This article originally appeared in our April 2008 issue.
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.