ATLANTA — The father of Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered as a prominent Atlanta preacher and civil rights leader. But as a young man from a poor sharecropping family in rural Georgia, he is said to have walked north to Atlanta barefoot so he didn’t wear out his only pair of shoes.His legacy is now being honored through a community center built to help other low-income people find a path out of poverty.
Known as "Daddy King," the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. became pastor of Atlanta’s influential Ebenezer Baptist Church and a leader of early efforts to challenge the Georgia’s Jim Crow laws. Preaching education and self-reliance, King instilled values in his children that helped his eldest son become a transformational national leader.
Daughter Christine King Farris said the new $8 million Martin Luther King Sr. Community Resources Complex down the block from the historic church pastored by her father and later by her famous brother will provide computer literacy courses, financial planning and other services to help low-income people become more financially secure.
"This building being named for my father is very appropriate," said Farris, 85. "He was a social activist who always said ‘Don’t forget about the least of these,’ meaning those persons who did not have the same wherewithal as others."
Inside the new 32,000-square-foot building, Ebenezer partnered with four other nonprofit organizations: Operation HOPE, Casey Family Programs, The Center for Working Families Inc. and Catholic Charities Atlanta. Each has space inside the complex to provide specialized services for people such as foster children, recent immigrants, teen mothers, at-risk students and others.
The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer, said he only has to walk out of the doors of his church and into the surrounding Sweet Auburn neighborhood to see the social needs the new center will seek to address. Though some pockets have recently undergone renewal with the restoration of some older homes, the historically African-American area still has some of Atlanta’s worst social outcomes — low graduation rates, high unemployment and abiding poverty.
"Our whole focus is to move beyond charity to real change; to move people toward self-sufficiency," Warnock said. "We felt that as the church of Martin Luther King Jr., we should be an active participant in the work of social transformation and in the work of helping people have better outcomes in their lives."
Warnock said the center will also carry on the ministry of Daddy King, who died in 1984. After arriving in Atlanta in 1918, he took basic education classes he need to qualify for admission to Morehouse College and wooed the daughter of A.D. Williams, then the minister at Ebenezer. He took the lead role at the church in 1931, after the death of his father-in-law.
Decades before his son became a national leader, the elder King led marches in Atlanta for voting rights and equal pay for black teachers in the city’s segregated schools. He became the local head of the NAACP. But as Warnock recounted, he also served on the board of a local bank and helped guide members of his congregation toward financial success.
"He preached the 12 commandments. No. 11 was ‘Thou shalt send thy children to college.’ And No. 12 was, ‘Thou shalt own thy own home,’" Warnock said. "Daddy King was ... a social activist who believed you really need to transform the structures of the society itself, while at the same time he encouraged the members of his congregation to take personal responsibility for their lives. We’ve tried to embody that in the work we’re doing here."
The new center, paid for with a mix of corporate donations, grants and other funds, also houses a trove of photos and artifacts from the life of Daddy King and his wife, Alberta Williams King. An accomplished musician known as Mama King, she was gunned down by a mentally ill man inside Ebenezer’s sanctuary in 1974 while playing the Lord’s Prayer during a Sunday morning service. It was about six years after her son was assassinated in Memphis.
In storage for nearly 40 years, the organ she was playing when she was shot is now on display for the first time in the rehearsal hall of the new community center. Farris said this week it was the first time she had seen the organ since the time of her mother’s death.
"Shortly after she was taken, they moved that organ," said Farris, who was in the church the morning of the shooting. "My mother was always right there beside my father, working with him. She has some of the same feelings and philosophies as my father and was always concerned about people."
Farris said she hopes the new center will help increase recognition of her father’s contributions to the civil rights movement, which are not as well-known as those of Martin Luther King, Jr.
"My brother grew up under my father, and of course it was there for him to see that kind of leadership," Farris said. "He listened to the sermons. The whole idea of the social gospel, he got that from his father."