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Martin Luther King Jr. paid the bill for Julia Roberts' birth. Here's the backstory

Julia Roberts poses at a red carpet premiere in London in September. That same month, she spoke publicly about her family's friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
Niklas Halle'n
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AFP via Getty Images
Julia Roberts poses at a red carpet premiere in London in September. That same month, she spoke publicly about her family's friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King.

Updated November 2, 2022 at 9:57 AM ET

The world is finally learning a thrilling fact about Julia Roberts' birth, exactly 55 years later: It was paid for by Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.

The connection between the two families wasn't necessarily a secret, but it resurfaced in a big way just before Roberts' Oct. 28 birthday, thanks to a recent interview and a viral tweet.

Late last month an account called @turnandstomp retweeted a fan video of young Roberts, adding: "Martin Luther King Jr paying for her birth is still a little known fact that sends me" — and later clarified that Scott King had contributed too. More than 100,000 people liked the tweet, and hundreds responded with evident shock and delight.

And on the actress' actual birthday, Zara Rahim — a consultant with a large social media following — reposted the tweet alongside a video clip of Roberts discussing the story with journalist Gayle King.

The conversation was from A+E Networks and History Channel's HISTORYTalks live event in Washington, D.C., in September. In it, King notes that Roberts had two major historical figures in her life, and asked who paid the hospital bill when she was born.

"OK," Roberts smiles, before turning towards the audience and pointing at King. "Her research is very good."

After a brief exchange ("The King family..." Roberts says, to which King responds "Not my family") Roberts confirms that MLK and Coretta covered the costs. How did that come to happen?

"Obviously, because my parents couldn't pay for the hospital," answered Roberts, who was born in Smyrna, Ga., in 1967. She went on to explain that at the time her parents ran a theater school in Atlanta called the Actors and Writers Workshop.

"And one day Coretta Scott King called my mother and asked if her kids could be part of the school, 'cause they were having a hard time finding a place that would accept her kids, and my mom was like, 'Sure come on over,' " Roberts said. "And so they all just became friends and they helped us out of a jam."

The story came as a heartwarming surprise to many in the crowd (King asked), and to the scores of fans who shared their reactions on Twitter.

Bernice King, a lawyer and minister who is the youngest daughter of the late couple, tweeted that she was grateful — both to Roberts for sharing the story and that so many people were awed by it.

"I know the story well," she added, "But it is moving for me to be reminded of my parents' generosity and influence."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, sit with three of their four children in their Atlanta, Ga., home in 1963. From left are: Martin Luther King III, 5, Dexter Scott, 2, and Yolanda Denise, 7.
/ AP
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AP
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, sit with three of their four children in their Atlanta, Ga., home in 1963. From left are: Martin Luther King III, 5, Dexter Scott, 2, and Yolanda Denise, 7.

Roberts' parents ran an integrated theater school in Georgia

King noted in the interview how unusual it would have been for Black children to take acting classes alongside white children in the 1960s in the South, and how "extraordinary" it was for Roberts' parents to welcome them with open arms.

Walter and Betty Roberts ran the only integrated children's theater group in Atlanta, according to CNN.

Yolanda King, the Kings' oldest child — who grew up to be an activist and actress — recalled her experience at the school in an interview with the network in 2001, several years before her death.

"Mr. Roberts was so imposing. I loved him, but I was also a little intimidated by him too," she said. "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." '

She remembered meeting Julia at those workshops in the late 1960s, and described the atmosphere as that of an extended family.

"All of these Black kids and white kids getting along, no problems," King said. "We had no problems whatsoever, racial problems."

There were some exceptions, however. Author Phillip DePoy, reflecting on his teenage experience at the school in a 2013 essay for Arts ATL, wrote that a car exploded after a "tangential member of the Ku Klux Klan" saw him kissing Yolanda King while rehearsing for a play.

"I was primarily Caucasian and Yolanda wasn't," he wrote. "That's what the trouble was about. I don't know who owned the Buick, but I know who blew it up."

The acting studio eventually shuttered for financial reasons, and the Roberts divorced before Walter's death in 1977.

The Roberts inspired many young people in the Atlanta area to pursue theater, writes DePoy, noting that their own son Eric eventually studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

Of course, he wasn't their only famous student — a fact to which DePoy alluded:

"I understand that even his younger sister got involved in acting."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.