Professor Christine King Farris, Sister of MLK
In February 2004, Education Update had the privilege of interviewing Christine King Farris, the only surviving sibling of Martin Luther King. With us, she shared her own educational journey and the struggles she had to overcome along the way, including her student years at Teachers College, which she loved. She also enlightened us on her childhood years with her brother and the impact of his legacy. Now, in 2014, she is still a professor at Spelman College.
Perhaps it is because on that fateful day, April 3, 1968, just hours before his assassination in Memphis, Martin Luther King spoke so eloquently of God’s allowing him to go up to the mountain where he saw the promised land, that this man among men has become enshrined in myth as a man still on the mountain: heroic, larger than life, mythical. He was a giant among men, and he had a dream that still haunts and inspires millions around the world, but he was first a boy, a typical fun-loving child, who before he knew he wanted to turn the world around joked with his friends, played piano, would horse around in the backyard with some white kids, before he learned why he no longer could. Having others understand the young Martin Luther King, identifying with his typical childhood, is extremely important to Christine King Farris, his older sister. Her dream is to have people, especially young black children, understand that Martin could indeed be a model for them because he was no different. To that end, she wrote a remarkable book about her brother, her second, My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.(2003), with pictures by the award-winning children’s book illustrator Chris Soentpiet, that is designed to bring Martin back down from the mountain and make him an accessible, influential role model.
She travels a lot across the country, reading from the book, and time and again realizes that so many youngsters think her brother “came from outer space”; that he was so extraordinary, that he must have been born extraordinary. Showing that Martin Luther King, Jr. had “a normal childhood” is important to her, she says, because only then can young readers—the book is slated for ages 9-12—really identify with him, appreciate the significance of having a close-knit and loving family, and realize that they, too, can be like Martin. “Everyone must try to achieve,” she says, regardless of background, and they will try if they see that their “hero” was a youngster like themselves, full of fun. She might as easily added, however, that her own life could be inspirational.
Professor King Farris teaches in the Department of Education at Spelman College, where she directs the Learning Resource Center and is completing her 55th year! Christine King Farris has a remarkable story to tell, which she promises to do in her next book, which will be geared towards adults. An economics major at Spelman, where she got a B.A., she thought she would move into accounting and banking, so she arrived in New York City at Columbia University, a young girl from the South, and entered a graduate program in economics. She was, she soon discovered, the only woman in the class and the only black, with a professor who expressed no interest in her. For all her “daring,” the experience was “traumatic,” and she withdrew. Just down the block, however, was Teachers College and a wonderful program in education and thus began study for her first Masters in education. A second would follow, with emphasis on reading and then more courses, until the Civil Rights movement claimed her attention. She did teach in the Atlanta public schools for several years, at least until the public school system forced her out because she wanted to get married.
The apples do not fall far from the tree, however, if the tree gets nurturing. Her own children who had been close to Martin’s still constitute a close family. Her daughter, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, teaches at Spelman, too, and treasures the photos of what she was too young to recall, of herself with her famous grandfather. But again, with compassion and firmness, Prof. Farris stresses how everyone can pursue the dream. Were Martin alive today, he would still be pushing for it, knowing that “we still do not have a level playing field.” He gave us the “blueprint; we have to carry it out.” And that “we” means everyone.#