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The Day King Died
Former Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. tells us in gripping detail how Atlanta stayed together while the rest of America split apart
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.”
I don’t remember that she said anything. Certainly, she had trained herself for the possibility of that moment in all of those years while Martin exposed himself to crowds of rednecks in angry small Southern towns. She had been able to steel herself for it in the few minutes she was with Dora and I was on the phone, when it was fairly obvious what the news was. Hearing it said for the first time was something else, though. The four of us stood there for what seemed like an eternity, holding hands, Coretta showing great courage and dignity and poise.
“Coretta,” I said, “do you want to go to Memphis, or what?”
“I can’t help in Memphis,” she said. “My place tonight is with my children.” She was right.
After I notified Eastern to release the plane, we went back through the airport. I don’t remember that walk. The press had started to catch up with us by then, and a couple of television cameras were grinding away. The cars had been brought around to a rear gate. It was raining hard now. We got into the cars and took the interminable drive back to the King house, in silence. I held an umbrella for Coretta and helped her into the house. We had been gone for about an hour and fifteen minutes, and by this time a large contingent of Atlanta police had arrived to guard the house and the children, and a number of friends, black and white, had come to do whatever they could. Coretta retired to her bedroom, and all of us were left in the front rooms, shocked and dazed. There was a phone call to Mrs. King from President Johnson. Then the President was on television, and that was an eerie feeling—to be sitting in the house of Martin Luther King, Jr., watching the President talk to the nation about what a tragedy had just taken place. Finally we left for City Hall.
By the time I got to my office, around ten o’clock that night, it was already the center of attention. Ann Moses, working on instinct, as the rest of them had been doing since the first announcement of Dr. King’s shooting, had rushed down to open up the office, and when we arrived there it was jammed with newsmen trying to find out what I had done and what I planned to do. Riots had already broken out in several cities over the country. The obvious question was, would there be trouble in Atlanta, Martin Luther King’s birthplace? By now, that was the major question in my mind. Could we hold together that huge Atlanta University complex on the west side of the city, the six predominantly Negro universities and colleges—Martin’s alma mater, Morehouse College, among them—from whence had come the front-line soldiers in the civil-rights crusade? Without a doubt, the world had already shifted its attention from Memphis to Atlanta. The body would be brought back here, and it would be put into the ground here.
Still in somewhat of a daze, I first put together a proclamation deploring the assassination and calling for level-headed citizens to act properly and show their respect for Martin Luther King, Jr. I wouldn’t say it was one of the greatest proclamations, but we were under too great a strain to operate effectively on things like that. Then I began sending for my aides, the people closest to me, the ones I could depend upon to get the machinery rolling: Earl Landers, my administrative assistant; Milton Farris, chairman of the Aldermanic Finance Committee; Henry Bowden, the city attorney; Herbert Jenkins, George Royal, Morris Redding, Ann Moses. Telephone calls were coming in and going out. I kept calling the news media, keeping them posted on everything that was happening. I stayed in touch with the educators at Atlanta University to keep abreast of their situation.
We had to be realistic about it. There would likely be serious trouble, particularly in the black neighborhoods. Milton Farris never raised a question when I told him we would have to put the police department on double shifts, something we were allowed to do only on the most extreme provocation. I was asking him to call in every policeman in Atlanta and run two twelve-hour shifts. That could get very expensive, and Farris knew as well as I that we would be damned if we did and damned if we didn’t: we would be assailed by that same crowd of haters for bending over backwards to help the Negro or, if no trouble broke out, for wasting thousands of the taxpayers’ dollars. But Milton never raised an eyebrow when I requested the double shifts: “Whatever you think is right, it should be done.” It was a difficult thing to do. You can’t work men for twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for very long. There was no quibbling from Farris or from Chief Jenkins.
