Certain details about Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy are well-known, though there are other elements of his family history that generally don’t receive as much attention as his famous speeches and inspiring hope-filled messages.
As it turns out, the King family suffered greatly for its willingness to stand up for civil rights.
Unfortunately, King’s 1968 death wasn’t the only tragedy to strike the family, as the civil rights leader’s mother, Alberta King, was killed a few years later. Mrs. King, 70, was fatally shot during a Sunday church service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 20, 1974; church deacon Edward Boykin was also killed during the assault.
King and Boykin were murdered by Marcus Wayne Chenault Jr., who reportedly later said he had open-fired inside the church due to his disdain for the Christian faith after “his god” instructed him to do so, as The New York Times noted in a 1995 news report detailing Chenault’s own death while in prison.
“Alberta King, 70, was fatally struck at the church’s new organ as she was playing ‘The Lord’s Prayer,'” the story read, noting that the intended target was Martin Luther King Sr., who wasn’t present at the time. “Mr. Boykin was standing nearby when he was shot. One woman among the 400 worshippers was wounded.”
And that latter tragedy was also preceded by the 1969 death of Martin Luther King Jr.’s brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King, another fixture in the civil rights movement who also worked in ministry like his brother and father. Known as “A.D.” for short, Alfred King was found deceased in the family’s swimming pool just 15 months after his brother’s assassination.
A.D. King had reportedly struggled to understand and cope with his brother’s death, and pledged before his death to explore the details behind it, according to The Seattle Times.
His untimely death led some family members, including his wife, Naomi King, to express their belief that he was murdered rather than experiencing an accidental drowning, as has been speculated.
“Absolutely, he was murdered. He was an excellent swimmer. There was no water in his lungs. He was in the fetal position,” she said, according to The Seattle Times. “He had a bruised forehead. Rings around his neck. And he was in his underwear. He was murdered.”
That wasn’t the end of the family’s grief, though, as recounted in a description for the A.D. King Foundation, an organization setup by Naomi King to honor her late husband’s memory.
“In 1976, (Naomi) King’s younger daughter, Darlene died while jogging from an apparent heart attack, and ten years later, her son Al died while playing basketball,” a description reads. “Despite these losses, King has kept her husband’s memory alive through her establishment of the A.D. King Foundation in 2008 with the primary focus on youth/women empowerment and nonviolent social change strategies as a way of life and entrepreneurship as the center core.”
A third child named Vernon reportedly also died in 2009.
While there has certainly been tragedy in the King family — so much so that they have been compared to the Kennedys — there have also been triumphs over the years, as family members continue to fight for civil rights. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter Bernice King, for instance, leads the King Center, an organization launched by his late wife Coretta Scott King.
And A.D. King’s daughter, Alveda King, has gone on to become a conservative activist, speaking out on a variety of issues.
In the end, the King family legacy continues to inspire millions across the nation and the world, as the courage to stand up for what’s right has distinguished Martin Luther King Jr. and his family members, forever solidifying them as important historical fixtures who have collectively and tirelessly worked to make America a better and more inclusive place.
Since 1986, Americans have been remembering and celebrating King’s legacy via a national holiday. But perhaps the King Center summarizes the impact the civil rights leader has had in the most simple and pointed terms: “Dr. King is considered to be one of the most important figures of the 20th century, not only for African-Americans but for all those seeking freedom, justice, equality and peace.”