In 1968, the tragic events in the first week of April turned the world upside down. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis on Thursday, April 4. He was there to support sanitation workers who were on strike. In a recent interview with Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now”, Harry Belafonte described the sequence of events that day. He was in Atlanta when Coretta King received the news of her husband’s death. The grieving Mrs. King asked him to help select the clothes for her deceased husband’s showing and funeral. She expressed her concern, like all the rest of us in America, about the aftermath of his assassination and what she could or should do. Belafonte recommended that she continue in the support of the Memphis workers. She did exactly that.
On Monday, April 8, the day before her husband’s funeral, Mrs. King was in Memphis marching with the sanitation workers. This remarkably brave and determined woman, along with her three oldest children, marched in silence in the company of 15,000 supporters from all over the country. Mrs. King told the crowd, “His work must go on.We are concerned about not only the Negro poor but the poor all over America and all over the world. Every man deserves a right to a job and an income so that he can pursue liberty, life and happiness.”
I was in Atlanta at that time as well. Earlier in the week a Chinese friend who taught at Spelman College in Atlanta had asked me to attend an event and spend the night in the campus dorms. That was my plan. Little did my friend or I know how events that week would dramatically affect us all. Dr. King was assassinated on Thursday and by the weekend his body was in state at Sister’s Chapel on the Spelman campus.
In the introduction to his excellent book “Undaunted by the Fight: Spelman College and the Civil Rights Movement 1957-1967” (2005) Harry Lefever provides a brief history of Spelman. It is “the nation’s oldest and best-known black liberal arts college for women, founded in 1881.In 1929, Spelman signed an Agreement of Affiliation with Morehouse College and Atlanta University, two black institutions located directly across the street from Spelman.” Ultimately other black schools of higher learning in the adjoining location joined the agreement. “Today, the total consortium of six institutions, known as the Atlanta University Center (AUC), represents the largest affiliation of predominantly black institutions in the United States.” Dr. King received his undergraduate degree from Morehouse College in 1948.
That weekend a long line of mourners stood outside Sister’s Chapel to honor the fallen leader. The silence was deafening. It was April, the onset of Spring, and I stood there shivering. All you could hear was the sound of feet slowly walking toward the chapel and people crying. As we walked into the Chapel toward the coffin, you saw men on either side of the coffin wiping away the tears that fell on the glass over Martin King’s body. Only later did I learn that because so many people were crying, resulting in tears cascading into the coffin and over Dr. King, that a decision was made to cover it with glass. Once by the coffin I observed this physically small, yet great man of peace, and found it virtually impossible to believe that his resounding, powerful voice and message were no more. It was an incredibly sad moment to witness his still body and to even think of the contemptible violence that killed him. But I was also angry. I kept thinking “What now? What on earth is now in store for America?”
By Monday, April 8, people starting arriving into Atlanta for the funeral. I drove for the Student Non-Violent Committee (SNCC) to greet people arriving at the airport. My parents and hundreds of others were doing the same in their own cars. Along with two SNCC students from Atlanta University, the first person I escorted from the airport was Ralph Bunche. Dr. Bunche was the first black Nobel Peace Prize recipient. He had received the award in 1950 for his negotiations in the creation of the State of Israel after World War II. In 1968 he was an Undersecretary of the United Nations and was representing the UN at the King funeral. The City of Atlanta had sent its Vice Mayor Sam Massell to accompany Dr. Bunche, but he insisted on coming with us SNCC folks instead. Arrangements had been made for him at Atlanta’s Regency Hyatt, but he insisted on staying at Paschals, Atlanta’s renowned Black owned hotel and restaurant on Hunter Street, now Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. So here I was, driving Dr. Bunche, who sat in the passenger seat of my little car. His son was squeezed into the back with the other SNCC students. Bunche’s son had brought his tennis racket. Life goes on I realized!
Lyndon Johnson was the U.S. President at the time. Johnson had decided to send his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, to the funeral. We were told that this decision was made because of Humphrey’s renowned advocacy for civil rights. That being the case, protocol called for U Thant, the UN General Secretary at the time, to send someone under him of rank at the UN, such as Ralph Bunche, so as not to up-stage Johnson.
Interestingly, Bunche had been one of prominent Black leaders in 1967 encouraging the NAACP to write a statement criticizing King’s opposition to the Vietnam War. Bunche said King should not be both a civil rights leaders and an antiwar advocate and that he needed to be one or the other. He later called King to apologize for his public statement and that he agreed with King’s position on the war. King complained that Bunche did not have the courage to state his views in public.
