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An oral history of the remarkable behind-the-scenes effort to stage Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 funeral and keep peace in Atlanta while 110 other cities burned.
This article originally appeared in our April 2008 issue.
THURSDAY, APRIL 4, 1968
Just after 7 p.m., as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. At 7:24, White House special assistant Tom Johnson, originally from Macon, Georgia, entered the Oval Office to give the news to President Lyndon Johnson. One minute later, Attorney General Ramsey Clark came into the room to discuss the shooting.
TOM JOHNSON: I walked in to tell the president what had happened and saw Carl Sanders, the former governor of Georgia, and Robert Woodruff, the head of Coca-Cola, in there.
CARL SANDERS: The president talked to the aide, then turned back to us in terrible shock. He said, “I’m sorry you have to hear this,” and handed me the bulletin about King being shot.
TOM JOHNSON: [When Clark came in] Sanders and Woodruff moved over to another phone in the office to call [Mayor] Ivan Allen in Atlanta, to see what they could do to help.
CARL SANDERS: The president initialed the ticker tape that had the news on it and gave it to me. I still have it in my lockbox.
Sanders and Woodruff returned to their rooms at the Mayflower Hotel.
CARL SANDERS: Bob Woodruff called Ivan and told him to do whatever he needed to, even if it meant using his private jet to help Mrs. King. “Whatever you need will be taken care of,” he said.
In Atlanta that evening, Xernona Clayton, who organized events for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), was having dinner with Sam Caldwell, the Georgia labor commissioner.
XERNONA CLAYTON: The maitre d’ came over and passed me a note. It said, “Did you hear about Dr. King?” I kind of looked at it and folded it over. She came back; she knew my relationship with the Kings and couldn’t understand my reaction. But you have to understand, I had been in his presence three times before when it was reported [in the news] he’d been killed. I had driven him to the airport to go to Memphis. I wasn’t putting into place you could talk to someone one minute and they’d be shot the next.
Clayton decided to call Coretta Scott King. Both unlisted telephone lines to the King home were busy, which was unusual. Commissioner Caldwell offered to drive Clayton to the Kings’; they arrived at the brick home at 234 Sunset Avenue in Vine City just as a police car was backing down the driveway, taking Scott King to the airport. Ivan Allen was following in another police car. Scott King rolled down the window and asked Clayton to go check on King’s parents, whom she’d not yet had a chance to call.
XERNONA CLAYTON: So my driver became this high-ranking official, who was white. The labor commissioner of Georgia was chauffeuring this black woman around on the night of the death of Martin Luther King.
At the airport, Coretta Scott King went into the restroom with her friend, Dora McDonald, while Allen went to check on flights to Memphis. An Eastern Airlines staffer stopped Allen and told him to take a call; it was the official notification that King was dead. Allen went into the ladies room to find McDonald and Scott King. “We all stood there, stunned and weeping,” Scott King would later write. “Mayor Allen took my hand and said, ‘Mrs. King? What do you want to do?’” With King’s death confirmed, his widow decided to go home and check on her children rather than fly to Memphis. When the convoy of police cars reached the house, it was surrounded by news crews, police, and hundreds of neighbors. Scott King went into her bedroom at the back of the house while the mayor and King’s friends sat in the living room, watching the news. President Johnson was on the air. “America is shocked and saddened by the brutal slaying tonight of Dr. Martin Luther King,” he said.
KATHRYN JOHNSON (the only female reporter with the Atlanta AP bureau): It was raining hard. I was on a date; we were going to a movie when the news came on the radio. My date turned the car around and drove me to the King home. The house was all lit up. A New York Times reporter and another reporter were on the porch talking to a policeman. The door opened, and down the hall, Coretta was standing there in a pink nightgown. She spotted me and said, “Let Kathryn in.” In her bedroom, she lay back on large pillows, watching television reruns of her husband’s speeches. Yolanda was on the floor. She was just twelve or thirteen; her hair was up in curlers. I sat there with them. We were mesmerized. The phone rang; I heard someone say “Mr. President” and I knew it was Lyndon Johnson. I left the room to give her privacy. When I came back, we went back to watching TV. She was tightlipped, but displayed the composure that carried her through the entire time.
XERNONA CLAYTON: Calls came in one after the other. Everybody had the same script. “This is Senator So and So. This is Mr. So and So. I’m just calling to say we heard the news, we’re so sorry, let us know if there’s anything we can do to help.”
Now Robert Kennedy, his call was different. His call was like this. “This is Robert Kennedy. It’s obvious you need more phone lines; we’ve been trying to call you since six o’clock. So Mr. John Jones of AT&T is en route. He’ll be there at 1:30 this morning and install adequate phone lines. I heard on the news you’d like to go to Memphis. So we’ve arranged for a private plane. It will be at hangar two, the tail number is 123, the pilot’s name is . . .” And so on. Unlike the other calls that said, “If I can do anything, let me know,” he told us what he was going to do, what was going to happen, what was in process. Everything he said took place.
MARIE DODD (director of advertising at the Ivan Allen Company, she was called in by the mayor to help with crisis communication): City Hall became “command central.” Back then, before the Internet and cell phones, people’s reaction was to ask the mayor’s office what was going on. The press office was down the hall. City Hall was wild.
