Jennie Celeste Parks Williams, maternal grandmother of Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta in April 1873. One of 13 children, her father, William Parks, supported the family by working as a carpenter. At the age of fifteen, Jennie began taking classes at Spelman Seminary. She left Spelman in 1892 before completing her degree.
On 29 October 1899, Jennie married A. D. Williams, the pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. Deeply pious, Jennie "was a model wife for a minister." The couple's only surviving child, Alberta Christine Williams (the mother of Martin Luther King, Jr.), was born on 13 September 1903, and married Martin Luther King, Sr. in 1924.
Jennie moved into the King home when her husband died in 1931. As grandmother to the King’s three children, Jennie displayed the same level of devotion that she demonstrated as a wife and as the "First Lady" of Ebenezer Church. Known as "Mama,” Jennie was especially protective of her first grandson, claiming that she "could never bear to see him cry." King, Jr. felt a comparable closeness to his grandmother, characterizing her as "saintly" and commenting, "She was very dear to each of us, but especially to me. I sometimes think that I was her favorite grandchild."
When Jennie died of a heart attack on 18 May 1941 , King, Jr. was attending a parade without his parents' permission. Grief-stricken by the death of his beloved "Mama" and ashamed of his transgression, King, Jr. reacted by jumping from the second-floor window of his house. He was uninjured, but according to his father, "cried off and on for several days afterward, and was unable to sleep at night." Years later, while studying at Crozer Seminary, King, Jr. wrote an essay entitled "An Autobiography of Religious Development" in which he discussed the impact of his grandmother's death. "One or two incidents happened in my late childhood and early adolescence that had tremendous effect on my religious development. The first was the death of my grandmother when I was about nine years old. I was particularly hurt by this incident mainly because of the extreme love I had for her. . . . She assisted greatly in raising all of us. It was after this incident for the first time I talked at any length on the doctrine of immortality. My parents attempted to explain it to me and I was assured that somehow my grandmother still lived. I guess this is why today I am such a strong believer in personal immortality."
Clayborne Carson, Ralph Luker & Penny Russell, eds., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume I: Called to Serve, January 1929–June 1951 (University of California Press, 1992)
Clayborne Carson, ed., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 1998)