Then, about midnight, I finally got in a call to the President. This was the only time in my eight years as mayor that I called the President of the United States. I simply wanted him to know that the leadership in Atlanta, Dr. King’s home, was alerted to the dangers and aware of the magnitude of the situation. I guess I just wanted to talk to the President. At any rate, President Johnson returned the call within minutes. It was obvious to me that he and Mrs. Johnson had already retired for the night when I placed my call.
“What does it look like down there?” he said.
“It’s all right, right now, Mr. President,” I told him. “I’m worried, but I’m hopeful. It’s raining pretty hard, and that’s a big help. It’ll keep people off the streets.”
“We’ve had a lot of rioting in the country.”
“That’s what we heard.”
“We’ve had to commit a lot of troops already.”
“I’ll do whatever’s necessary, Mayor,” he said, “but this stuff is breaking out all over. I hope we don’t have to send anybody down there. I hope if it gets bad in Atlanta the National Guard can take care of it.”
It was a soothing conversation. President Johnson was as cool as he could be. He impressed me as being a tough man when the chips are down, and the way he handled it helped settle my nerves. Then he put Mrs. Johnson on the phone and she spoke to me, recalling a visit she had made to Atlanta and expressing her sympathy over Dr. King’s death and saying their prayers were with us. Only someone who had been through those past few hours could have appreciated what that phone call meant to me.
Then, just as I was preparing to leave City Hall to go home for some sleep, I had a long distance call. I don’t think I was quite aware yet just how big this situation really was. I hadn’t had time to think about what was going to happen tomorrow or the next day; I was trying to make it through this one. The call was from Robert Woodruff, the developer of Coca-Cola, one of Atlanta’s staunchest citizens, the man who had done more to help build and direct Atlanta during the past thirty years than any one person. Woodruff had been, during my six years, my most valued unofficial adviser. He had called me on several occasions, whenever Atlanta was going through traumatic experiences, not to give me advice but to give me suggestions on the nature of the problem and what could possibly be done. The advice he had given me on whether or not I should go to testify in behalf of the public-accommodations bill was something I could never fully thank him for, and typical of our relationship. Anyway, he was calling me after midnight from Washington. He and Carl Sanders had been paying a personal visit to the President at the White House when the announcement of the shooting came, and had retired to their hotel when news of the death was broadcast. And now he was saying, over long distance, “Ivan, how are things in Atlanta?”
“Calm right now, Mr. Woodruff.” I filled him in on the situation and told him about the conversation with the President.
“I want to give you a little advice,” he said.
“You’ve got to start looking ahead.”
“They’ll bring the body back tomorrow.”
“I mean really look ahead, Ivan. The next four or five days. The problems you have tonight are nothing compared to what’s ahead.”
“Yes, sir. We’re doing what we can.”
“Ivan,” he said, “the minute they bring King’s body back tomorrow—between then and the time of the funeral—Atlanta, Georgia, is going to be the center of the universe.” He paused. “I want you to do whatever is right and necessary, and whatever the city can’t pay for will be taken care of. Just do it right.”
I got home around four o’clock in the morning, some nine hours after Louise and I had rushed away to be at the side of Mrs. King, and the wind had left me now. Robert Woodruff, I could see, had put it all in perspective. Atlanta was going to be the center of the world—”the center of the universe”—for the next few days. And in the spirit of those people who had selfishly made Atlanta into what it was, he was, in one breath, relieving me of any worries such as how we were going to pay for necessary police protection. I can’t imagine the mayor of any other city in the United States being, given a blank check like that, under such trying circumstances.
After a short, restless sleep I shook myself awake around seven o’clock the next morning. While I was having a cup of coffee the phone rang. It was Gene Patterson of the Constitution, who was complimentary over the way things had been handled the night before and wanted to know what my next moves would be. I told him I thought the key to the entire chain of events was what was going on at Atlanta University, and that I was going to try to set up a meeting that morning with the university presidents and be a part of whatever happened there. He thought it was a good idea.
“I’m going under one circumstance, though,” I said.
“That you’ll go with me.”