SAM MASSELL (the vice mayor): The first thing I remember is going over to City Hall to help man the telephones; I knew there’d be a need. We got calls from all over the world, mostly inquiries about the date or time [of the funeral].
Regular television broadcasts were interrupted with statements announcing King’s death. At 8:15 p.m., just before the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra started an evening performance, the conductor announced the news to the audience. Over at the Martel Homes housing project in East Point, Charles Weltner, the first Deep South congressman to testify in support of the Civil Rights Act, was meeting with a group of resident activists. “There was stunned silence,” he told the Atlanta Constitution, describing the gathering’s reaction. On Auburn Avenue, crowds heard reports of King’s death as they left a show at the Royal Peacock Lounge. They made their way to the offices of the Atlanta Daily World, seeking updates. By just after 8 p.m. 60 percent of Atlanta residents had learned of King’s assassination. By 8 the next morning, 97 percent of the city would know, according to Emory University researchers—who called it the fastest dissemination of news the city had ever experienced.
RON ENGLISH (associate minister at Ebenezer Baptist Church): I was a student at the Interdenominational Theological Seminary and had research to do at Emory, and was on my way to the library when I heard the news. My first inclination was to take a flight to Memphis. But I resisted and went over to the church.
JETHRO ENGLISH (Ron’s father, a deacon at Ebenezer): We were on our way to choir practice when we heard the news on the radio. We went over to see if we could help Daddy King and Mama King.
MARIA SAPORTA (a student at Spring Street Elementary School; she and Yolanda, the eldest King child, were best friends; she’d often spend the night at the King home): I had never had that kind of intense pain and loss. We lived in an apartment building called the Burge Apartments, across from the Georgia Tech campus. The whole family was devastated. We went out that night; maybe Mama wasn’t up to cooking. There was a neighbor of ours and as we’re going down the elevator, he and a pack of men passed. They said, “We’re going out celebrating.” They were celebrating because Martin Luther King had been shot. I was incredulous. I never could talk to him again.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE (the national field coordinator for the SCLC): I was on a flight to Washington, D.C., to work on the Poor People’s Campaign. I had just talked with King five hours earlier. When I got off the plane I heard the news. Riots had started in D.C.; it was insane. I was walking to my hotel, and there was one fellow who’d thrown a Molotov cocktail in a storefront window on the first floor without paying attention—his grandmother lived upstairs. He was screaming and hollering for people to put out the fire he had started. Stokely Carmichael [whose book Black Power had been published the year before] was out on the street trying to keep people quiet. I called back to Memphis and they told me to meet them in Atlanta.
FRIDAY, APRIL 5, 1968
In Washington, D.C., buildings were engulfed in flames. Riots would break out in more than 100 cities over the next few days. Violence escalated in Boston, Winston-Salem, Chicago, New York, and Minneapolis. In Baltimore, 1,900 federal troops marched into the city to quell arson. A firebomb was set off in Tallahassee. In Detroit, two police officers were shot. Police clashed with young men in Raleigh. Some 57,500 National Guard troops were dispatched to cities around the country, the largest force mobilized for any domestic situation.
In Atlanta, avoiding violence was the top priority for Allen. On Friday morning, hearing that protests were being planned by students at Atlanta University Center, Allen went to the campus to meet with college presidents, taking with him Gene Patterson, editor of the Atlanta Constitution. The students rejected Allen’s offer to march with them. The student march, which grew to 1,000 participants, made its way through Vine City, and the six college presidents joined the march. Students formed a group called the Black Action Committee and put out a statement declaring “violent retaliation is out.”
SAM MASSELL: There was a lot of concern about safety, worries about people taking advantage of the situation to cause trouble, people wanting to show their strength or power. [For King] to be assassinated took a crazy person. Right away, you knew the world was full of people not of a sound mind.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE: [King lived with] a sense of impending tragedy. Around this period there was an even greater kind of anxiety. It wasn’t normal. This was abnormal, the heavy climate and volume of threats. I was surprised they didn’t take out at least another five of us.
MARIE DODD: Police were placed on two twelve-hour shifts each day; firemen altered their schedules; students at Atlanta University were used as marshals.
ELDRIN BELL(a police detective): We did a lot of behind-the-scenes work to keep things calm. We were walking up and down the streets all hours of the day to [prevent] riots.
Coretta Scott King flew to Memphis in an American Electra airplane chartered by Robert Kennedy. That afternoon, she returned with King’s body. More than 300 observers gathered on the runway, among them Ivan Allen, Sam Massell, police Captain Morris Redding, and Ann Moses, Allen’s longtime executive assistant. While everyone waited, the family and a few friends went on the plane to see King’s body. A while later, a bronze casket was unloaded from the plane.
BERNICE KING (the youngest King child, also known as Bunny): When we went up on the plane I heard this wind type of sound, that for me, sounded like somebody breathing. I said “Daddy’s breathing,” and my mother said, “No baby, that’s the plane.”
MARIA SAPORTA: We ended up going to the airport and meeting Yolanda, and I remember them coming off the airplane. And she said, and I remember this part so vividly, “He looked so peaceful.”
