“The photographer was a friend of mine,” Gwendolyn said. “And he said, it was just about the bride and the groom, so Dr. King isn’t in any of my pictures. I didn’t give it a lot of thought at the time, but now I realize how significant it was to have him perform our wedding.”
Today, a month after their wedding anniversary, the Middlebrooks are celebrating their 61st Valentine’s Day as a married couple. Proud of the fact that King united them.
In retrospect, that seems like the easy part. The toughest part was getting to the altar. And in 1960 and 1961, the toughest obstacle they faced was King himself, who had put the couple through a string of tests and challenges before he agreed to marry them.
Gwendolyn Middlebrooks, then Gwendolyn Harris, joined Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1949 at the age of 10 when her family moved to Atlanta from Chattanooga. Martin Luther King Sr., was the pastor of the church at the time.
In 1960, shortly after establishing himself as a national figure through his efforts during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, King moved back to Atlanta to co-pastor Ebenezer with his father.
On the first Sunday he arrived back, Gwendolyn Middlebrooks was on the campus of Spelman College when the wife of the school’s president asked her if she wanted a job assisting the family of Ebenezer’s new pastor.
For two years, she worked as a babysitter and assistant to Coretta Scott King. She ironed the Rev. King’s shirts and picked him up from the airport until he got a chauffeur. When King was out of town, it was her responsibility to scan all of the newspapers and cut out all of the articles about them and prepare them in scrapbooks.
“Anything Coretta wanted, I did,” Gwendolyn said.
Only 20 at the time, Gwendolyn was anxious to get married.
She had known her boyfriend, James Middlebrooks since they attended David T. Howard High School. He was president of the student body and she was vice president. He played football and she was a majorette. They both played basketball. And when they graduated in 1957, he went to Morehouse and she went to Spelman.
In those days, it was a rule that before you graduated from Spelman, you had to live at least one semester on campus — unless you were married. So entering her senior year, she had to borrow money to move on campus for the first time.
She loved James of course, but marrying him would get her off campus and solve a major financial problem.
“My mother was a maid and my father was a cook. I was from a poor family and didn’t have the money for housing,” Gwendolyn said. “I decided to get married, so I wouldn’t have to pay the room and board.”
With her growing relationship with the family and her longtime membership at Ebenezer, it was a given that she would get married there and King would do it.
“I didn’t pick him because of who he was. You want someone that you believe in and Dr. King was a person that I really admired and trusted.”
King was resistant at first. “No,” he said. “Give yourself a chance to work. Get your own identity before you align with someone else.”
But over a series of months, every time she went to the King’s house, she asked him to reconsider and every time, he said no and told her to give him one good reason why she was ready to get married.
Gwendolyn’s standard answer was that she and James were “in love.”
“You don’t know what love is,” King scoffed.
For months, Gwendolyn couldn’t figure it out. She couldn’t solve the riddle.
One day in December of 1960, as she was trying to figure out how she was gonna pay for her room at Spelman the next semester, King came home.
He walked up the steps and Gwendolyn blurted out: “I’m tired of saying good night to James.”
King paused and looked back at Gwendolyn. Then he called out to Coretta.
“He said ‘Corrie, we are going to have a wedding. Gwen is getting married,’” Gwendolyn said.
Jan. 8, 1961, was picked because King would be in town that Sunday.
It was also a scramble to get ready.
Black students at the time were boycotting downtown stores, so they relied on the few Black businesses in town for invitations and catering.
Her roommates got the invitations printed and mailed.
She got the fabric to make the bridesmaids’ dresses from Sears.
Her wedding dress belonged to a friend who had gotten a divorce.
“Everything I wore was borrowed,” said Gwendolyn, who still teaches Sunday School at Ebenezer. “It is amazing how you put things together when you are young.”
Christine King Farris, King’s older sister, directed the wedding and A.D. King assisted his brother in performing the services.
Just after he agreed to perform their wedding he reminded Gwendolyn that nobody he had ever married had gotten a divorce.
“Don’t break my streak,” he said.
They didn’t and today, the Middlebrooks, both 82, are still going strong with three children and seven grandchildren.
Their oldest daughter, Jayne Morgan is the executive director of the Piedmont Healthcare COVID-19 task force. Their oldest grandchild, Omar Jimenez, is a national correspondent for CNN.
James Middlebrooks retired as a field director of human services for the United States Postal Services in 2001 after 42 years. Gwendolyn Middlebrooks, after starting her career teaching in the Atlanta Public Schools, returned to Spelman to teach in the education department before retiring after 42 years in 2009.
“I didn’t realize until he was gone, how important he was. I don’t have an autograph. I don’t have a photograph. We were just around him every day. Then, poof he was gone,” said Gwendolyn, showing off her matching white gold wedding band that they got from Sears that she has never taken off. “But he just wanted to make sure that I was making the right choice. And I did.”