T HE E ARLY Y E ARS
Martin Luther King, Jr., was the son of the prominent pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. During his earliest years, Martin’s parents shielded him from the ugliest realities of racism. Martin was raised as a member of the black elite. His family’s status was based on their community service and religious leader ship, not wealth. The King family was never poor, nor were they rich. Martin described his neighbors as people of average income. It was, he said, a “wholesome” community where crime was minimal and most people were deeply religious. Martin joined the church when he was five. His father, grand father, and greatgrandfather were all preachers, and so was his uncle. Religion was a natural and important part of his life, and he attended church every Sunday. He never suffered hunger or deprivation. “I have never experi enced the feeling of not having the basic necessities of life. These things were always provided by my father, who always put his family first.” Young Martin never had to drop out of school to work to earn money for the family. Looking back on his youth, he recalled: “The 23
Martin Luther King, Jr., with his family. Back row, from left to right: his mother, his father, and his maternal grandmother. Front row, his brother, his sister, and young Martin.
first twenty-five years of my life were very comfortable years. If I had a problem I could always call Daddy . . . Life had been wrapped up for me in a Christmas package.” Martin was a precocious child who possessed an inborn curiosity and a love of books and learning. One day his mother, Alberta, the daughter of a prominent minister, decided that Martin was old enough to hear what black parents today still call “The Talk”: the conversation to prepare a black child for the racism he might encounter in the outside world. Martin never forgot it. “My mother confronted the age-old problem of the Negro parent in America: how to explain discrimination and segregation to a small child . . . She told me about slavery, and how it ended with the Civil War. She tried to explain the divided system of the South— the segregated schools, restaurants, theaters, housing; the white and colored signs on drinking fountains, waiting rooms, lavatories— as a social condition rather than a natural order.” Martin’s mother said that she opposed these racist practices and told him that he must never allow them to make him feel inferior. “You are as good as anyone,” she taught her firstborn son. But as much as his parents protected him from racism, he never forgot his early childhood encounters with segregation. When Martin was six, a white boy who had been his playmate since they were three years old ended their friendship when he went to a white, segregated school. It crushed Martin, who admitted, “from that moment on I was determined to hate every white person.” His parents admonished him that he should not hate.
Once when Martin’s father took him to a shoe store, the salesman said that they would have to get up from their seats and move to the back of the store. His father, the elder Reverend King, got up and walked out: “We’ll either buy shoes sitting here, or we won’t buy shoes at all.” Martin suffered segregation at parks, swimming pools, schools, and movie theaters. One day when he was eight years old, his mother took him shopping in downtown Atlanta. A white woman slapped him in the face and spoke a vile insult: “You are that ‘n*****’ that stepped on my foot.” That word, now considered so offen sive that many books and newspapers will no longer print it, was once a common slur that whites used when speaking to or talking about blacks. Martin remembered the time in high school when a white bus driver ordered him and a female teacher to give up their seats to white people—“it was the angriest I have ever been in my life”—and he remembered when a white policeman dared to call his father, one of the most distinguished men in Atlanta, “boy.” It was a word meant to show disrespect