Keeping the peace for Martin Luther King, Jr.
The country rioted after Martin Luther King's death. But in Atlanta, a respectful peace reigned.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. The civil rights leader was just 39.
April 5, 1968 | Mourners pay their respects to Martin Luther King, Jr., at the R.S. Lewis & Sons Funeral Home in Memphis. | (Art Shay/Polaris/Newscom)
April 5, 1968 | King's casket is loaded onto an airplane, chartered by Robert Kennedy for Coretta Scott King, who traveled to Memphis to accompany her late husband's casket home to Atlanta. | (Art Shay/Polaris/Newscom)
As news of King's death spread, riots erupted in more than 100 cities around the country. The violence escalated in subsequent days, and nearly 60,000 National Guard troops were dispatched to Washington, D.C., Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, and other besieged cities.
But Atlanta — King's home — was largely peaceful.
"We did a lot of behind-the-scenes work to keep things calm," Eldrin Bell, a police detective at the time, told Atlanta magazine in 2008. "We were walking up and down the streets all hours of the day to [prevent] riots."
Mourners wait to pay their respects to King at Spelman College in Atlanta. | (AP Photo/Jack Thornell)
King's funeral was held on April 9, 1968, five days after his death. Until then, the reverend was laid in state at the Sisters Chapel at Spelman College in Atlanta. Tens of thousands of mourners streamed into the chapel to pay their respects. Meanwhile, even more people poured into Atlanta. The small city was overwhelmed. The transit system provided free rides from the airport and train stations to downtown to keep things moving. When the hotels ran out of space for visitors, colleges, churches, and private homes opened their doors. When local radio stations put out a call for help or food, people eagerly answered. "It was a marvelous thing, everyone coming together," civil rights leader Xernona Clayton told Atlanta magazine. "I don't think anybody paid for food in this city for two or three days."
The day of the funeral, the front of City Hall was draped in black and city schools were closed so kids could attend the service. But there was tension in the air, too. Gov. Lester Maddox had barricaded himself inside the State Capital, not far from City Hall. Maddox surrounded his building with state troopers and reportedly ordered them to "shoot them down and stack them up," if needed. But there wasn't any need. The city, its leaders, the police, and the people were cooperative and respectful for King.
April 9, 1968 | The private funeral service at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King had been a pastor. | (Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy Stock Photo)
Coretta Scott King during the private service. | (Everett Collection/Newscom)
A packed private service was held at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King and his father had served as pastors. King's longtime friend Rev. Ralph Abernathy began the service, calling the event "one of the darkest hours of mankind." At the request of Coretta Scott King, the last sermon King gave, a prescient reflection on his own funeral, was played on a tape recorder.
"Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice," King said. "Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness."
The King family — daughter Yolanda, King's brother A.D., daughter Bernice, widow Coretta, Rev. Ralpha Abernathy, and sons Dexter and Martin Luther King III — walk in the funeral procession. | (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi)
(Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy Stock Photo)
King's coffin was transferred to a wooden mule-drawn wagon, which called to mind royal funerals with their horse-drawn coaches. But King's version was chosen specifically for being so worn down and rugged — representative of the grounded work and people King lived and died for. The wagon, followed by King's family, friends, and fellow civil rights leaders, walked the four-mile route from the church to the campus of Morehouse College, King's alma mater. An estimated 150,000 people fanned out behind them in a solemn processional. Thousands more lined the streets to watch the coffin pass. Though the crowd occasionally broke out into song, the afternoon was remarkably quiet and peaceful, with just the sound of feet on pavement filling the air.
Mourners sitting outside Morehouse College wait for the procession to pass. | (Keystone/Getty Images)
The public service at Morehouse College. | (AP Photo)
At Morehouse, Benjamin Mays, the college's former president and King's one-time teacher, gave a moving eulogy to his friend.
"If we love Martin Luther King Jr., and respect him, as this crowd surely testifies," Mays said, "let us see to it that he did not die in vain; let us see to it that we do not dishonor his name by trying to solve our problems through rioting in the streets."
And so, in honor of King, while much of the country raged, Atlanta said goodbye to its son in peace.
King's coffin is transferred to a hearse headed to the cemetery. | (Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy Stock Photo)
Burial services at the South View Cemetery in Atlanta. | (AP Photo/Henry Griffin)
For more on the tense days after Martin Luther King's death and a behind-the-scenes look at his memorials in Atlanta, read this moving oral history from those who lived it, in Atlanta magazine.