At the same time, Abigail McCarthy, wife of Senator Eugene McCarthy, had a layover in Atlanta. She asked Winston Johnson, an Eastern Airlines employee whose job was escorting VIPs, to take her to see Mrs. King.
WINSTON JOHNSON: We took a Towncar and drove right across the tarmac to where Mrs. King was coming off the plane and the coffin was being unloaded. They knew each other, and embraced. Then Mrs. King invited Mrs. McCarthy to come over to the house.
We drove over—we actually got there before them—and went in, and the first person I saw was Harry Belafonte, standing in the middle of the big kitchen. The house was crowded with people.
MARIA SAPORTA: My family and I went over to the King house on Sunset Avenue. Yolanda was not there then, but Mrs. King and the three little children were. Bunny was at the swingset. The deep sadness was just heartbreaking.
BERNICE KING: I remember asking my mother how my dad was going to eat. Kids ask crazy questions; I was asking all these questions. I was concerned. The reason I asked is because I did remember us eating together. At dinnertime, my father used to grab these green onions and he would chew them like celery. I would sit on a high seat between him and my mother. She didn’t really have an answer, she just kind of wrapped her arms around me and said, “Mommy loves you.” What could she do?
PATRICIA LATIMORE (a babysitter for the family): I went to the house to see if I could help, but there were so many people you could hardly move.
LINDA MULLÁ (a secretary in the mayor’s office): Ann Moses was the senior executive secretary to the mayor, I was an underling. We went to the King home following his death and met in the library with some family and representatives.
Walking in their home, it was like any home in the South at that time; ladies, friends, family members were in the kitchen preparing food. Southern ladies in there making sure that they had everything ready for the groups coming in.
We were escorted into Dr. King’s library—there were things all around, books piled on his desk. At the time, I wasn’t totally aware of how important that was. We offered, on behalf of the mayor and city, the Atlanta auditorium, offered that venue on behalf of the mayor for the funeral service. Everyone was aware it was going to be bigger than Ebenezer Church could accommodate.
XERNONA CLAYTON: Coretta had asked me, “Help me do everything.” She and I started planning—what will she wear? Planning for the ultimate stage, the funeral. When you see pictures of her that week, every garment I selected. She wanted a headdress. She told me she wanted something covered but didn’t want to look like she was trying to look like Jacqueline Kennedy.
First, I went to this store [Joseph’s] Downtown. I told him, “I have to dress Mrs. King, but I didn’t want to bother her for a credit card, but I don’t have any money. May I take them?” I took several garments home for her to choose. I walked into the door and in the front foyer were Harry Belafonte and Stan Levison, good friends and supporters. I said, “I just spent quite a bit of money. I bought Mrs. King some clothing and I have to figure out how to pay for it.” They said, “No problem, buy whatever you need,” and they both gave me credit cards. I went back to the store and said, “Here’s cards to cover the cost.” He said, “You don’t have a bill with us. I’m a white American; I have to take some of this guilt and pain, and this is a way to assuage my grief. You have no debt here.”
I was running around, dealing with the hotels, clothing, so much. Now it was about four-thirty-ish. Macy’s was Davison’s back then. When I came to Atlanta, it was in the throes of desegregation, and Coretta took me there for lunch. I called the store manager and asked to be connected to the milliner, told them what I wanted. They stayed late. I sketched out what I wanted and took scarfing to do a rough version.
At the SCLC headquarters on Auburn Avenue, the scene was chaotic. Tom Houck, a former driver for the King family, returned to Atlanta after driving all night from Appalachia, where he’d been helping organize white participants in the Poor People’s Campaign.
TOM HOUCK: It was kind of discombobulating. Some of the staff was drunk. Some were trying to figure out what was coming down. People were trying to send telegraphs; we had those Western Union machines. There was no real person taking things in charge. Andy was in Memphis. Abernathy was in Memphis. Bernard LaFayette, who was the field coordinator of the SCLC, said, “I’m in charge,” because there was nobody in the office who could take charge. He began coordinating, at a very difficult time, the funeral.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE: We had to organize the funeral, complete the march [in Memphis], work on the Poor People’s Campaign. It was a heavy burden.
Later that day, the SCLC board met to discuss who would succeed King as the organization’s president. They also debated funeral plans.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE: We had to continue, but without him. Martin Luther King had prepared his succession; look at the structure of the SCLC. There was a president, vice president, first vice president, chairman, and so on. In 1967, he named Ralph Abernathy vice president at large—what is that? That is his successor. It was very clear. There was some discussion as to whether the first vice president should succeed him, but everyone knew and understood it was Abernathy. We used to call them the movement twins.
JOSEPH LOWERY (chairman of the SCLC board): There was never any debate or question. Martin had already placed Ralph in the position to be successor. Ralph inherited a tough task.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE: We [discussed whether it should] be one of the kingly type of funerals, with the horse-drawn coach like in England, the staff with high top hats and long coats. . .
TOM HOUCK: Now the mule-drawn wagon, that was all Hosea [Williams]. We all thought there’d be a hearse, but Hosea, said, “No, no no, no, no.” He wanted to bring in the element of the Poor People’s Campaign.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE: It symbolized what he lived for and what he died for. So after discussion we agreed it would be befitting.
