By Ralph E. Moore Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a middle child in the birth order of children from the union of Martin Luther King Sr. and Alberta Williams King.
King, Jr.’s older sister, Christine King Farris, died on June 29, 2023, in the city of their birth, Atlanta, Georgia. In some ways she was very different, a standout in her family. Farris died at age 95, while her brother was assassinated at 39 years old in 1968. Her other brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King (known as A.D.) died in a swimming accident at 38 years old a year after Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) was cut down by an assassin’s bullets. Daniel Williams King had been a Baptist minister and civil rights activist in his own right.While neither of her siblings lived to age 40, their sister lived to a ripe old age into her nineties.
Of the three siblings, as a youngster, Christine was first to join Ebenezer Baptist Church. As the story goes, a guest preacher spoke to the Sunday School one morning and invited the children to join the church.
MLK spoke of the significance of a moment that changed his life: “My sister was the first to join the church that morning, and after seeing her join I decided that I would not let her get ahead of me, so I was the next.” King wrote about the episode in an essay he wrote. He went on, “I had never given this matter a thought, and even at the time of baptism I was unaware of what was taking place. From this, it seems quite clear that I joined the church not out of any dynamic conviction, but out of a childhood desire to keep up with my sister.”
MLK blended faith and courage to organize for social change. His only sister got him started, but who was she?
Born with the name Willie Christine King on September 11, 1927 in Atlanta, MLK’s sister was the first child born to Mr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King Sr. She graduated with an economics degree from Spelman College in 1948 and coincidentally, on the same day that MLK got his sociology degree from Morehouse College on the campus next door. In 1960, King was married to Isaac Newton Farris and had two children: Isaac Newton Farris Jr. and Angela Christine Farris Watkins. Farris returned to Spelman in 1958 and worked there for fifty-six years as a professor of education.
Farris wrote two children’s books: “My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” and “March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World.” She then wrote her own memoir in 2009 entitled, “Through It All: Reflections on My Life, My Family and My Faith.”
It may come as no surprise that Farris was an activist, too. She marched with her brother in 1965 in Selma, Alabama in support of voting rights for all. She worked with her sister-in-law, Coretta Scott King, to start the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, where she served as treasurer and vice-chair. Farris spoke often in public about Martin including at services at Ebenezer Baptist.
Christine King Farris was an outstanding person. She excelled at all she did as an educator, a writer, a civil rights-social justice advocate and most of all as a big sister to Martin Luther King Jr. She saw as many in her family suffer death at early ages: both of her brothers died before age 40 and her mother was assassinated in Ebenezer Church during a hymn on a Sunday morning in June 1974.
Through it all, Farris wanted people to know that all can be involved in changing the world for the better. She preached that everyone can do their part in bringing about more peace and justice in our society.
“I wanted people to understand that we were real human beings. So often, people look at my brother as an icon. I want people to understand we come from a real family,” she said.
Farris’ passing was marked by a statement from both the mayor of Atlanta and the President Joe Biden.
“Mrs. Farris was a force in her own right,” said Mayor Andre Dickens in a statement. “She once said that her brother Martin simply gave us the blueprint, but it was our duty ‘to carry it out.’
President Biden praised the long-time educator for her life of service.
“I last saw Mrs. Christine King Farris this past January at Sunday services at Ebenezer Baptist Church to celebrate the life of her brother, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” recalled Biden. “Shaping the history of the journey of America in the 20th and 21st centuries, she stood for peace, freedom and justice—virtues that reflect the best of our nation.”
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