I heard the gasp. Patterson had always been an activist in the newspaper business, always wanting to be in the middle of things instead of sitting in an isolated editor’s chair, but he was obviously reluctant to be put in the position of participating in the leadership—to commit himself to a course of action that might take some of his objectivity away from him. I think he realized the quandary I was in, though, and saw that the city needed all the help it could possibly get. He agreed to go.
We met with the Atlanta University leaders in one of the presidents’ offices at nine-thirty that morning. They were as tired and sleepy-eyed as we were, and they didn’t feel any better than they had the night before because nearly four thousand black students had notified them that they were going to have a march that morning in memory of Dr. King. This presented us with a familiar problem: do you give a permit, or do you refuse a permit? You have to ask yourself where lies the least chance for trouble. It finally boils down to making a basic decision—fish or cut bait—and reacting impulsively once more. I told the presidents I was going to back the march, to the point of asking if I could join the march, and I invited them to go with me.
To my amazement, the presidents advised me that they had never marched with their students throughout the civil-rights crusade—that it had always been their policy to stay in the background and only offer advice and that they didn’t intend to change that policy now. A fierce debate followed. Then a secretary came into the room and said the students were getting ready to kick off their march. There had been no permit granted, but there was no way to control it by prohibiting it. Patterson and I stood up and said we were going down to participate in the march, and I asked them one last time to join us. To a man, they got up and followed us out of the room and across the campus to Hunter Street to join the students.
I walked up to a towering student, a young man about six feet, five inches tall, who appeared to be in charge, introduced myself, and told him I was deeply sympathetic and wanted to march with them. “Mayor Allen,” he said, “we respect you, but this is a black man’s march, and we don’t want you to go with us.” This frightened me, worried as I was that there was going to be a backlash on the part of the city’s black community, but I couldn’t afford a confrontation. He did say it would be all right to ride in a police car seventy-five to a hundred yards ahead of the marchers, gave me the line of march, and that is how Gene Patterson and I participated in it. For about an hour and a half we led the march across the west side of Atlanta, riding ahead in a police car. It was an orderly march, with no incidents of any kind—from the angered black students or from the whites lining the curbs here and there along the route.
As soon as I got back to City Hall it was time for a meeting of department heads that I had called that morning. The city was still orderly, and a fine drizzle was coming down. It was time for us to start laying plans for the funeral, which had been set for the following Tuesday. It had finally sunk in on us that this was not going to be merely a large funeral, or even a private funeral: it was going to be most public, and the people attending it would either be famous or emotional or both. Even so, we found ourselves that morning thinking in terms of a funeral procession of some ten thousand people. We still had not been able to grasp fully the magnitude of something like this. The death and the impending funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr., was easily the top story in the entire world, just as Robert Woodruff had predicted to me on the phone from Washington, but we couldn’t see the forest for the trees. All we knew was what we read in the Atlanta papers; if, indeed, we even had time to do that. Even for a routine private funeral there are scores of minor details to be worked out in advance: the line of procession, the time, traffic police and so forth. For the King funeral (and, again, our estimate of the crowd at that point was only ten thousand), there would be endless other logistics: elimination of work crews on downtown streets, arrangements for press and network television crews, housing space for visitors, first-aid stations, extra police and firemen in case of trouble, even plans for the cleanup that would be required afterwards. We were confident we could handle the situation if we really went to work. We might not have been so confident if we had known how big it really was going to be.
I tried to get away for a game of golf at the Peachtree Golf Club Saturday morning with three friends. Dr. King’s body had been brought back to the city Friday afternoon, and Sam Massell and I had been at the airport to meet it and Mrs. King, and ride along to the funeral home on Butler Street. Friday night had passed quietly, though there had been rioting all day in Washington and in many of the other Eastern cities, and the vanguard of those who would attend the funeral was beginning to reach Atlanta. After the golf game Saturday morning, our wives met us for lunch. I had been fidgety all morning. Something was bothering me, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I became so upset that I excused myself before lunch came and went back to my office, and then called another meeting of department heads.