ELIZABETH OMILAMI (Williams’s daughter): There was difficulty finding the right one. I remember them calling down to these counties—where they had had marches—trying to find just the right wagon. It had to look a certain way. It couldn’t be nice, it had to look rugged and so forth.
SATURDAY, APRIL 6, 1968
King’s body was taken to Sisters Chapel on the Spelman College campus. Thousands of people lined the sidewalks waiting to come pay respects. Inside, family and a few friends prepared.
XERNONA CLAYTON: I looked down at him and was angered. He had a big . . . blob of something on his face. It was red looking. I asked the mortician, “Is there anything we can do?” He audibly and nastily responded, “Miss, his jaw was blown off. This was the best we could do. We had to put clay on it.” So crass. So ugly. But we needed to do something. Harry Belafonte was standing there; [Julie] his wife is white, and Mama King was very dark. I said to her, “Do you have any face powder?” and said, “Julie, do you have powder?” I took their two powders, one white, one very dark, and made me a little brew. I asked if anyone had a tissue, and I took it and heavily powdered his face. Harry gave me his handkerchief to put under Martin’s neck while I did it. Harry reached over and took the handkerchief, folded it up, and said, “This is a piece of history,” and put it in his pocket.
RON ENGLISH: I had been a fraternity brother of King’s at Morehouse, and we were to stand as an honor guard when people came. I remember very keenly that Harry Belafonte was there. And he said—before anybody came in, he just said, “Stop.” And he went up to the body of his friend, Dr. King, and straightened his tie and then looked at him and said, “Now, let them come in.” It was just a little gesture of his affection. People came and they viewed the body.
Over the next two days, an estimated 60,000 people came to see the body, at a rate of 1,200 an hour. Tens of thousands of mourners had begun to arrive in Atlanta by train, plane, bus, and car. Vice Mayor Sam Massell was dispatched to welcome dignitaries at the airport; he spent two days there. A special hangar was set up for arriving VIPs. Politicians arrived from all regions of the country, among them Walter Mondale, senator of Minnesota; Carl Stokes, mayor of Cleveland; Richard Hatcher, mayor of Gary, Indiana; and former Vice President Richard Nixon. Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York, chartered a plane, sending a contingent of 100. Ambassadors from Norway, Guyana, Ethiopia, India, Ghana, Australia, and more than a dozen other countries arrived. Celebrities who descended on Atlanta included Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Bill Cosby, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Alan King, Eartha Kitt, Diana Ross, Mahalia Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr., Dizzy Gillespie, and Aretha Franklin. Diahann Carroll caused a stir when she strode hatless through the airport in a blue-and-orange minidress.
JESSE JACKSON (head of Operation Bread Basket in Chicago and involved in the Poor People’s Campaign): Arriving in Atlanta from Memphis, I was struck that the airport was full of King paraphernalia—all those magazines stacked up.
JUNE DOBBS BUTTS (a friend of King’s since childhood who flew home to Atlanta from New York to attend the funeral): I have never seen planes that thick. That’s what got me when I was flying into the airport. Planes were zipping everywhere.
PETE KILGO (director of sales for the Atlanta Transit System): They told us to get people moving, we weren’t going to charge anybody anything. It was total chaos. At the airport, we had the buses lined up. We’d see someone come off with a suitcase and ask, “Where are you going?” We’d put them in a bus and tell everyone that bus was headed where the first person was going: “This bus is going Downtown” and so on.
PAUL HEMPHILL (a columnist for the Atlanta Journal): Everybody in the world had come here. That was pretty damn impressive. Rockefeller, a number of the Kennedys, movie stars . . .
WINSTON JOHNSON: Back then, people didn’t have private jets. Even presidential candidates flew commercial. So many VIPs came in then, all these movie stars, senators.
SAM MASSELL: I hate to admit this, but I’m not a big movie fan, and when some of those stars would come in I’d have to later call my wife and ask, “Who is this?”
MARIA SAPORTA: What seemed to be the headquarters hotel was the old Marriott. We all thought it was the height of elegance; it had these beautiful white glass light fixtures and a pool in a tropical garden. That’s where everyone went. It was amazing. Atlanta felt like the center of the universe. Sidney Poitier was there and Harry Belafonte—all these folks. I don’t want to say we were gawkers. We were onlookers, yet wanting to be close to other people who were close to it.
PAUL HEMPHILL: We still weren’t used to it. Atlanta still was a small town in a way. Frank Sinatra Junior showed up at the Imperial Hotel, the strip joint there. That was about as big as it got, Frank Junior.
Hotels were so crowded that cots were crammed into rooms. One-way cab fares to town were $7, nearly as much as a men’s Hathaway shirt (advertised by Muse’s for $9 that week). The Washington Afro-American reported that visitors to Atlanta spent $25 million over four days. Newsstands at the airport sold out of 100,000 copies of Life magazine’s commemorative King issue—at $1.03 each compared with the regular price of thirty-five cents. Restaurants ran out of supplies. Coca-Cola, Krispy Kreme, and other companies donated food and drink for the crowds. The SCLC was overwhelmed and put out a call for help.
