International Women's Day: Alberta Williams King

Sunday 8th March is International Women’s Day; this is a day of celebration and recognition of the achievements of women across the world. This year, the official UN theme is ‘Make It Happen’. All too often women’s achievements are sidelined and ignored, and International Women’s Day attempts to address this, while also having a strong campaigning focus. Throughout history, there have been many incredible women whose stories have not been heard. In this blog post, I want to introduce you to one such woman!

The civil rights movement in 1950s and 60s America saw many men and women fighting for their freedom, from the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 to the Housing Rights protests of the late 60s. One of the most famous figures was Martin Luther King Jr, assassinated on the 4th April, 1968. Less well known, however, was his mother, Alberta Williams King. Originally a teacher, who had to quit her position because at that time married women were not allowed to teach, Alberta was hugely influential on Martin Luther King, and he wrote often of both his parents’ influence on him.

Six years after Martin Luther King’s murder, Alberta too was assassinated while she played the organ at Ebenezer Baptist Church. She had been a committed member of the church, and a member of its Women’s Committee.  Her assassin, Wayne Chenault, had originally planned to kill Alberta’s husband, Martin Luther King Sr., the minister of the church, but reportedly changed his mind. Another woman was wounded and one of the church’s deacons also killed. Chenault was sentenced to death, but after an intervention from the King family who were staunch opponents of the death penalty, it was later changed to life imprisonment.

In Martin Luther King’s papers, accessible online via the King Institute at Stanford University, we can read his correspondence with his mother. In a letter dated October 1948, in his first semester of studying at Crozer Theological Seminary, he wrote home, saying ‘I often tell the boys around the campus I have the best mother in the world.’ Her role in the civil rights movement has not really been studied, but it is clear that she was a great influence on him throughout his life, and that her tragic murder at the age of 69 should be recognised and mourned.

It is also important to recognise the women in the civil rights movement; often overlooked, women such as Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash and Amelia Boynton played vital roles in securing civil rights for African-American citizens. Ava DuVernay’s recent film, Selma, told some of these stories, but as we approach International Women’s Day, we must remember these inspirational women fighting for their rights while being oppressed on the grounds of both their gender and their race.

Debbie is a member of SCM's General Council, and holds the Media and Publications portfolio.