The Shelf: Burial for a King

Teresa Weaver on Georgia writers

Burial for a King

In Burial for a King: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Funeral and the Week That Transformed Atlanta and Rocked the Nation (Scribner), Rebecca Burns returns to the treacherous intersection of race, religion, and politics that is at the heart of this city’s history. The book keeps a tight focus on the week following King’s assassination in April 1968. Shifting sharply between disparate locations—from the Lorraine Motel in Memphis to the Georgia State Capitol, from the Spelman College campus to the FBI’s office in Washington—Burns re-creates the week in intricate detail, careful not to lose small moments of humanity in the grand sweep of history. “On that Tuesday morning, no one in City Hall could predict how the day would unfold,” Burns writes. “All of the racial tension of the past centuries replayed at fast speed.” Governor Lester Maddox was a grotesque caricature of Old South fear and loathing, while media-savvy Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. marshaled an unlikely alliance of police, religious leaders, businessmen, and activists that kept Atlanta calm even as racial violence broke out in dozens of other cities. Burns first wrote about King’s funeral in an oral history article for Atlanta magazine in April 2008, when she was editor in chief. She now serves as director of digital strategy for the magazine’s corporate parent, Emmis Publishing. For this book, she interviewed dozens of people who participated in the events of 1968 and also drew from memoirs, biographies, presidential transcripts, and archival material ranging from the King Center to Emory’s rare-manuscript collection. The result is a skillfully distilled, understated history.
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Photograph courtesy of Jim Peppler Southern Courier Collection, Alabama Department of Archives and History