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I Knew Him as “Granddaddy”: Martin Luther King, Sr. and His Influential Legacy

By Isaac Newton Farris, Jr.

Photo of the extended King-Williams family. King, Sr., is seated among his many grandchildren, pointing at the camera.
Photo of the extended King-Williams family. King, Sr., is seated among his many grandchildren, pointing at the camera. Courtesy of the King/Farris Family

Released originally in 1980, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr.’s autobiography Daddy King is the poignant first-person account that chronicles the rarely heard life story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father. Born in 1899 to a family of sharecroppers in Stockbridge, Georgia, King, Sr. escaped poverty and the looming threat of violence from white landowners to answer the calling to become a preacher. He would preach at Ebenezer Baptist Church for more than four decades while engaging in acts of political dissent, seeing the triumph of winning voting rights for blacks in Atlanta, and experiencing the feelings of fatherly pride and anxiety as he watched his son put his life in danger at the forefront of the civil rights movement.

In this new foreword to the book, King, Sr.’s grandson Isaac Newton Farris, Jr. shares what Daddy King meant to him as a family member, and discusses the far-reaching legacy of King, Sr.’s activism for civil rights and racial justice. 


The world knew him formally as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr. Many knew him affectionately as “Daddy King.” I knew him simply as “granddaddy,” but all who were acquainted with his presence respected this influential man of God. As new generations of Americans become familiar with the life of my grandfather, they will better appreciate how my uncle, his son, Martin Luther King, Jr., evolved into one of the most influential leaders of the twentieth century. In fact throughout my uncle’s life, my grandfather played a key role in allowing my uncle to retain the financial and political independence necessary for him to be at all times an uncompromised public servant.

His life story is the traditional American narrative—starting with nothing but through hard work achieving something—but his story is made extraordinary when one factors in that my grandfather was the traditional second-generation descendent of American slaves, born to parents who were sharecroppers in the race-discriminating rural Southern town of Stockbridge, Georgia. In the midst of this hopelessness, his will to succeed and the call he felt to the ministry caused him to rise above his circumstances and not only achieve a successful life but give the world one of its greatest leaders. In his case, the saying of “hands that picked cotton now pick presidents” rings particularly true, as former president Jimmy Carter would attest to, because of the game-changing intervention my grandfather made in his 1976 presidential campaign.

It is no coincidence that the greatest theologian of the twentieth century shares the name of the greatest theologian of the sixteenth century. Michael King was my grandfather’s original name, and Michael King, Jr., was the birth name of my uncle, but after traveling to Europe as a young Christian minister and learning of the philosophy and the protest reformation of the Christian church by Martin Luther, my grandfather returned to America and changed his name to Martin Luther King, Sr., and changed my uncle’s name to Martin Luther King, Jr., proof positive of the vision he held of himself and the vision he would plant inside his namesake son.

Long before the historic 1963 March on Washington, Martin King, Jr., saw his father lead a march on Atlanta City Hall to protest separate water fountains for black and white citizens. This bold act in the late 1930s was as provocative and a million times more life threatening than any march in the nation’s capital would ever be. King, Sr., led the successful protest and legal fight to equalize the pay of black and white teachers of the Atlanta public schools. This would cause the Atlanta Board of Education to deny his daughter, Dr. Christine King Farris, a Spelman graduate and a holder of two master degrees from Columbia University, employment as a teacher until the intervention of then mayor William B. Hartsfield.

But, like my uncle, first and foremost my grandfather was not a social activist but a man of God who provided forty-four years of devoted pastoral leadership to the parishioners of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and, last but not least, he was granddaddy, a man who would deny his grandchildren nothing and moved heaven and earth to help us achieve our goals. He was the paradigm of our family’s morals and beliefs—faith in God, strength, courage, charity, sacrifice, and determination. He was the solid-rock foundation we all stood on, the one who provided the ultimate sense of security for us all. His life story is truly one for the ages and an example of how America at the low point of mistreatment of its darker-hued citizens still produced a remarkable American original such as MARTIN LUTHER KING, SR.