In February 2021 — Black History Month in the United States — a history meme circulated on social media platforms containing the assertion that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mother, like her son, was assassinated:
Atop and under a black and white photograph of four people next to what looked like an object bearing the logo of defunct airline Pan Am, text read:
MLK’s Mother Was Assassinated, Too: The Forgotten Women Of Black History Month
On June 30th, 1974, Alberta Williams King was gunned down while she played the organ for the “Lord’s Prayer” at Ebenezer Baptist Church. As a Christian civil rights activist, she was assassinated … just like her son, Martin Luther King, Jr. But most people remember only one. Until a month ago, I was one of those people.
A June 2014 post to Reddit’s r/todayilearned conveyed a similar sentiment:
It appeared that the “meme” (and its unusual font) stemmed from a screenshot of a Talking Points Memo (TPM) article published on February 4 2015:
When a friend told me about Alberta Williams King, my first reaction was “who?” This question was followed by a wave of shame. It was the same feeling I had a few years ago when I first heard about Fannie Lou Hamer. Then later came Ida B. Wells and other leaders who seemed to appear in the discussion of American history to my confused, uninformed silence. I started to suspect that I had half an education and that I had been leaving out the role of women and feminism in Black History.
As for the circumstances, Alberta King was shot and killed six years after her son’s death; King family members were the shooter’s intended target:
“It seemed like I was watching a scene from a bad movie play out,” Christine King Farris, Alberta’s daughter, would recall in her 2009 memoir Through It All.
The man—Marcus Wayne Chenault Jr.—fired every round in his gun, hitting Alberta King, church deacon, Edward Boykin, and congregation member Jimmie Mitchell. As the gunman sprinted out the side door leading to Jackson Street, the sanctuary was chaotic.
Farris eventually made her way outside. As she later described the scene:
There were people everywhere. There was a throng of onlookers. When I looked in their eyes I saw what is often described as “the thousand-yard stare.” It was a kind of blankness I’d never seen before. There were bewildered and in shock. Many were crying; most had their hands pressed to their mouths in disbelief.
Farris and other family members made it to Grady hospital, where they learned that dean Boykin and Mrs. King had died.
An April 2018 WTVY article, (“6 years after MLK assassination, his mother was gunned down, too”) observed that Williams King’s murder was “an often-forgotten chapter in the legacy of the civil rights struggle”:
Six years after an assassin cut down Rev. Martin Luther King, a man walked into Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and killed the late civil rights leader’s mother as she played the organ for morning services.
Alberta Williams King’s death is an often-forgotten chapter in the legacy of the civil rights struggle.
On June 30, 1974, Alberta King had just finished playing “The Lord’s Prayer” on the organ at Ebenezer Baptist when a man shouted, “I’m taking over here!”
A young black man bolted to the pulpit and pulled out a gun, according to a recounting by Atlanta magazine. The man, later identified as Marcus Wayne Chenault Jr. of Ohio, fired his gun, hitting Alberta King, church deacon Edward Boykin and congregation member Jimmie Mitchell.
Britain’s The Guardian republished an archival piece from July 1 1974; it began:
The 70-year-old mother of the late Rev Martin Luther King, the civil rights leader who was assassinated six years ago, was herself shot and killed [June 30 1974] as she played the organ for morning service in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in the centre of Atlanta, Georgia.
Her assailant, a young black man, who eye-witnesses said “went berserk,” and who was later reported to have said that “all Christians” were his enemies, was held by members of the church choir after he had wounded two other members of the congregation, one of them fatally.
Aware of the potential consequences of this latest tragedy, the Mayor of Atlanta, Mr Maynard Jackson, issued a statement beseeching the community to remain calm.
Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute maintained an entry about Williams King, which concluded with the manner of her death. Marcus Wayne Chenault, the individual identified as the shooter, died in prison at age 44.
The photograph seen on the meme was taken in 1964, and it is part of Getty Images’ archive. A caption reads:
Martin L. King’s Family At Airport
12/5/1964-New York, NY: Enroute to meet Nobel Prize Winner Martin Luther King in London are (L to R): King’s parents, the Reverend and Mrs. Martin Luther King, Sr.; his wife, Coretta Scott; and his sister, Mrs. Christine Farris. All are ready to board a Pan American Airways jet clipper flight at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The foursome were joined by friends and other family members who will be on hand for the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. King in Oslo on Dec. 10 .
A February 2019 Facebook post beginning with the text “MLK’s Mother Was Assassinated, Too: The Forgotten Women Of Black History Month” stated that “Alberta Williams King … was assassinated … just like her son, Martin Luther King, Jr.” That image was in fact a screenshot of a 2015 TPM item about the death of King, Jr’s mother in 1974. Like her son, Alberta Williams King was shot and killed in a targeted fashion, and her death is not uncommonly described as an assassination.