’s mother, to Spellman Seminary. Afterward he had sent her to Hampton Institute in Virginia. There she had become a school teacher and had taught until her first child, Christine, was born.
There was much unrest about Negroes across the country. Many white people did not seem to understand Negroes. Suddenly, after the War between the States, a few Negroes had moved into positions of leadership. Some had served in state legislatures and some had even become members of the United States Congress. Some had held other important positions in state and national governments.
This new type of Negro leadership had lasted only a few years. By the time Rev. Williams had started his church, Negroes had ceased to hold such positions of leadership. Most of them had been pushed back almost to the kinds of lives they had led in slavery.
Many people did not want Negroes to get ahead. They did not want Negroes to have good homes or to get an education. They tried to hold Negroes back, by keeping them poor and uneducated. Some even wrote degrading articles about Negroes, which were published in newspapers and magazines. They frequently wrote that Negroes were lazy and didn’t want to work for a living. They indicated that Negroes did not care about improving their conditions or about properly caring for their children.
Many readers believed these articles, but Rev. Williams knew they were untrue. He tried to inspire the members of his church to have faith and hope. He encouraged them to work for better conditions, but always to strive to be good citizens.
Finally in 1909 so many problems between whites and Negroes arose across the country, that Negro leaders formed a new national organization, to help protect them from injustices and to help them advance. This new organization was called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP, which was a shorter way of saying the long name. One of the pioneers in forming the new organization was Dr. DuBois of Atlanta University. Another important leader was Rev. Williams.
In Atlanta, under the leadership of Rev. Williams, the new organization forced the city to build a Negro public high school. It led Negroes to boycott a newspaper that published degrading articles about Negroes and forced the newspaper to go out of business. Constantly the members of Ebenezer Baptist Church fought for improvement in Negro opportunities.
In 1931, when the new baby Martin Luther King, Jr. was only two years old, his grandfather, Rev. Williams, died. Then Rev. M. L. King, Sr., the baby’s father and the son-in-law of Rev. Williams, became the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Like Rev. Williams, he was a very forceful leader.
Thus, from the very beginning, Martin Luther King, Jr. was born into a life of leadership. As he grew, he learned by example how to guide his people. As he grew, too, he demonstrated special leadership abilities of his own.