April 4-9, 1968, staging MLK Jr.'s funeral and keep peace in Atlanta
November 8, 2014 5:09 PM   Subscribe

Funeral: An oral history of the remarkable behind-the-scenes effort to stage Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 funeral and keep peace in Atlanta while 110 other cities burned. Memories from people who were directly involved, from Carl Sanders, the former governor of Georgia, and Xernona Clayton, who organized events for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), to Bernice or Bunny King, the youngest King child, and June Dobbs Butts, a friend of King's since childhood who flew home to Atlanta from New York to attend the funeral. (From Atlanta magazine)

Additional information and links:
posted by filthy light thief (17 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Funeral Procession for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Thousands of people follow the casket as the body of Martin Luther King is brought to the memorial service.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:11 PM on November 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mayor: Notes on the Sixties, by Ivan Allen, better than any other work, explains the peace in ATL.
-- The city's history as a transport & distribution center opened it to greater international influence than, say, Birmingham or Chattanooga.
-- Consequently its capitalist class, though inconsistent, recognized what was coming. Allen & R Woodruff of Coke visited Richard Rich to explain why he had to desegregate his famous department store: "Dick, this train is coming, and you're getting on board." He did.
Meanwhile, Allen explains, the white millionaires cultivated a class of black 'capitalists,' which included a few bankers and insurance men, as well as barbers.
Did it work? Atlanta, the capital of the CR movement, saw relatively few marches and demonstrations, including after MLK's death.
What it did see was the rise of Black politicians, led by Maynard Jackson, who quickly confirmed the white business confidence in him by smashing a virtually all-Black garbage strike. A few years later the first Black mayor fired the last Klan police chief (overcoming an armed standoff in the chief's office). But these are out of scope. Read Mayor.
posted by LonnieK at 5:53 PM on November 8, 2014 [9 favorites]

This was a fantastic oral history and a fantastic post as a whole. Thank you.
posted by rollbiz at 8:39 PM on November 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

First thing I did was check the byline on that first link and sure enough, Rebecca Burns put this together. If you're reading about Atlanta from outside the state, chances are you've encountered her reporting. She's one of the most important voices in Atlanta right now.

Thanks for posting, I hadn't seen this one.
posted by Maaik at 8:40 PM on November 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

There are fascinating details in this article that I never knew. It's a very Atlanta story. These two quotes from Xernona Clayton made me chuckle, So my driver became this high-ranking official, who was white. The labor commissioner of Georgia was chauffeuring this black woman around on the night of the death of Martin Luther King, and, It was a marvelous thing, everyone coming together. I don’t think anybody paid for food in this city for two or three days. So Atlanta.

On the other hand, they made sure to point out on the news the other night that the Atlanta Police are all geared up and ready to bust some heads if people "riot" because the grand jury in Ferguson declined to indict Darren Wilson. Sometimes I feel like we came so far here, and now have gone too much of the way back.

Thanks for posting this, flt.
posted by ob1quixote at 9:41 PM on November 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

As ob1quixotesays, this is a very Atlanta story. As a member of Central Presbyterian now, everyone marks the events of that week, in which the church housed and fed people from all over the country, as changing the congregation forever, from a group of white people downtown who felt bad but had not wanted to get involved in things to modernly a diverse congregation that is at the heart of social justice work in the city.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:54 AM on November 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the post, it brought back a lot of memories.

The summer of 1968 was the summer between my two years at the local community college and moving on to the university. I had been making plans to spend that summer in Miami. I had grown up in Jackson, Michigan and had seldom traveled, we just couldn't afford it. My world needed to be bigger and my sister and brother-in-law (he was a hotel manager) offered to let me spend the summer with them, he even offered to find me a job for the summer.

On June 6th, 1968, with a 10 year old VW Beatle packed and ready to go, I left my last class and headed south. Driving by myself, with the goal of being in Miami in 24 hours, I drove late into the night.

Somewhere in the mountains of northern Georgia I picked up yet another radio signal, the signals came and went quickly in the days of only local AM stations. I learned that Robert Kennedy had been shot.

I had already spent two months trying to parse King's assassination, and what it meant to a kid from Jackson who never met a black person until he was 13 years old, the next 12 hours, driving alone, attempting to factor in the shooting of Robert Kennedy was confusing at best, demoralizing at times.

We move on... we always do... My brother-in-law, as promised, got me a job. I was to be a bellman at the Fontainebleau Hotel. The hotel was the Headquarters for the 1968 Republican Convention, I was working midnights, from 12 AM until 8 AM I was meeting the overnight needs of politicians and movie stars, news personalities and hookers.

