Like many mothers before her, Alberta King’s legacy has been filtered through her relationships to the men in her life. As a black woman raising black children in the 1950s, she’s memorialized more for raising the most famous civil rights leader in history than her own activism.
Spend some time trying to track the major events of her life and you’ll find far more about the man who assassinated her than the struggles, public and private, she faced. Salacious news stories on the circumstances of her death, at the hands of a gunman, far outweigh biographical fact.
It may be because King, who was described often as soft spoken, kept most of herself for the intimate communities she inhabited: As the Reverend L.V. Booth reportedly said at her funeral, the woman “sounded no trumpets to call attention to her greatness.” One of her only public statements appears to have been at her son’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, during which she recalled telling him to steel himself for a lifetime of disappointment after he was passed over in favor of a white kid during a high school debate. It was a comment she said she later regretted. “Black mothers,” she told the crowd, “we make our sons less.”
But King Jr. made allusions to his mother’s invisible labor in his writings, describing her presence throughout his life as one “behind the scene, setting forth those motherly cares, the lack of which leaves a missing link in life.” In archival news clippings acquired by historian Ashley Farmer, she’s described as a mother who “tried to explain the Jim Crow system as a ‘social condition’” to her children. And Ebony magazine recalled a sharp, moralistic thinker who taught her children not to bemoan their circumstances: “Why should we be spared from a difficult time?” she was known to ask.
Alberta was born in 1903 to the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Georgia, and raised by a mother deeply involved in the church’s affairs. The entire King family was a pillar of the church for generations; they were deeply committed to their faith and were spared few difficult times themselves. Alberta left the Atlanta-based church only twice in her life: once for college, and decades later, to work quietly with her grown (any by then, extremely famous) son.
Alberta attended a seminary high school, acquiring her teaching certificate at Hampton University in Virginia shortly after. Upon her return to Atlanta in 1924, she immediately announced her engagement to a young pastor, then named Michael King, during a Sunday service at Ebenezer. Once married, the two set up on Auburn Avenue, a thriving community for black businesses and churches prior to the civil rights era. But the local school board’s regulations stated married women couldn’t teach. King turned her considerable talents back into the church. A fantastic musician and committed member of her community, she coordinated the church’s first choir.
She was also active during her life in numerous civic and religious organizations, including the NAAC, the YWCA, the Women’s International League for Peace and Justice, and the women’s ministry coalition at the National Baptist association; with little documented about the exact shape of her involvement, the list is at least a testament to the intersection of her faith and her politics.
She continued this relatively quiet activism through the inconceivable and tragic deaths of both of her sons—Martin Luther in 1968 and A.D. King, who had been preaching at Ebenezer, a year later. Her husband remained a pastor, and she continued to handle her various committees and role in the choir until her semi-retirement in 1972. But on the morning of her death in 1974, as reported by Ebony, the 69-year-old was to preside over a “Woman’s Day” observance at Ebenezer. She attended two early morning meetings. A new organ had just been installed, and she was looking forward to playing it.
That June, Atlanta was tense: Not a week before Alberta King’s death, the police shot a black man for violating parole and the city erupted. Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of a major Southern city, had recently made a hasty return from a conference on the West Coast. But as Alberta King was attending her pre-church committees, a young, mentally ill black man named Marcus Wayne Chenault was preparing to run down a bizarre hit list, later found in his apartment: It included a number of black pastors, as well as Aretha Franklin. When Chenault opened fire on the congregation, Mrs. King was playing the organ in preparation for the lord’s prayer.
Various accounts of the shooting claim Chenault jumped up and yelled “You must stop this!” and “I’m taking over!” Later, his lawyers would plead insanity; he told police he considered black pastors a threat to black people and that Christians were his enemy. Alberta died in the hospital shortly after the shooting. Chenault had intended his bullets not for her, but for her husband, who was preaching that day.
The assassin was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in the space of a few weeks. Later, on appeal, he received life in prison, in part because of the surviving King family’s strong feelings about the death penalty.
Today, when you Google Alberta Williams King, you’ll find mostly archival obituaries, dramatic reconstructions of the day she died. A number of them focus on the fact that Mrs. King was shot less than 100 yards from where her son was buried.