This time we looked deeper into the entire situation, and the more we talked the more we were convinced that Atlanta was about to be the scene of the largest and most emotional funeral in the history of the United States. Reports kept trickling in from all over. Arrangements being made by the telephone company for phones and cables indicated there would be an unbelievable amount of coverage by the networks and the daily press. The SCLC was setting up an emergency headquarters, staffing it with scores of volunteers who were working around the clock to arrange for visitors from all over the world. The attorney general’s office had sent in an advance detachment of men, apparently to lay some preliminary plans for security and to find out whether Atlanta’s leaders were aware of the magnitude of the funeral. The department heads and I began raising our estimate on the size of the crowd expected for the funeral, from our first guess of ten thousand up to thirty thousand or more. There had still been no violence in Atlanta, but we knew full well that it was all ahead of us.
That night, I was still jumpy. I finally ended up calling Herbert Jenkins. Herbert and I had lived through many a crisis over the past several years, most of them related to civil rights, and he always had a settling effect on me: cool, level-headed, a good man to have around in an emergency, yet with an emotional pitch that gave him the capacity to understand problems of this type. I suggested that I run by and pick him up, and that the two of us just ride around town and see what was happening.
We decided to visit every Negro neighborhood in Atlanta, get out of the car at each one, and let ourselves be seen. We went to Summerhill, Vine City, Mechanicsville, Pittsburg, Blue Heaven: all of them. Here we were, two white middle-aged gray-haired men—the mayor and the police chief of the city—walking up and down the streets, standing on the corners, talking to the people, trying to show them our concern. It was much the same strategy I had used during the rioting in Summerhill in 1966, and it seemed to be working. There were smiles and greetings from those who recognized us. And if you don’t think word spreads like a brushfire in a black ghetto, you don’t know much about that way of life. The grapevine, rather than newspapers or television or any other method of communication, is the traditional means of spreading the word there. I would dare say that by midnight, after Herbert and I had spent three or four hours simply showing ourselves in all the Negro areas of the city, more than half of Atlanta’s black population of two hundred thousand knew what we had done.
Very late that night, when Herbert and I had hung around the busy Negro commercial section at Hunter and Ashby streets and were about to call it quits, he told me SCLC had set up its communications headquarters in the West Hunter Street Baptist Church and suggested we drop by to see what was happening. I wanted to see the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, anyway. Ralph had been Dr. King’s trusted right-hand man for all of those years, the heir apparent to the top job at SCLC now that Martin was gone, and this had thrown us together on many occasions. When Herbert and I entered the basement of the church, it was close to midnight, but the place was a beehive. Scores of workers, black and white, were talking on the telephones and shuffling papers and making charts. We went over to Ralph and spoke to him for a few minutes, and then I pointed toward the bank of some thirty phones, each of them manned by a worker, and I said, “Who are these people talking to?”
“It’s all long distance,” Ralph Abernathy told me.
“Every one of them.”
“Who the devil are they talking to?”
Ralph said, “People who’re coming for the funeral.”
“Do you mean to tell me . . . all long distance?“
“We’re making arrangements with SCLC people all over the United States,” he said. “We’re setting up accommodations for people who’re coming in for Tuesday.”
When I looked around that room and saw thirty people on thirty telephones, talking to California and New York and Chicago and everywhere else you could imagine, the size of what was about to happen in Atlanta finally hit me in the head. To say that I was stunned and shocked would be putting it mildly. This wasn’t any wild political headquarters. This was a massive, well-organized, highly supervised nerve center where plans were being made to receive as many as a hundred thousand people into Atlanta for one funeral. When Jenkins and I went outside, still trying to clear our heads, we were notified that a whiskey store just down the street had been broken into and that a gang of young Negroes had cleaned it out. Somehow, it didn’t bother us. We were perfectly willing to sacrifice a couple of liquor stores.
