The paternal grandfather of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Albert King was of Irish-African ancestry. Little is known about his early life, but at the age of thirty-one, he married Delia Linsey on 20 August 1895. The two worked as sharecroppers, moving throughout Georgia's Henry and Clayton counties before settling in Stockbridge, Georgia.
The monotonous seasonal labors of sharecropping provided paltry rewards for James King, his wife, and nine children. Because the red clay from which they were forced to farm yielded low levels of agricultural production and because whites frequently cheated blacks out of profits, the King family lived in poverty.
Violence and racism compounded the King family's financial woes. On one occasion, their son Michael King (the future father of Martin Luther King, Jr.) was stopped by a sawmill owner who demanded that he fetch a bucket of water for his workmen. The young boy politely declined, whereupon the sawmill owner beat him. Enraged by the event, Delia returned to the mill with Michael and proceeded to knock down the owner and pummel him. When James King heard about the incident, he went to the mill with his rifle and threatened to kill the man. That evening, a group of angry white men visited the King home in search of James; but by the time they arrived, James had already fled into the woods.
James King drank heavily during his three months in hiding. One evening, he came home intoxicated and assaulted his wife. His son Michael was eventually able to subdue his father. The next day, James vowed never to hit his wife again, and Michael promised not to challenge his father's authority.
Although his wife and children found great comfort within the church, James King was never a religious man. Michael King later wrote of his father, "Papa was not religious, and although I don't think he was very enthusiastic about my attending so many church affairs, he never interfered with Mama's taking me."
James King died in 1933, four years after the birth of his grandson Martin Luther King, Jr.
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)
Martin Luther King, Sr., Daddy King: An Autobiography (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1980)