On the forty-fourth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, a service was held in the sanctuary of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the historic congregation where King, his father, and his grandfather all served as pastors. On this warm April evening in 2012, a fourth generation was represented by Bernice King, daughter of the civil rights leader, who took over as CEO of the King Center this January.
“The trajectory of my life was forever changed on April 4, 1968,” said the youngest King child. An assassin didn’t just take her father’s life, she said, but she would “no longer have a mother in the way I’d had her, because she chose to continue his legacy.” As she spoke in the characteristic bold tones that echo her father’s, I thought of the countless images of her as a five-year-old girl in a flouncy white dress on the day of her father’s funeral.
“My loss really is humanity’s gain,” she said. “When Daddy was assassinated, that death became a catalyst for freedom loving people all over the world.”
King was followed by the man who now occupies Ebenezer’s pulpit, Reverend Raphael Warnock, who drew parallels between the anniversary of King’s death and Good Friday, two days away. “Jesus gave his life for our freedom,” he noted, while Martin Luther King Jr. “shook the foundation of America and turned the nation upside down to turn it right side up.”
Everyone rose and held hands while Warnock prayed. And then staff members of the National Park Service, in their crisp uniforms and Smokey Bear hats, solemnly walked up the aisle of Ebenezer, carrying a large white wreath — a replica of the one that hung over the door of the church on the day of King’s funeral in 1968. They were followed by King family members and Rev. Warnock. Congressman John Lewis, a King colleague, had arrived late, and caught up with the procession in the foyer. Outside, they stood near the door of the church while a Parks Service ranger rose up in the basket of a cherry picker to attach the wreath to the door. It took a few tries, but he finally got it in place and everyone applauded. Then we waited for him to descend so the ceremony could proceed.
We waited. And waited. The operator couldn’t get the cherry picker to lower without risk of smashing the restored exterior of the church. People milled around, then clustered closer to John Lewis, shaking his hand and taking photos with their phones and iPads. We waited some more. The agenda called for a few remarks after the wreath hanging, followed by silent reflection and listening to recordings of King’s sermons at his crypt or in the modern Ebenezer sanctuary, on the other side of Auburn Avenue. As everyone waited for the park ranger to be lowered to firm ground, the agenda appeared to be on hold.
I watched people mingle around in front of the church and thought of the crowds gathered in front of the building in the days following King's death. On the morning of his funeral, it was so crowded that cars bringing family members and visiting dignitaries couldn't make their way down Auburn Avenue. Writing a book about that funeral, I pored over thousands of photographs and watched hours of film from that era, but none of it compares to standing in the very spot where it all took place.
Historic Ebenezer is a block off Boulevard; when you’re stopped at the light at Boulevard and Auburn you can glance over and see the church’s distinctive blue sign and its sturdy red brick façade. A block in the other direction is the yellow and brown house where King was born. It’s been frequently observed as ironic that the sites associated with King, locations that annually draw millions of tourists to Atlanta, are juxtaposed with the blight of the Boulevard corridor – the vacant lots and shabby storefronts scattered through the King historic district, the junkies who hang out in the Boulevard tunnel two blocks to the south, and the concentrated poverty a mile up the road at the Village of Bedford Pines.
I suspect King himself would comment on this irony more eloquently than the rest of us (and then go on to point out that his adult home on Sunset Avenue in Vine City is just blocks from The Bluff, where problems of poverty are more deeply entrenched than along Boulevard). But he wouldn’t just talk; he’d jump into the job fair that Second Zion Baptist is staging this spring, or strong-arm a few more companies into creating internships for the Village of Bedford Pines kids. Economic justice was a major King platform. When he was killed, King was in Memphis preparing to lead striking sanitation workers on a march.
While the Parks Service crew continued to try to lower their compatriot down from the front of the church, I walked over to the King crypt, where his final speech, the so-called “Mountaintop” sermon, delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, was playing on loudspeakers. The sound of evening commuter traffic drifted over from Boulevard, but was muffled by King’s unmistakable voice over the speakers. “… Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be — and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out.” A few people sat on the low wall next to King’s tomb and others watched the eternal flame while King preached on. “ … we’ve got to say to the nation: We know how it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”
>> Watch footage of the King funeral from the WSB archives at University of Georgia. (At the 6-minute mark in this clip you can see the wreath above Ebenezer's door.)
Photographs of the 1968 funeral courtesy of Jim Peppler Southern Courier Collection, Alabama archives.