Sunday morning, I was stalking back and forth in the kitchen like a caged animal. In the middle of the night I had gotten a call from Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who wanted to talk to me about the legal aspects of the funeral—the need for public facilities, even though officially this would be a private affair. “Look,” he had said, “the Third Army is there [headquarters for the Third Army was at Fort McPherson in Atlanta], and I’m placing it at your disposal. Any help they can give you in the way of accommodations or anything, we’ll see that they go all out.” This had served to further heighten my apprehensions about our ability to cope with something this big, and I was pacing around the house when the phone rang on a private line. I don’t know how he got the number, but it was a young minister named Randy Taylor from Central Presbyterian Church—a huge church across the street from City Hall, one that had managed to survive despite the fact that most of its congregation had moved away to the suburbs. Randy Taylor had called on me recently when he had come to Atlanta, and I vaguely recalled our meeting. Now he was calling me and saying he had a problem, and I felt like snapping back at him that I could match any of his problems ten times over.
“I need your help,” he said.
He needs my help, I thought.
“We’ve voted to open up our church.”
“Well, what do you mean?”
“We’re opening our doors to Negro people.”
“I still don’t understand.” I’m a Presbyterian myself, and I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about. Presbyterians are a righteous lot, but they don’t move that fast.
“Mayor,” he said, “it was unanimous. Our board of deacons voted on it and we’re housing three hundred Negro citizens tonight. We’ll provide meals for several thousands during the march when they pass by the church, and we’ll have living quarters for as many as we can take. We’re going to need six hundred blankets.”
“Reverend Taylor,” I said, “there’s only one job bigger than my finding six hundred blankets, and that’s your opening up your church to Negroes. You’ve got ‘em.”
So this was how Atlanta was going to react. In the back of my mind all along there had been great fears that the major factor in whether Atlanta was going to have serious trouble was not with the black people but the white racists who had always referred to Dr. King as “Martin Luther Coon” and hated him and what he had done with an unswerving passion. I had received several telegrams and phone calls from a surprisingly large number of these people, and from some people I had respected in the past, suggesting that the city ignore the funeral. Lester Maddox, of course, was cowering in the Capitol and making an issue about the plan to lower flags in Atlanta to half-mast, and there were rumors that he was going to call up the National Guard for his personal protection. A mild hysteria was running through the conservative community and there was the possibility of still another assassination with all of the liberal leaders descending on Atlanta at one time. But here was a young Presbyterian minister saying his church was opening its doors to Negro visitors. Later in the day, hundreds of other white churches in the city made similar announcements. Randy Taylor had shown me the attitude Atlanta was going to take, and it took only a minute to call Third Army headquarters and get six hundred blankets.
Finally, on Monday morning, twenty-four hours before the funeral was to take place, the big wheels began to mesh. We knew by this time that Eastern Airlines was going to have more charter flights coming into Atlanta Monday and Tuesday than they had ever put into one city in the history of the airline. We knew there were more than forty Greyhound buses coming in from New York City alone, with forty people to a bus. Then there were the railroads and the private automobiles. It had taken us four days to discover the magnitude of it, but now it appeared that more than one hundred thousand people would be coming into Atlanta for the funeral. Not only were the white and black churches of Atlanta opening their doors to the visitors, but many private homes, black and white, were also offering their rooms. Many of those planning to come wouldn’t have the means to rent hotel rooms or dine at expensive restaurants; a lot of them just planned to come to Atlanta and worry about eating and sleeping when they got there. And then there would be the celebrities: the Kennedys, Harry Belafonte, Jacob Javits, John Lindsay, Wilt (The Stilt) Chamberlain, Jimmy Brown, James Brown, Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and on and on and on. The crush was going to be fantastic.
