This article originally appeared in our April 1993 issue.
From Mayor: Notes on the Sixties by Ivan Allen, Jr. with Paul Hemphill.
On the night of Thursday, April 4, 1968, Louise and I were in our bedroom at home watching television and reading the newspaper when a bulletin flashed on the screen: MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., SHOT IN MEMPHIS. The second I saw it I jumped to my feet and said, "Good God, won't they ever learn? First Kennedy, now King!" It is hard to describe the feeling I had. I suppose millions of others all over the world had the same feeling of shock and anger at that same second. Dr. King had been in Memphis during a sanitation workers' strike and was just getting ready to go out to dinner with some of the other SCLC workers when a shot rang out and dropped him on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Instinctively, I called Ann Moses and got the Kings' home telephone number from her and dialed it. Mrs. King answered. I had moved so fast I didn't know whether she had even been told of the shooting yet.
"Have you heard about Dr. King?" I said.
She seemed composed. "I just talked to Memphis."
"What do you want to do?"
"I'm going up there right now."
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
"There's a plane leaving in about fifty minutes, and I would appreciate your help in getting me on it." I told her I would send a police car after her, and that I would be there myself as soon as I could, and we hung up. At this point all of my responses were as a friend of the King family rather than as mayor of Atlanta. From my brief conversation with Mrs. King, I gathered that her husband was not in serious condition because she had just talked to someone in Memphis and seemed steady. Even so, she needed friends with her and her children. I arranged to have a police car rushed to the King home and quickly put on a shirt and tie.
"What are you going to do?" Louise said.
"I'm going to Mrs. King."
"I'll get a coat. I'm going with you." A woman could help more than a man, she knew. We hurried outside into the drizzling rain and got into our Chevrolet (this was one of the few times in my eight years that I had not come home in the radio-equipped city car, leaving me without communications when I needed it the most), and slithered onto Northside Drive, racing through the wet night to find the King home. As we turned off Northside onto Magnolia Street and screeched through the heart of Vine City, a poorly lighted black neighborhood that was still one of our difficult areas, I had my first qualms about bring Louise with me. It was the first time I had any thoughts about the situation the entire nation was going to be faced with for the next week or so. What must they be thinking in those narrow, cluttered frame houses? First there had been John Kennedy, and now, less than four years later, their greatest champion of all had been gunned down. What were the black people in Martin Luther King's hometown going to do if his wounds turned out to be fatal? I had great apprehension as we screeched onto Sunset. Here was a middle-aged white couple from Northside Drive, moving through the center of Vine City on a dark night in an unmarked car with no protection only an hour after the hero of the black people had been shot. I was praying for the best, remembering what Martin had said that night at the Wheat Street Baptist Church—“If anyone breaks this contract, let it be the white man”—but I must admit I couldn't blame the people of Vine City for whatever actions they might take in retaliation.
When we reached the King home, the police car was out front and Mrs. King was coming down the steps. Reverend and Mrs. Fred Bennette and Mrs. Sam Williams were already there. They put Coretta in the front seat of the two-door police car and I was already in the back seat when I realized I still had not called the airline to hold the 8:25 plane to Memphis, and I wouldn't be able to use the radio from the back seat. Just as we were preparing to leave for the airport, George Royal drove up in another police car and I jumped in beside him. So, with Mrs. King in one police car and me in another and Louise and Mrs. Williams in our personal car, we roared off toward the airport.
It was then, when I had given positive orders for the airline to hold the plane for Mrs. King, that I began to sense my larger responsibilities; that I had to act not only because I was a personal friend of Martin and Coretta King but also because I was the mayor of Atlanta. The death of Dr. King would not only be a personal tragedy, it would be a tragedy for the nation and for the South and for Atlanta. I tried to ask myself what John F. Kennedy would have done at a time like this. Having lived with the problems in the ghettos during 1966 and 1967, being quite aware of the tender feelings in the cities all over America then, I knew that even if Martin lived there would possibly still be major rioting in Atlanta. Dr. King, as the leader of the nonviolent movement, wouldn't want it that way, of course; but that was beside the point. I wanted to do whatever I could to assure the black people of Atlanta that we cared, that Martin Luther King was also our friend. As a starter, I got back on the police radio and placed call after call to the police dispatcher, giving the car number and saying this was Mayor Allen and letting it be known that I was with Mrs. King and was escorting her to the airport. I wanted the news media to know, so that information would get out to all of those bleak Negro homes: Atlanta cares, Atlanta is doing whatever it can. There had been nothing in my past experience to prepare me to handle a situation like this. Again, there are times when you have to go with your instincts. This was another of those times.
The police had their instincts working, too, and that made me feel stronger as I tried to guess at what the next few days would hold for them. Four of us in particular—Chief Jenkins, George Royal, Morris Redding and I—had been inseparably tied together by the problems of the civil-rights movement during the decade, and our mutual friendship and understanding had reached such a point that we could almost always anticipate the others' moves. I found that each of us that night were instinctively taking the actions we would have taken if we had been able to sit down and write out a lengthy plan. First, I had rushed to Mrs. King's side as soon as I heard of the shooting in Memphis. Chief Jenkins, realizing that he was second in command and that the second danger spot in the city that night would be the elder Kings' home, went immediately to see that Martin's parents were protected. George Royal, now promoted to superintendent, knew I would first go to Mrs. King's, and he rushed there to give any assistance he could. And Morris Redding, who was now my aide, didn't have to think twice about going directly to the airport where he knew I would be. None of us had been in communication with the other. It was as though we had rehearsed it.
Morris Redding and Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times' regional bureau were already waiting when we arrived at the airport. While the Bennettes helped Mrs. King out of one car, I got out of mine and grabbed Redding by the arm and handed him two hundred dollars. "Morris," I told him, "for God's sake get two tickets for Memphis." I hadn't made up my mind yet whether I should stay in Atlanta or accompany her to Memphis (although I think I would have gone with her if Martin had lived), but I still had enough presence of mind to get tickets for the flight. I guess the customs of a lifetime stick with us: here I was worrying about buying tickets, no matter what the emergency was. Other newsmen were beginning to reach the airport as we started down the ramps, looking for the right Eastern Airlines gate. As soon as we found the gate and were about to turn into the waiting room, Dora McDonald, Dr. King's executive secretary, came running after us. She seemed extremely upset. She grabbed Mrs. King and said, "Coretta, we've got to go in here," and pulled her into the adjoining ladies' restroom. At the same instant an Eastern official came up to me and said, "They've got to talk to you over the telephone."
I expected the worst, from the look on Dora McDonald's face. I went to the nearest phone. It was someone identifying himself as an Eastern official.
"Yes, this is Ivan Allen, Jr."
"I've been asked to inform you that Dr. King is dead."
I had to be sure. "I want you to go back and reaffirm your statement and be positive that this is right." "Mayor Allen," he said, "I have been instructed to affirm and reaffirm to you that Dr. King is dead."
I was numb. When I came out of the phone booth I saw Louise, who had not been able to keep up with the two police cars going to the airport. She saw the look on my face. We walked over to Dora and Coretta, who had their arms around each other and were standing in the middle of the corridor now. I felt certain Coretta knew her husband was dead, but it was my duty to tell her officially. I was grateful that there were two women with her the moment I had to tell her. I said, "Mrs. King. I have to inform you that Dr. King is dead."