Fact Check

Did MLK Jr. and Coretta Scott King Pay the Hospital Bill for Julia Roberts' Birth?

A long-held rumor claims the Kings paid the hospital bill for Roberts' birth because her parents couldn't afford it.

Published Jan 12, 2024

 ( Getty Images)
Image Via Getty Images
Claim:
In 1967, Julia Roberts’ parents couldn’t afford the hospital bill for her birth so Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King covered it.

Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, have a unique tie to Julia Roberts' family. According to a long-held rumor, the famed civil rights activists paid the hospital bill for the Oscar-winning actress' birth as a gift to her parents.

This story was confirmed by both Roberts and Bernice King, a daughter of the couple. In a September 2022 interview at an event hosted by A+E Networks and History Channel in Washington, D.C., Roberts recounted the connection to journalist Gayle King (no relation to MLK's family):

Gayle King: Let's start with the day you were born. Who paid for your hospital bill?

Roberts: Okay, her research is very good. [...] The King family paid for my hospital bills.

Gayle King: Not my family!

Roberts: Not your family, but…

Gayle King: Martin Luther King Jr. …

Roberts: …and Coretta.

Gayle King: And how did that come about? [...] Why did they do that? [...]

Roberts: Obviously, because my parents couldn't pay for the hospital bill. My parents had a theater school in Atlanta called the Actors and Writers Workshop. One day, Coretta Scott King called my mother and asked if her kids could be part of the school because they were having a hard time finding a place that would accept her kids. My mom was like, 'Sure, come on over,' and so they just all became friends and they helped us out of a jam.

Gayle King: In the '60s, you didn't have little Black children interacting with little white kids in acting school. And your parents were like, 'Come on in,' and I think that's extraordinary, and it lays the groundwork for who you are.

A clip of the interview was shared on Twitter:

Soon after the interview went viral, Bernice King shared the clip and corroborated Roberts' account, writing, "I know the story well, but it is moving for me to be reminded of my parents' generosity and influence."

Roberts' parents, Walter and Betty, indeed ran a theater company, and King's other daughter, Yolanda, has spoken publicly about attending classes there. Per a transcript of a 2001 CNN segment that profiled Roberts and included an interview with Yolanda:

KAGAN: Today's queen of Hollywood began life in modest surroundings, nearly a continent away, in Atlanta, Georgia. Julia Fiona Roberts debuted at Crawford Long Hospital on October 28, 1967. Julia went home to a two-story house in Midtown, one of Atlanta's middle class neighborhood.

Her parents, Walter and Betty Roberts, ran a writing and actor's workshop. The children of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., were enrolled there. It was the only integrated children's theater group in Atlanta.

Dexter King is now a writer. Yolanda King, an actress and producer.

YOLANDA KING, ACTRESS/PRODUCER: Mr. Roberts was so imposing. I loved him, but I was also a little intimidated by him too. And — but he was — I mean, he taught me so much, and he and Mrs. Roberts, about the work, and just about living and being really open, grabbing life and making the best of it.

Yolanda also described the school in a 1994 interview with the Los Angeles Times:

For example, since age 8 she'd been enrolled in what was then the only integrated drama school in Atlanta, run by Walt Roberts, father of actress Julia Roberts. But when she played in a teen-age production of 'The Owl and the Pussycat' in 1972, she said, her hometown erupted.

"I was 15, my co-star was white, and the white community criticized it because they didn't think (mixing the races) was right.

"The black community asked: 'How could you disgrace your dead father's image by playing the role of a prostitute?' "

The furor was so great that King said she was forced to stand up at church one Sunday and explain her actions to the whole congregation.

Author Phillip DePoy, another former student of the school, described in a 2013 essay how a member of the Ku Klux Klan once attempted to "make trouble" for the aspiring actors:

I kissed a girl, and 10 yards away a Buick exploded. I was on the back of a flatbed truck that had been converted into a swamp. I was a fox. The girl was a terrapin. We were in Atlanta, it was a very nice summer day in 1965, and I was 15 years old. The girl was Yolanda King, daughter of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr. I was primarily Caucasian and Yolanda wasn't. That's what the trouble was about. I don't know who owned the Buick, but I know who blew it up.

A man, a tangential member of the Ku Klux Klan, had seen me kiss Yolanda the day before in the same parking lot. She and I were members of a theatrical group called the Actors and Writers Workshop. It was run by Walter and Betty Roberts, the parents of Eric and Julia Roberts. Rob, as Walter was sometimes called, had written his theatrical version of a Joel Chandler Harris story, thanks in part to a Guggenheim grant for children's theater. That's why Yolanda and I were standing in a makeshift swamp on the back of a flatbed truck, dressed as a fox and a terrapin.

The Klansman had come around the day before the explosion in order to make trouble. The workshop was offering a free show in the Carver Homes housing project, an exclusively African-American wonderland filled with hammered lives and children with nothing to do. The guy only heckled us the first day, said words that everyone had heard a million times before, finished his case of PBR, and was about to leave when I kissed Yolanda.

The school eventually shuttered due to financial reasons. Walter and Betty Roberts divorced before his death in 1977, according to NPR.

Given that this story has been told over the years by Roberts and Kings' children, one of whom recounted her experiences at the school, we rate this claim as "True.

[ICYMI: Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Collection of Rumors About Him Over the Decades]

Sources

DePoy, Phillip. "Essay: Academy Theatre, Julia Roberts' Parents Laid Foundation for Blossoming of Theater in Atlanta." ARTS ATL, 6 Mar. 2013, https://www.artsatl.org/essay-walter-roberts-academy-theatre-formed-foundation-atlantas-theater-scene/. Accessed 2 Feb. 2023.

"Encore Presentation: Julia Roberts' Success Story." CNN, 25 Dec. 2001, http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0112/25/pitn.00.html. Accessed 2 Feb. 2023.

Levine, Bettijane. "Out From the Shadow : Yolanda King Spent Her Youth Trying to Be a Substitute for Her Father, the Late Martin Luther King Jr. Now, She Says, 'I Only Speak for Myself.'" Los Angeles Times, 7 Mar. 1994, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-03-07-vw-31124-story.html. Accessed 2 Feb. 2023.

Treisman, Rachel. "Martin Luther King Jr. Paid the Bill for Julia Roberts' Birth. Here's the Backstory." NPR, 2 Nov. 2022. NPR, https://www.npr.org/2022/11/01/1133121228/julia-roberts-mlk-birth. Accessed 2 Feb. 2023.

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.