By MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN
Children’s Defense Fund
“I am convinced that, to a certain extent, genealogy and DNA combined to set the arc of my life, and the lives of my two siblings – at birth. I understand why the calling to participate in the freedom struggle was literally ‘in our blood’ … Generations of my family who came before us tilled the soil and gave us their shoulders to stand on. We have tried to respond to the call of conscience and the will of God.
“Every now and then, I have to chuckle as I realize there are people who actually believe ML just appeared. They think he simply happened, that he appeared fully formed, without context, ready to change the world. Take it from his big sister, that’s simply not the case. We are the products of a long line of activists and ministers. We come from a family of incredible men and women who served as leaders in their time and place, long before ML was ever thought of. My brother was an ordinary man, called by a God in whom he had abundant faith.”
These are the words of a proud sister describing the family legacy that shaped her life and her younger brothers’ lives, and in “ML”’s case, helped prepare Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to make history. Farris, who passed away on June 29 at age 95, embodied that legacy of servant-leadership as an educator and activist. She taught generations of students at Spelman College and helped establish the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change in Atlanta, where she served as a founding board member, vice-chair, and treasurer. At the King Center last week, her son, Isaac Farris Jr., said, “Mother was not the type of person to need attention or be out front. But she was there at every march. She was there, working behind the scenes, supporting her brother … She was there, throughout it all.”
In her memoir Through It All: Reflections on My Life, My Family, and My Faith she said that just like her brothers’ callings to become ministers on the front lines of the battle for human and civil rights, her calling to be an educator was “in the blood” too. In a tribute Spelman noted “even before she graduated from the Spelman nursery in 1931 (as a three-year-old,) Christine King Farris’ mother, grandmother, and great-aunt had all matriculated at the institution.” The Kings’ grandmother attended Spelman Seminary during the first decade after its founding, and their mother, Alberta Williams King, graduated from Spelman’s secondary school. Farris was following in their footsteps when she enrolled as a Spelman undergraduate at age 16.
At Spelman she was voted “Most Distinguished Student” before graduating with her degree in economics in 1948 on the same day her brother received his degree in sociology from Morehouse College. At the time, Georgia was among the states that provided vouchers to pay for Black students’ graduate education at schools out of state rather than integrating their own – as she put it, “thus insuring the preservation of the all-White halls of the University of Georgia.” This allowed her to go to New York to attend Columbia University, where she earned two masters’ degrees in education. She began her career as an educator in the Atlanta public school system and then returned to Spelman, where she served for 56 years as a professor of education and director of the Learning Resources Center. At her retirement in May 2014, she became professor emerita and Spelman’s longest-serving faculty member.
She was behind the scenes during key events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and took part in historic demonstrations like the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march and the 1966 March Against Fear in Mississippi. She was also at her brother’s side after his assassination, flying to Memphis to claim his body. She was never able to bear to return to the city. A little over a year after King’s assassination, their brother A.D. King was found dead in his home swimming pool. Then in 1974, Farris was in the sanctuary at Ebenezer Baptist Church when a gunman burst in and shot and killed her mother as she sat at the organ playing The Lord’s Prayer. As her niece, Rev. Bernice King, said last week, “I was just amazed at her ability to go through all of the tragedy that she went through and still stand strong and still be full of faith and love.” She also said of her aunt, “She experienced profound tragedy and was sustained by love, faith in God, and hope for humanity. She kept teaching, kept growing, kept mothering so many. Her life was a testimony.”
Besides her memoir, Farris also wrote the children’s books My Brother Martin and March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World. Throughout her life she was committed to sharing her family’s story and reminding younger generations that transformative leaders like her brother are not born as magical superheroes, but as real people, the products of the families and communities around them, who rise up to the work they are called to do. This lesson will be her legacy.
Marian Wright Edelman is the founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund whose mission is “Leave No Child Behind.” For more information, visit https://www.childrensdefense.org.