All we could do was try to plan for every situation, every need, that might arise, and then hope for the best. When there is going to be, say, a huge sports event, plans are laid for weeks and months in advance. There are organizational meetings held, and everybody involved has ample time to prepare: hotels, restaurants, police, sanitation department, transportation facilities, etc. But we had been given only four full days to get ready, and our difficulties were compounded by the very real threat of violence. At a meeting with SCLC officials that day before the funeral, we assured them that the city would immediately issue purchase orders for such things as public-address systems and portable toilets along the line of march—and that we were prepared to foot the bill, no matter what the technicality might be over whether the funeral was public or private. We also finalized our security setup: in addition to the Secret Service and FBI and federal marshals, we would have fourteen hundred young Negro students serving as special marshals, plus five hundred uniformed city firemen and, for the first time in the city’s history, every one of the thousand-plus employees of the Atlanta Police Department. We had done what we could. It was quiet again in Atlanta on Monday night as the population of the city began to swell and thousands of mourners inched through the darkness of the Morehouse College campus to take a last look at Martin Luther King, Jr.
Early on Tuesday morning, my wife and I went to the airport to meet some of the VIP’s coming in for the funeral. There was John V. Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller, who had come in on a chartered flight from New York City. Then, with Vice President and Mrs. Hubert Humphrey and Martin’s brother A.D. King, we were driven as rapidly as possible to the Ebenezer Baptist Church where the funeral ceremony would be held—that same small church on Auburn Avenue where Dr. King, Sr., and his son had preached so many times.
When we reached the church there were perhaps one hundred thousand people in the immediate vicinity, all of them seemingly trying to get inside a church that could hold but eight hundred. It was a terrific crush. Squeals were going up on the sight of Jacqueline Kennedy or Jimmy Brown or Richard Nixon. The Secret Service was having a terrible time keeping the entrances clear so those invited to attend the service could get inside. Mrs. Allen and I were seated on the second row, directly behind the Vice President and his wife, and I was trying to see everything that went on. It was an anxious time for me. We could hear the jostling and wailing and yelling outside. I was talking to myself, pleading that nothing would go wrong. Many businesses had closed for the day, and there was a great deal of respect being shown for the memory of Martin Luther King. But, after all, this was the Old South. A good part of white Atlanta had stayed home. There was still great bitterness and opposition to the funeral. I could only hope that things would go as well outside as they were inside the church. The Negro ushers all wore morning coats and striped trousers, and they were somberly escorting all of these sad people down the aisles of the cramped and stuffy little church. Inside was the greatest galaxy of prominent national figures there had ever been in Atlanta at one time: Robert Kennedy, George Romney, Mayor Carl Stokes of Cleveland, Nixon, Rockefeller, Harry Belafonte, and an endless array of others equally as famous. Coretta King, sitting with her family front and center in front of the casket, looked lovely and courageous and dignified in the black mourning veil.
Once the service was completed, it was time for the long procession to Morehouse College to begin. These thousands of people would march along behind the mule-drawn wagon carrying the body, would march down the streets of Atlanta in the broiling sun, would march and sing “We Shall Overcome,” would march and dab at their tear-streaked faces with handkerchiefs, would march solemnly and respectfully in memory of a man who had dedicated his life to the theory of nonviolent protest in behalf of the dignity of man. There was going to be no violence in Atlanta that day. In all of my apprehensiveness I had failed to reckon with one great factor: this entire mass of nearly two hundred thousand mourners, every single one of them, was trying to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., just as he had lived his life. Just as he would have wanted it.
Except for the governor of Georgia, of course, who was in his office behind drawn blinds and a cordon of some hundred troopers. As the funeral procession slowly drew past the Capitol, one reporter raced up the steps and into the outer office and said he saw several of the governor’s aides peeking through the blinds and making jokes. . . . I remember glancing over toward the Capitol and thanking God that I was on the side I was on, instead of on the side of the racists who have plagued Georgia and the rest of the South for more than one hundred years.
Ivan Allen Jr., mayor of Atlanta from 1962-1970, was the only Southern elected official to testify in favor of the pulic-accommodations portion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Paul Hemphill’s new book, Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Son, will be out from Viking in the fall.