MARIE DODD: How were we to house, feed, and sleep everyone? Atlanta was a smallish city with limited hotel space. So private homes, churches, college dorms were used.
XERNONA CLAYTON: It was a marvelous thing, everyone coming together. I don’t think anybody paid for food in this city for two or three days.
TOM HOUCK: Thousands of people offered to help. White people who had never been to Auburn Avenue came over to SCLC with food, money, and volunteered their time.
KATHY KOHN (a young mother who lived in Doraville): We heard the call for help on the radio, so we packed up food into our station wagon and took our little boys and drove down. We didn’t really think it through, and it was a little scary, with these little tow-headed boys in the backseat. I went into the office and asked what to do, and they said, “Central Presbyterian is now the center of operations.” I said, “That’s our church.” So we headed right over.
NORM KOHN: Crowds came in with food from all over the city, including the Playboy Club, which was kind of fun to see the Playboy van pull up in the alley over there [by the church] and unload food.
DON ROBINSON (Central Presbyterian’s minister of music): After the church made the decision to host people, we were ready at six that night, but the first bus didn’t arrive until midnight. But then every hour or so for two or three days, buses were coming.
KATHY KOHN: After the appeal went out, someone would come with a trunkload of hot dogs and potato chips and they’d serve that until it was gone. Then the next group would get fried chicken and potato salad and they’d serve that until it was gone.
DON ROBINSON: Needless to say, there was no set menu!
NORM KOHN: I spent the next three days at the church. The doors were never shut. People were sleeping on the floor, anywhere we could fit them. It was the most remarkable thing. Where other cities were having violence, Atlanta wasn’t. We had reporters from all over the world. We had Black Panthers in leopard-skin outfits. Ladies from the northside were coming in and helping. There was a marvelous sense of peace and calm. But it was scary at times. Literally you had no idea what would happen. One night, I was in Randy [Taylor, the pastor]’s office, and the phone rang, and he spoke for a moment and said someone had called to say East Point was burning and violence was headed our way. I said, “What are we going to do?” And he said, “Nothing. We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing.”
People kept coming. At one point, I had to go down to the stadium parking lot—that was the rendezvous for arrivals—and as far as you could see there were buses and cars.
PETE KILGO: At first Atlanta Transit talked about charters, but then we were told to give everyone rides for free. After it was all over, I got a call from the company president. He said, “You need to fix me a bill.” I said, “You told me to do it; nobody said anything about charter orders.” He said, “I need a bill.” So I went to the records, looked for guys who had turned in time sheets. I looked for everything we ran extra for April 8, 9, 10, how many hours, who we paid, and so on. I figured out what we’d done and got the bill ready. It came to the neighborhood of forty or fifty thousand dollars. In 1968, that was a lot of money.
I always wondered what happened, so I checked later. It showed up in accounts receivable. The bill was sent to the Coca-Cola Company. I found out later that Mr. Robert Woodruff had said he’d take care of what had to be done. So the transit company looked like good guys, giving everyone free rides. And we thought we were. But we got paid for what we’d done.
SUNDAY, APRIL 7, 1968
It was Palm Sunday, but in some churches, pastors scrapped traditional Holy Week homilies in favor of sermons that addressed King’s assassination. At West Hunter Street Baptist Church, pastor Ralph Abernathy presented his sermon as a “letter” to King. Speaking of the rioters in other cities, he said: “I want you to know, Martin, we are going to point the way for them.” Abernathy ended with a challenge to Ivan Allen, citing the poverty, lack of jobs, and poor schools in Atlanta, and saying to his congregants: “I know you have great respect for Mayor Allen, as do I. But we’re going to tell him the Negro demands—not begs—for his God given constitutional rights in Atlanta.”
In Buckhead, a huge ecumenical service was held at the Episcopal Church of St. Philip. Joseph Bernadin, Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop; Bevel Jones, president of the Christian Council of Metropolitan Atlanta; and A.S. Dickerson, pastor of Central Methodist, took part. Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of the Atlanta Temple, one of King’s staunch supporters and a key force in organizing a dinner to honor King when he received the Nobel Prize, issued a challenge to “white America.” The rabbi said of King, “His life is in our hands.”
On Dell Creek Road, the home of King’s parents was flooded with visitors.
JUNE DOBBS BUTTS: First thing we did was call the Kings and ask if there was anything we could do. They said, “Please come over. We’ll give you things to do.” We went over and we started sewing veils on the hats. Women don’t ever wear hats anymore. But we sewed on veils for the longest.
The governor of Michigan [G. Mennen Williams] gave money to provide refreshments to help the Kings because they were overwhelmed. I met him and his wife; they were very nice. So we stayed there and talked to people, we were like hostesses. The different people! Some wanted to be seen; some were genuinely distraught. They had people who said, “I’m your cousin. You didn’t know about me, but we’re cousins!” By the truckload. They came and they wanted to be fed. The Kings were very gracious to all of them.
I met Aretha Franklin. She was very distraught. She and her dad had worked with M.L.; he’d been to speak at her dad’s church. She was just a very humble young woman.
KATHRYN JOHNSON: At Coretta’s house telegrams stacked on the dining room table and on smaller tables around the house. There were plenty of people helping; I pitched in. Telegrams came from all kinds of people, from heads of state to slum dwellers.
