On April 9, 1968, while 110 cities were still shaken by the violence and rioting that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Atlanta hosted a daylong series of funeral events honoring the slain civil rights leader. Seen by more than 120 million on live television and attended by more than 150,000, it was the largest funeral ever staged for a private citizen.
Atlanta was peaceful in contrast to the violence elsewhere. Fires smoldered just blocks from the White House, and 57,500 troops were mobilized around the United States, the largest military operation since the Civil War. But despite the serene veneer, the atmosphere in King’s hometown was tense; as the funeral procession made its way past the state capitol, governor Lester Maddox was inside and had stationed troops around the perimeter with orders to shoot to kill if mourners trespassed on the capitol grounds.
In the days leading up to the funeral, Atlantans had scrambled in preparation. Tens of thousands of King’s supporters were put up in churches, schools, gyms, and private homes. Politicians — ranging from George Romney and Dick Nixon to Ted and Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy — arrived en masse. Celebrities set up an encampment in the Marriott Motor Hotel and arrived on Auburn Avenue for the funeral in chartered busses and limos. Mayor Ivan Allen and police chief Herbert Jenkins were indefatigable. Atlanta cops were on double shifts, City Hall phones rang around the clock, and — it was later revealed — former Coca-Cola chief Robert Woodruff bankrolled most of the expenses.
An estimated 150,000 people crowded into the streets of Downtown, following King’s casket as it was drawn by a mule wagon from Ebenezer Baptist to the campus of Morehouse college. On the college quadrangle they joined hands and sang “We Shall Overcome” and listened to Mahalia Jackson’s rendition of “Precious Lord” and the eulogy delivered by Benjamin E. Mays, who asked them to honor King and “take up his torch of love.”
The crowd thinned by the end of the day, when King’s coffin was placed in a marble tomb at South-View Cemetery. The historic burial ground was “too small for his spirit,” said King’s best friend and successor Ralph David Abernathy. He called King a “leader to heal the white man’s sickness and the black man’s slavery,” a prophetic visionary who was “willing to die but not willing to kill.”
> Go behind the scenes of this eventful week with an oral history from the April 2008 issue of the magazine.
> Watch video of the funeral service at Ebenezer Baptist
Photographs courtesy Jim Peppler Southern Courier Collection, Alabama Department of Archives and History