When actress Julia Roberts was born 55 years ago in Smyrna, Ga., a couple swooped in and paid her parents’ hospital bill. It was Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
The collective jaw of the internet hit the floor.
While countless people were touched, others wondered whether it was even true.
“It sounds like fake news,” someone wrote in response to the tweet.
A few days later, though, it became clear that the Kings’ kind deed was far from a myth. To mark Roberts’s birthday on Oct. 28, Zara Rahim, who has a significant social media following, shared a video clip on Twitter, in which Roberts confirms the story during an interview with television personality Gayle King.
“The day you were born, who paid for the hospital bill?” King asked Roberts during HISTORYTalks, a September event in D.C., hosted by the History Channel and A&E Networks.
“Her research is very good,” a seemingly surprised Roberts quipped.
Then, Roberts provided a definitive response: “The King family paid for my hospital bill.”
“Not my family,” King replied, clarifying that Roberts was referring to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. “Why did they do that?”
“My parents couldn’t pay for the hospital bill,” Roberts said.
She explained that her parents — Walter and Betty Roberts — owned a theater school in Atlanta called the Actors and Writers Workshop, which they welcomed the King children to attend.
“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,” Julia Roberts said. “My mom was like, ‘Sure, come on over.’ And so they just all became friends and they helped us out of a jam.”
Bernice King, the youngest child of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, tweeted Sunday that she was grateful the story was getting attention, “and that so many people have been awed by it. I know the story well, but it is moving for me to be reminded of my parents’ generosity and influence.”
While the tale of Roberts’s hospital bill wasn’t widely known until recently, stories had previously been told about the two families and their friendship in the 1960s, a time of Jim Crow laws and segregation in the South.
A 2001 CNN interview featuring Julia Roberts, her mother and Yolanda King — the firstborn child of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King — highlighted their connection.
“It was an extended family, it really was. And all of these Black kids and White kids getting along, no problems,” Yolanda King said.
A 2013 essay by Georgia-based author Phillip DePoy also discusses the families’ relationship — and how it led to turmoil and targeting. He described a story from 1965, when he — then a 15-year-old boy — was part of a production put on by the Roberts’ theatrical group. In the play, which was based on a story by writer Joel Chandler Harris, he and Yolanda King kissed, sparking uproar.
“I was primarily Caucasian and Yolanda wasn’t,” wrote DePoy, who did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post. “That’s what the trouble was about.”
According to him, “a tangential member of the Ku Klux Klan” witnessed the kiss and subsequently blew up a vehicle parked nearby. “The cops who had been watching the show just wandered over, talked to him, put him in handcuffs and took him away with very little energy.”
Beyond chronicling the incident, DePoy also explained the impact the Roberts family had on those who attended their theater school — and the Atlanta acting scene more broadly.
“Yolanda King spent the rest of her life involved in theater; my brother, Scott DePoy, who had joined the workshop before I had, continues to work all over the Southeast. Eric Roberts eventually went to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London,” he wrote.
Just as the Roberts left an impact on the King family, the same was true in the reverse.
Like her parents, Roberts has long been a racial justice advocate. While filming “Sleeping with the Enemy,” in the spring of 1990 in a small South Carolina town, Roberts got into a heated argument with a local bar owner, who denied entry to a crew member because he was Black.
“I was enraged, I was out of my mind,” Roberts said in a 2001 interview with CNN.
In response to hearing Roberts recount the hospital bill story, Gayle King said: “I think that’s extraordinary, and it sort of lays the groundwork for who you are.”
“Oh, absolutely,” Roberts replied.