MONDAY, APRIL 8, 1968
While all the preparations were going on in Atlanta, Coretta Scott King and members of King’s inner circle went to Memphis to carry out a planned march in support of the sanitation workers strike. The three oldest King children took part in the march, along with Young, Abernathy, LaFayette, and Jackson. “People were dressed in black mourning clothes and wearing placards bearing his name as they walked along silently, crying; they looked in great pain, and so many of them were black, and so many of them were sad, and also sad for us, but mostly just sad,” Dexter King, who was seven at the time, would later recall in his memoir Growing Up King. Ossie Davis, Harry Belafonte, and Benjamin Spock (the pediatrician and famous author of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care) also marched.
JESSE JACKSON: It was a symbolic march, letting people know you can kill the leader but you cannot stop the movement.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE: There was a heavy burden on our hearts, our minds. We had to continue on without him.
JESSE JACKSON: There was so much pain, buried deep. We were functioning, but we were dazed, absorbing the pain. We were not at all scared. We were angry, hurt, determined. We felt [whoever wanted King killed] had done their job by that time. None of us believed there was a lone gunman.
TUESDAY, APRIL 9, 1968
On the morning of the funeral, Governor Lester Maddox, who initially refused to lower flags to half-staff in honor of King, barricaded himself inside the State Capitol and installed 160 state troopers around the building. A few months later, a book about Maddox would reveal he had ordered the troopers to “shoot them down and stack them up” if marchers tried to enter the building. Maddox told reporters that morning that Atlanta businesses had been coerced into closing. Atlanta City and Decatur City schools were closed so children could attend the funeral; Maddox refused requests to close state schools. In May 1968, just a month after the funeral, the “Civil Aggression Study Team” at Emory’s Center for Research in Social Change surveyed Atlantans about their reaction to the death of King and their views of the way the funeral was handled. They found that 90 percent of blacks approved of Ivan Allen’s actions, while only 59 percent of whites did. More telling was the finding that 41 percent of whites said they “agreed” with Maddox’s actions, while 44 percent disagreed (compared with 95 percent of blacks).
The troopers were watched by the staff in the mayor’s office, kitty-corner from the Capitol, and by volunteers at Central Presbyterian, directly across the street.
SAM MASSELL: I vividly remember the view from City Hall to the State Capitol. I was standing there with Ivan and being apprehensive about what might occur over there with the state troopers on the grounds and the sidewalk. It was very tense. They were very visible uniformed guards. They were showing their strength, no question about it. Daring anybody to cross that line in the sand.
LINDA MULLÁ: [Ivan Allen] had the front of City Hall draped with black and wreaths. I remember the cloth—I have a long black scarf, a winter scarf, and it was like that. Very low key but very appropriate.
MARIE DODD: It was a frightening time in a way. We didn’t know what the response was going to be.
DON ROBINSON: There were so many black people coming and going all hours of the day. [A church member] and I were in front of the church picking up paper cups and napkins and two state troopers came over from the Capitol and said, “What are you white folks doing in front of this nigger church?”
Over at Sunset Avenue, the King family prepared for the funeral while visitors continued to arrive.
KATHRYN JOHNSON: I came by very early, and went to the kitchen, put on an apron and started cooking breakfast for the King family; Coretta’s parents had come in from Alabama. When Jacqueline Kennedy came in, I was standing at the door of the dining room, wearing an apron with a towel over my hand. She made a beeline for me and shook my hand; I know she thought I was the Kings’ white maid.
XERNONA CLAYTON: I remember when Jacqueline Kennedy came. I heard she had mixed feelings about coming. Her own pain compelled her to say she couldn’t come. She went back and forth. They called and said she wanted to come. She came. I met her at the front and escorted her to the back. The two of them embraced—it seemed like an endless time—communicating in spirit. Then they sat down in Coretta’s bedroom and they talked. Then she left.
JUNE DOBBS BUTTS: I remember so vividly looking up at one moment in the King house and there were three widows there; Coretta, Jackie, and Betty Shabazz [widow of Malcolm X]. It was so poignant.
On Auburn Avenue, crowds packed the sidewalks.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE: On my way to the funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church, I passed by the SCLC office and observed people going in and out. I found people who came from out of town, grieving, taking memorabilia. I had to lock the door from the inside and tell them, “You can’t take those things; put them back.” One of the things that was missing was a pair of black shoes that were under [King’s] desk. They were elevated shoes, because of his height. But they weren’t Martin’s; they were Abernathy’s. Years from now, if someone tries to sell those shoes, they aren’t Martin’s. I was upset, I couldn’t go. I had to get those people out of the office. I understand they were grieving and they wanted a piece of history, but they should have been at the funeral.
To prevent the church from overcrowding, the doors were locked. There was a visible police presence. Attendees included Robert, Ethel, Jacqueline, and Ted Kennedy, as well as Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, Thurgood Marshall, Hailie Salassie, and Michigan Governor George Romney. “Clear the way for Wilt!” shouted the crowd as Wilt Chamberlain worked his way toward the door. Heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson and football star Jim Brown used their size to get in. Stokely Carmichael arrived with six bodyguards.
