Back to articles

The kind and courageous influence of MLK’s parents

Spirit, Show on Corporate Home

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the few people known around the world. We know his face, his voice, his words and his fight—all as the adult Dr. King.

But how does someone become so bold, so courageous, so peaceful and so controlled?

Dr. King’s sense of justice, his courage and his method of peaceful protest started developing when he was just a child under the influence of his parents. He embodies a well-balanced combination of his mother, Alberta, and his father, Martin Luther King, Sr.

His parents taught the young Martin what the rules were at that time in the American South—and that these rules were wrong. His mother lovingly and consistently reminded him that, despite the law of the land, he was as “good as anyone.” Dr. King wrote: “She taught me that I should feel a sense of ‘somebodiness’ but that on the other hand I had to go out and face a system that stared me in the face every day saying you are ‘less than.’” Alberta was as loving and gentle as Dr. King was calm and non-violent in his protests.

His father balanced that gentle presence with courage and self-confidence. Martin Luther King, Sr. was a dynamic personality and very strong physical presence. He, too, led protests against segregation in the South. Dr. King recalled an incident when the staff at a shoe store refused to wait on his father and him unless they moved to the chairs in the back of the store. His father walked him out of the store, commenting, “I don't care how long I have to live with this system, I will never accept it.”

King himself would write later that “I think my strong determination for justice comes from the very strong, dynamic personality of my father, and I would hope that the gentle aspect comes from a mother who is very gentle and sweet.”

Photo: A family portrait of the Kings, 1939; clockwise: King Sr.; mother-in-law, Mrs. Jeannie C. Parks Williams; son Martin Luther Jr.; daughter, Christine; younger son, Alfred Daniel, and wife, Alberta Williams King.