The day of King’s funeral through the eyes of Atlanta’s students, babysitters, drivers, wives, and volunteers
IMD&M is dedicated to elevating communities to new heights in the best way we can. There have been several icons in America’s history who took that ideal and lived it. We would never compare our role in our community to what Dr. Martin Luther King did: peaceful protest to promote the basic civil rights of millions in the face of viciousness. But we honor it today and every day.
Below is a little bit of a different take on the day then you’ll see anywhere else. We wanted you to be able to see what it was like to actually be at the funeral in April 1968. Then 21-year-old Dave Altman was one mourner among millions to attend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral in Atlanta. No matter what his personal feelings were, his role was to paint a picture of the moments around him as a reporter for the University of Cincinnati’s student newspaper The News Record
The headline was “Atlanta’s Biggest Story—Human Outpouring.” We hope this brief story brings some insight to your holiday.
By Dave Altman ATLANTA, April 9, 1968 — Stationed in the middle of the Atlanta airport last night were seven of eight white girls with Southern accents, all wearing SCLC badges. “We’re representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, can we give you any information about Dr. King’s funeral?”
“How can we find out about press facilities?” “That would be two levels up and to your right.” Upstairs—“Do you need housing during your stay in Atlanta … We can put both of you up in a private home near Emory College … You should be able to get a photographer at the school and…”
Only a few hours ago the body of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was buried at a small Negro cemetery founded in 1886 by Negroes who protested using back entrance of the city cemetery. On this simple note the eyes of the country turned from the recorded sermons, The King family, the Kennedys, and Atlanta. But an even bigger drama that started with those girls at the airport was not yet completed. The nearly all white Central Presbyterian Church will house over a thousand visitors tonight. SCLC courtesy cars will still take mourners to the airport and bus station. Thousands of meals will be donated to the visitors. The real story in Atlanta, and the great tribute to Dr. King’s memory, was the outpouring of humanity from guilt-torn southerners both black and white.
Typical of this reaction was Emory College, which became involved in the King funeral when the president of the student body, Sonny Deresso, called a meeting of interested students last Saturday. The initial call drew thirty-five of the school’s 8000 enrollment. They, in turn, called friends and soon a vast student organization was formed. Mike Herrington, Emory coordinator for the funeral, said that three divisions were set up – transportation, housing, and miscellaneous – and added “the administration let the students ‘push’ this thing. It was initiated by the students and run by them.” Harrington is a second year grad student in Philosophy and he, like all but ten or fifteen people at Emory, was not a member of the SCLC before the assassination. “I didn’t think we’d get the response we got and I was surprised at the quarters the response came from – it cut across all social divisions. But the greatest response came from the fraternities and sororities, exactly what we would suspect to be the most reactionary. They’ve opened up everything to help out with this.” “A sense of loss made me want to do something, I felt the need to just stand up and be counted even though I disagreed with some of his beliefs.”
Guilt was a factor with some. “Moderates have seen the need to make sure some things never happen again in the South,” Herrington said.
Liz Bradshaw, a Cincinnatian and a freshman at Emory, explained how she felt about King’s death. “I felt ashamed, not that I would pull the trigger. I was ashamed a white man would do it. Maybe this will end the passive acceptance of what has gone on before.” Liz had signed up to babysit for those who had to bring children to Atlanta.
Jonney Smeltzer, a fraternity man and a junior at Emory said he was helping “out of pure necessity.” “Dr. King was America’s conscience, our country will now experience some of its worse days,” he added.
Almost every Emory student noted a sense of guilt connected with the assassination. Some said that the fact that their school and city needed help motivated them to deal with the emergency. Hardly any had been disciples of King, all respected him. Like the area schools, area churches housed and fed thousands. Central Presbyterian Church was typical of the white churches that helped. It is located between Atlanta Stadium, where buses were arriving, and King Ebenezer Baptist Church. A SCLC courtesy car driver who had not slept in two days explained the human commitment, “Many who had supported King’s cause in a passive way had guilt feelings. My husband who is a little on the liberal side, went to a special meeting at the church and expected to contract the ‘wait and see’ attitude. But the very people he didn’t expect to respond called for the immediate commitment in writing to Ebenezer Baptist Church and Mrs. King.” The church provided bedding for 3000 people last night and fed thousands more. They are also erecting a bronze plaque in King’s memory — a tangible dedication to support his cause. Many at the funeral did not ever know of the efforts of the people to help in Atlanta. Ex-Cleveland Brown, Jimmy Brown, said he had not heard of any “humanitarianism,” but sneered “It’s real nice.” Others, like one militant at Emory, were cynical of “all those white and black hypocrites.”
The young Negro who had been coordinating SCLC efforts at the Atlanta airport summed up the consensus of those who had been involved. “The whole thing for me and for many has built up slowly. You begin to reconsider all thoughts you’ve been thinking about non-violence and everything he said while he was alive. Now that he’s dead it really comes home; it’s been kind of quiet, everybody works real hard and people seem to be thinking a lot and people have the a lot of drive and a lot of spirit but it’s not the kind of effort that a political campaign has because people are reconsidering all their thoughts quietly.
“Dr. King used to talk about people wanting to help but who are afraid; now people see that he’s put his life on the line and lost it. He put everything he could into it. People feel they have to do something to try to relate to the kind of feeling he’s given us. Guilt was a factor motivating both black and white … White people because of the racism that’s in American society and blacks because they tend to feel they hadn’t done enough and he’d done so much – so they just got out and they worked … it’s really kind of good.” –
This article originally was printed in the April 12, 1968 edition of the University of Cincinnati The News Record