JUNE DOBBS BUTTS: People were lined up like a human carpet, it got thicker as we got toward the church. I got out—we were in the first car behind the family—and I looked up, and the policeman was telling me, “Come on quickly.” I looked up and saw Ron Karenga and Stokely with this huge pole; they were banging on the door of Ebenezer Baptist Church and they were angry. They were saying, “This is an outrage. You won’t let us in but you’re seating white dignitaries.” They were right, but they shouldn’t have behaved like that. The policeman said, “Do you want to get in?” and I said “Yes.” We came through a passageway. Inside it seemed surreal. It seemed unreal.
CARL SANDERS: The only representatives of the state of Georgia were myself and Arthur Bolton, whom I had appointed attorney general, and Leroy Johnson, the first black elected to the Georgia Legislature since Reconstruction. The current governor was clear about his position, and the rest were too cowardly to attend.
JUNE DOBBS BUTTS: Stokely, once he got in the church, came down the aisle and knelt by Coretta and he talked to her. And I kept thinking, “I don’t believe people can be this mean, this obtrusive.”
CARL SANDERS: I remember looking over and there was Marlon Brando. I just thought, “You’re so much smaller than I imagined.”
Ron English delivered the opening prayer, asking God to “deepen our commitment to nonviolence so that the memory of Martin Luther King will not be blasphemed.”
RON ENGLISH: I was aware of the riots and how this would be perceived and how it could lead to the kind of things that would not honor Dr. King’s life, teaching, and legacy. So that was one of the reasons I mentioned that, that we would not use the occasion to bring dishonor to him, but remember, you know, what he said. At seminary we were studying the Gospel of John, and that phrase “He knew where he came from, he knew where he was going” came out of John. It was kind of like he had a sense of his destiny. He had a sense of his obligation. No matter what. And that was what he had engaged to keep him in Memphis.
The service continued with a tribute by L. Harold De Wolf, King’s professor at Boston University, and several songs, including “Softly and Tenderly” and “There is a Balm in Gilead,” by the 160-member Ebenezer choir. Jethro English, a longtime church deacon, was in the choir loft as he had been for decades of services, weddings, and funerals.
JETHRO ENGLISH: It was hard to sing. There was so much emotion. But we had an obligation to share. I knew M.L. before he was M.L. I sang at his wedding to Coretta—and I sang at his parents’ wedding.
RON ENGLISH: Coretta and Christine [King Farris, King’s sister] worked to create a program that reflected him. There were some of his favorites, like “In Christ There Is No East or West,” which is not an easy hymn for a congregation to sing.
Ralph Abernathy, King’s closest friend, came to the pulpit and said, “Mrs. King has requested we play a recording of his last sermon.” There was a moment of silence, then the static of a tape recorder, followed by King’s unmistakable voice.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. (RECORDED): Every now and then, I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator—that something we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. Every now and then I ask myself, “What is it that I would want said?” And I leave the word to you this morning.
I’d like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others.
I’d like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that’s all I wanted to say.
As the recording played, the King children, seated at the front of the church, looked startled. Andrew Young wept.
BERNICE KING: To prepare me for seeing my dad in another form, my mother had told me that he wouldn’t be able to talk to me or hear me. That’s hard for a child of four, five, or six to understand. I was on my mother’s lap, more faced toward her, resting on her lap, tired and frankly, cranky; it was boring for a little kid. So I now hear my father’s voice. I was jerking my head around, looking at the casket like he was going to come out.
PATRICIA LATIMORE: There was his voice echoing through the church. It was amazing—where was this coming from?
BERNICE KING: I was looking around—where is he?—of course, he was dead. I remember that specifically. It was traumatic.
After the ceremony, King’s casket was carried out of Ebenezer by members of the church, including Jethro English. As the coffin reached the church door, it was taken from the pallbearers by members of SCLC, who transferred it to a green, wooden mule-drawn wagon. The mules, Ada and Bell, were driven by Edward Peeks, a farmer from Clayton County. Ada and Bell trod at the head of the procession, as thousands followed behind. After days of rain and storms, it had cleared, and was a sunny 80 degrees. Among the hot, thirsty crowd were busloads of celebrities who could not get in the church.
PETE KILGO: Alan King, the comedian, was standing at the front of the bus. And people were asking, “Who’s in there?” And he’d send in pieces of paper to be signed for autographs. Diahann Carroll, Bill Cosby—there were all kinds of people in that bus. The Supremes had their own limo; it followed behind and people were getting out of the bus and going to the limo to get refreshments and getting back in the bus.
SAM WILLIAMS (a senior at Georgia Tech and an intern in the mayor’s office): There were so many people walking you couldn’t walk in the streets or on the sidewalks. People were walking in yards and across properties.
PATRICIA LATIMORE: I have never seen so many people in my life.
JESSE JACKSON: There was a total outpouring of people. My anger was, in part, because—how many people had been with us April 3, fighting for the garbage workers, the Poor People’s Campaign? Then, on April 9, such an outpouring of love for Dr. King, as a memory. The outpouring of people was an expression of appreciation. But when you’re fighting, you need followers, not just admirers. It’s cheap grace to admire a great sacrificial person. There were many who admired him but few who followed him.
