‘Hearts are heavy’ | Christine King Farris, MLK’s last sibling, dead at 95

Civil rights leader, author and teacher worked side by side with her family to honor her brother’s legacy.
Life and legacy of Dr. Christine King Farris
Published: Jun. 29, 2023 at 11:59 AM EDT|Updated: Jun. 29, 2023 at 4:22 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Christine King Farris, the eldest sister of Martin Luther King Jr., died Thursday morning. She was 95.

Willie Christine King was born Sept. 11, 1927, the first child of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr., and Alberta Williams King and the sister of King Jr. and Rev. Alfred Daniel Williams King.

“Our hearts are heavy in Atlanta today, with the news that Christine King Farris has died,” said Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens. “Mrs. Farris was a force in her own right. A champion of literacy and education, she taught at her alma mater, Spelman College, for nearly 50 years. As the last of the King siblings, she spent much of her life advocating for equality. She once said that her brother Martin simply gave us the blueprint, but it was our duty ‘to carry it out.’ ”

“As the sister of Georgia’s greatest son, Martin Luther King Jr., she fused the lessons of civil rights and education as a Spelman College professor, and passed that training borne of experience to students who now serve all over the world,” said U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, also the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. “Christine King Farris is an iteration of the American dream. She went on to witness the long arc of American history bend from many changes, much of it pushed forward by her own brother.”

Following the footsteps of her mother and grandmother, Christine King attended Spelman College, earning a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1948. Two years later, she earned a master’s degree in the social foundations of education from Columbia University and a second master’s degree in special education in 1958.

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King began her teaching career in the Atlanta Public Schools system at W.H. Crogman Elementary School. After serving eight years, she returned to her alma mater, Spelman, and became one of Spelman College’s longest-serving tenured professors, from 1958 to 2014.

During her tenure, King was also appointed as an adjunct professor at Morehouse College and Atlanta University. On August 19, 1960, she married Isaac Newton Farris, Sr. He died on Dec. 30, 2017.

Dr. Farris worked to help build The King Center, founded by her sister-in-law, Coretta Scott King, in June 1968. As a founding board member and long-time volunteer, she served as vice president, treasurer, and chief financial officer; later becoming senior vice president and ultimately vice chair and treasurer. She also wrote the first intermediate-level textbook on her brother, and served as the first director of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Early Learning Center.

She chaired the planning committees for The King Center’s Salute to Greatness Dinner and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Ecumenical Service, which later became The Martin Luther King, Jr, Commemorative Service held in honor of her brother’s birthday and national holiday.

Dr. Farris received numerous awards and commendations including Spelman’s first Fannie Lou Hamer Outstanding Community Service Award, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, the International Reading Association Teachers’ Choice Award, The Southern Christian Leadership Conference Septima Clark Award, and the Hyatt Hotels Heritage Community Service Award.

View of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. (foreground, center), his daughter Christine King...
View of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. (foreground, center), his daughter Christine King Farris (foreground, left), and other unidentified individuals at the tomb (not pictured) of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the observance of the slain civil rights leader's 47th birthday, at the King Center on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia.(Kenan Research Center, Atlanta History Center Publisher)

The Christine King Farris Legacy Foundation was established in 2022 to honor her 95th birthday. The foundation raises funds to support Leadership Development and the Christine King Farris Scholarship at Spelman College.

Dr. Farris is survived by her children Isaac Newton Farris, Jr. and Dr. Angela Farris Watkins and her granddaughter, Farris Christine Watkins. The family will announce funeral arrangements at a later date.

King Farris was the longest-serving member of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where she was a trustee and where her grandfather, Rev. Adam Daniel Williams, father, and brothers all served as senior pastors and co-pastors, respectively. King Farris became one of Ebenezer’s soloists, as Ebenezer was one of the first Atlanta churches to televise worship services in the 1970s. She also served as one of the producers of the televised service.

“She taught students to be teachers, to be educators,” her Isaac Newton Farris Jr. previously said, adding his mother had seen some remarkable events in her life, including the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

The King Center posted the following statement to social media:

Martin Luther King III said in a statement that his family is mourning the loss of the woman who “spent her life fighting for equality and against racism in America.”

“She defied the odds that held back too many marginalized communities–going on to become a civil rights leader and acclaimed author,” King III wrote. “No stranger to adversity, Aunt Christine used the tragedies of the assassinations of her mother and brother to fight for change in America.”

Atlanta City Council President Doug Shipman said, “Christine King Farris was an incredible educator, leader and keeper of stories.”

“The Black Leadership AIDS Crisis Coalition powered by AHF is saddened to learn of the passing of Mrs. Christine King Farris,” the organization said. “We join all across this country in reflecting on her selfless service to humanity as a devout educator and agent for change. Her life has shaped the lives of thousands of individuals across the globe, and her legacy will continue to be a shining example of servant-leadership, for many generations to come.”


This story is developing.