The next person I picked up at the airport was Allard Lowenstein, an attorney in the movement, and one of his colleagues. He first wanted to pay his respects to Mrs. King. I drove them to her house that was surrounded by at least a hundred or more people. Next, he wanted to greet Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, known as King’s right hand man, who was to take over the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), now vacated by King. Lowenstein said that this time he was taking me into the house with him. We drove to Reverend Abernathy’s house and what a dramatic experience this was.
To set the stage, King had just been assassinated. No one knew what this meant exactly. No one knew what other violence could be expected. It was not known how white and black communities across the country would respond or what challenges and threats where ahead in the movement. It was assumed, of course, that the work was to be increasingly more dangerous.
As we walked into the Abernathy house there were four men sitting in silence in the living room. The Reverend was resting at the time. Then we walked into the kitchen where Mrs. Abernathy was on the phone. Suddenly, here I was, a young white student who had never met Juanita Abernathy. Once off the phone she grabs my hand, holds on to it and recounts the events of the past few days. For some five minutes or so, she described her husband’s frightening experience of being at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where King had been killed just five days ago, and how nervous and concerned she was about her husband taking over the leadership of SCLC. I stood there in awe and silently sympathized.
Then Reverend Abernathy appeared. He seemed rested and congenial. I was amazed at his composure but then thought what else could he do? Everyone knew the work had to continue. We all shook hands, spoke briefly, and I drove Lowenstein and his friend into town.
The funeral was on Tuesday, April 9 at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta–affectionately known as the King church. I joined the funeral march through the City of Atlanta. The Reverend James Orange, of Birmingham protest fame, had organized the mule drawn funeral cart to take Dr. King to his resting place. Thousands of us of all races followed the cart while holding hands and singing an abundance of chants. It was a movement funeral to be sure. One of the most memorable experiences that day was walking in front of the Georgia State Capitol. A wire fence barricade, along with the ominous presence of military sentries, surrounded it. As was intended, the whole area seemed bleak and foreboding. The arch segregationist and erratic Lester Maddox was Georgia’s governor at the time. I fully expected him to run out of the building at any moment, stand on the Capitol steps, and shout all kinds of curses at us.
There has been and will continue to be speculation as to why J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI under the Johnson administration intensified its surveillance and propaganda against King. It was known, for one, that Johnson was furious about King’s outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, but it is also clear that King was shifting his emphasis to economic justice. While economic justice had always been a part of his message, the primary focus of civil rights and voting rights took precedence in the early movement work. By 1964 the Civil Rights Bill had passed in Congress and in 1965 the Voting Rights Act was a reality. All of this took enormous energy and a death toll. But King and others acknowledged that if there was the right to go to a hotel, what was the point if you couldn’t pay the bill?
At the end of his life King was advocating for the economic rights of sanitation workers in Memphis and this was just the beginning. SCLC was in the planning stages of the national Poor People’s Campaign march to be held in Washington, DC on April 22. On April 3 in Memphis, in his last speech, King called for boycotts against Wonder Bread, Hart’s Bread, Sealtest Milk and, importantly, Coca Cola, for their appalling and unfair hiring practices. He encouraged everyone to follow through on this and to put pressure where it hurts. He said “if something isn’t done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.”
In relation to the loss of Dr. King., years later I have often thought about insightful and powerful song by “Sweet Honey and the Rock” about Stephen Biko, the black leader who was killed by South African authorities in 1977 They sang, “You can kill one human body, I see ten thousand Bikos!” It rings true. You can kill the messenger, but not the message. As Lefever states in his book on Spelman College activism, that while he focused on individuals in the movement “it is clear” he said, “that their successes were much more than ‘individual’ successes. The study reveals the significance of the ‘group’ context in their actions.” This has been true all over the U.S. and the world. A Filipino organizer once told me, “You can’t organize yourself, who have to organize yourselves.”
But it is also rather sobering to realize that when the economic or civil status quo of western “white” dominance is seriously challenged, countless young leaders of color all over the world have either been killed directly by those of us of European descent or by our proxies. Harry Belafonte describes King once telling him that given the outrageously violent and unjust behavior of white America that they were attempting to “integrate” into a burning house. Belafonte asked what should be done. King said, “we all need to become firemen”–and firewomen I might add. Indeed!
HEATHER GRAY is the producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.