Burial for a King: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Funeral and the Week that Transformed Atlanta and Rocked the Nation
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In the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, riots broke out in 110 cities across the country. For five days, Atlanta braced for chaos while preparing to host King’s funeral. An unlikely alliance of former student radicals, the middle-aged patrician mayor, the no-nonsense police chief, black ministers, white churchgoers, Atlanta’s business leaders, King’s grieving family members, and his stunned SCLC colleagues worked to keep Atlanta safe, honor a murdered hero, and host the tens of thousands who came to pay tribute.
On April 9, 1968, 150,000 mourners took part in a daylong series of rituals honoring King—the largest funeral staged for a private U.S. citizen. King’s funeral was a dramatic event that took place against a national backdrop of war protests and presidential politics in a still-segregationist South, where Georgia’s governor surrounded the state capitol with troops and refused to lower the flag in acknowledgment of King’s death. Award-winning journalist Rebecca Burns delivers a riveting account of this landmark week and chronicles the convergence of politicians, celebrities, militants, and ordinary people who mourned in a peaceful Atlanta while other cities burned. Drawing upon copious research and dozens of interviews— from staffers at the White House who dealt with the threat of violence to members of King’s family and inner circle—Burns brings this dramatic story to life in vivid scenes that sweep readers from the mayor’s office to the White House to Coretta Scott King’s bedroom. Compelling and original, Burial for a King captures a defining moment in America’s history. It encapsulates King’s legacy, America’s shifting attitude toward race, and the emergence of Atlanta as a new kind of Southern city.
former SNCC leader; and the Reverend Sam Williams, the lion of Friendship Baptist Church. A convoy of police cruisers pulled up, and Mayor Ivan Allen, Vice Mayor Sam Massell, police captain Morris Redding, and Ann Moses, Allen’s longtime executive assistant, got out. The mayor walked through the crowd, sympathetically shaking hands. Allen paused in front of the cluster of reporters and took a few questions. The mayor told the gathered press he had two concerns: helping the King family and
of the Los Angeles Times noted, Abernathy delivered an “impassioned inaugural speech” in his debut as SCLC head. Building on the biblical reference to Moses and the mountaintop in King’s final speech, Abernathy called himself “Joshua” and said, “We are bound for the Promised Land. I am not going to lead a short distance, I am going to lead all the way.”* After the end of the march, the King group and SCLC staff headed back to Atlanta as quickly as possible. The orderly planning had not been
is Ralph Abernathy,” the minister called. What is he doing? Charles Black wondered. Abernathy called again. “My friends, my friends—” “Hey, get off my hearse!” yelled a funeral-home employee. “Who’s your leader now? I am!” Abernathy shouted again, “Who’s your leader now? I am!” He tried several times to get a cheer going, but the crowd mostly ignored him. Reporter Paul Hemphill, standing nearby, watched as the hearse’s driver grabbed at Abernathy’s calves and ankles, attempting to pull him
nonviolence so that this country will not be run asunder by a frustrated segment of the black masses who would blaspheme the name of Martin Luther King by committing violence in that name.” As he listened to the prayer, Ivan Allen, seated next to his wife, Louise, in a front-row pew just behind Vice President Humphrey, anxiously looked around. The mayor wished he could be out on the street, checking on policing efforts. Inside, the church was oppressive; outside, he knew, along with the crowds
would be joined by many more; police predicted today’s crowd would reach 150,000 by noon. That mass of grieving humanity would move down Central Avenue—right between the church and the capitol, and right behind the coffin of Martin Luther King Jr. The mayor turned from the window and walked out of his office. In the anteroom a few staff members manned phone lines. Everyone appeared subdued, exhausted after five days and nights of anxiety. In 110 other cities, the reaction to King’s April 4