PETE KILGO: I was standing with the comedian Godfrey Cambridge; [he] was pretty heavyset. He said, “Do you want to see a fat man disappear? Point me in the direction of the Regency Hyatt.” And he left. I look over and Peter Lawford has got this big ice chest filled with iced-down Cokes. I asked, “Where did you get that?” He’d found a phone booth and called the Marriott, and they sent them up to him, and he was handing out Cokes to the crowd.
The crowd wound along the four-mile route from Ebenezer to the campus of Morehouse College, King’s alma mater. Businesses were closed; everyone in the city center was taking part in the parade or lined twenty deep on the sidewalks.
JUNE DOBBS BUTTS: I brought extra shoes, the only time I’ve done that in [my] life. I don’t know the mileage, but it was more than what we were used to.
PATRICIA LATIMORE: It was so crowded, I got pushed further back in the line when we left the church. I was walking up Auburn Avenue thinking we were getting back in the limousines. When I realized I was walking to Morehouse—I had on real high heels—I got a cab and came back to the house on Sunset and watched it all on TV.
PETE KILGO: All the stores were shut. We were stopped by a tire store Downtown, Goodrich, and they had plate glass windows, and there were guards placed out front with shotguns. There was so much fear of rioting. A lot of guys just didn’t come to work that day. My wife was scared and didn’t want me to go Downtown.
MARIA SAPORTA: My parents were both Holocaust survivors. They survived World War II and they came after the war to the United States and were extremely sensitive to issues of discrimination. They were extremely attuned to the civil rights movement. We were at picket lines back when I was seven years old. It was not a normal upbringing. I really wanted to go to the funeral; I thought I needed to go. And for the first time my parents—in an effort to protect me, I guess, out of the fear something would erupt—wouldn’t let me. I was so mad.
SAM MASSELL: We were the center of liberal America at that moment, white and black, Jew and Gentile, Northerner and Southerner. [The procession] had the leadership that thought progressively and it had the opponents, like I said, across the street from City Hall standing in the door.
SAM WILLIAMS: Everybody was crying. Everybody. Adults, grandmothers, children. It was a mosaic of people.
PAUL HEMPHILL: It was quiet. Everything was quiet. You could feel something.
SAM WILLIAMS: I remember the distinct sound of the mules’ hooves on the street. That sound lingers with me to this day. When the procession would go by, people would get quiet, you could hear the horseshoes—whatever you call them on a mule.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE: I knew a lot about organizing marches, and we organized this like a march. We had trained students on the sides acting as marshals. We kept it quiet, so all you could hear was the mules, so that way we could hear if anyone tried anything.
SAM MASSELL: Even then, you were a little apprehensive not knowing who was next to you, who was on top of a building across the street. You couldn’t help but think of things like that.
TOM HOUCK: What Maddox was doing, presented in juxtaposition to what the movement was doing . . . people were appalled.
PAUL HEMPHILL: Yeah, Maddox was scared to death. Peering out at us through the Venetian blinds, I’m sure.
KATHRYN JOHNSON: We were warned to be careful. The AP tried to give everyone who covered the funeral gas masks. But you can’t carry everything you need, the tablet and the pens and all, and a gas mask, so I didn’t bring mine. I was worried about getting the story, finding the next phone so I could call in my reporting to the bureau.
At Morehouse, President Emeritus Benjamin Mays delivered a eulogy and Mahalia Jackson sang “Precious Lord.” Events were running behind schedule, so planned speeches were cancelled.
JESSE JACKSON: I remember the inspiring words of Dr. Mays. He said he wished it had been him rather than Martin who had been killed, that he had already lived his life.
JOSEPH LOWERY: I regretted very much that I didn’t get to speak. They cut me out—and they cut the mayor out, too. They apologized later, and I cussed them out. But it was a long funeral and there was a lot said. People were rejoicing at the opportunity to hear Mahalia, and Dr. Mays was eloquent. It was a long, hot day, but people were respectful—they endured the lengthy program.We were all still in a state of shock. Nobody wanted to hurry away because we were paying respect to our fallen leader. It was a hard time, yet a time of celebration of a life that was well lived—not measured in terms of quantity but quality.
Around 6 p.m., the crowds thinned as the family and close friends followed the casket, now transferred to a hearse, to South-View Cemetery, where King was buried under a tombstone inscribed “Free At Last! Free At Last! Thank God Almighty, I’m Free at Last!”
TOM HOUCK: I remember how tired the kids were, and Bernard Lee was carrying Bunny back to the car and at that moment I realized that I now knew Martin Luther King was dead. For five days, we knew he was assassinated, but we knew he was still with us. At that moment, I knew he was dead.
JUNE DOBBS BUTTS: Ralph Abernathy was so moving. He said, “This place is too small for his spirit,” and it was like, “What did you say that for?” It was like despair set on us. And there was lots of wailing and weeping.
And then the rain came back and by the time we got to the cars, it was storming.
Photographs courtesy Jim Peppler Southern Courier Collection, Alabama Archives. Find out more about the funeral in Burns’ book Burial for a King (Scribner 2011).