I watched as they shot the Today show from the hotel lobby every day during the convention. I watched as movie stars and Senators left the hotel bar at 4 am with fabulous looking prostitutes. I saw John Wayne and Richard Nixon.

The Poor Peoples Campaign arrived in Miami during the convention. Ralph Abernathy was leading the movement. Honestly... I had a bit of difficulty understanding how the leaders of the "Poor People's Campaign" were able to stay in one of the best rooms of the Fontainebleau Hotel, that part just didn't make sense to me (being 20 years old and tragically unsophisticated).

One night, at 2 in the morning, after convention events had wound down, there was a call from Abernathy's room, an order of three or four bottles of expensive liquor and glasses. I was up to take that call... The head bellman, a bit reluctant to send me to that room, reminded me that we had all been told to take extra care with any order sent to Abernathy's room. The hotel wanted to assure that there was no sense of discrimination in the service provided. Understandable, during that entire summer the group in that room were the only African American guests that I was aware of, I suspect it didn't happen often, and we were, after all, deep in the south.

I picked up the order at the bar, walked across the huge marble floored lobby and took the elevator up to the room. I knocked, the door was opened, and there I was, a skinny white kid from a small town in Michigan, in a room with the leaders of the civil rights movement, along with one very well known basketball player.

The cost of that liquor was substantial, the tip should have been as well. I put the order down on a table and stood there quietly, waiting for the tip.

Eventually Abernathy looked at me, he seemed a bit puzzled as to why I was still there...

"The boy's waiting for a tip.", someone finally said, at which point someone reached into their pocket and handed me a quarter. I stared at the quarter for only a few seconds, looked up, said "Thank you", and left the room.

I thought about that for a long time, I think I eventually decided that, after all, they were with the "Poor People's" campaign, perhaps that's all they could afford, and I let it go.

There is always some advantage to being a bit naive.
posted by HuronBob at 4:44 AM on November 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

Sorry, despite living in the US some of the subtleties still escape me. What is the significance of tipping someone a quarter? USBLS CPI-based inflation calculator says a 1968 quarter had the buying power of 1.71 in 2014, and I assume liquor for an entire room costs more than 8-17 in 2014 USD, so I get that this is a small tip. Is the implication that they were unwilling to give money to you because you were white?

I also found this survey which reports that black people in the US generally tip less than white people. But I assume this wasn't just a story corroborating a general pattern in tipping.
posted by d. z. wang at 6:18 AM on November 9, 2014

d.z. wang...

You would have to ask them what the significance of the small tip was...I wasn't in the head of the person that made that decision.
And, obviously, I still don't have a clue as to what the intent was.. For me, at the time, it was another data point of confusion around politics, race, power and poverty.
posted by HuronBob at 6:29 AM on November 9, 2014

Oh, I see. Sorry, for some reason I thought there was a clear message which I just didn't have the cultural context to interpret. Never mind, then.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:54 AM on November 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Boston avoided riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. by taking advantage of an already scheduled James Brown concert. The mayor Kevin White not only encouraged Brown not to cancel the concert, but offered money out of his petty cash fund to get the concert simulcast on local public TV and radio. You can see the concert on YouTube under the title, James Brown: Live at Boston Garden.
posted by jonp72 at 1:04 PM on November 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

HuronBob: like d. z. wang, I'm trying to understand your anecdote and why you brought it to this thread. Several obvious responses I can think of:

1) They were staying at the Fontainebleau because it was a hotel where black people would even be allowed to stay (and it sounds like even that was a rare occurrence).

2) Given just how recently the assassination of Dr. King had occurred, they were probably looking for a hotel with indoor corridors and decent security that they were unlikely to find elsewhere.

3) An awful lot of the Civil Rights Movement involved sleeping on floors of churches. These were not people accustomed to great creature comforts. Maybe they had a lot going on and needed a safe, comfortable place to hold meetings as well as sleep.

4) You don't say (and likely didn't know) who else was in the room other than Dr. Abernathy, or who ordered the alcohol. They may have been hosting guests, such as white politicians.

5) For black folks working in the US South at the time, a quarter was likely the tip they were used to. And they may have never been in a position to tip a white person in their lives.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:04 PM on November 9, 2014

Okay, I just googled because I was curious. The night Dr. King was assassinated, he and Dr. Abernathy were sharing that room at the (really crummy) Lorraine Motel. Seems to me that Dr. Abernathy had every reason to stay at a nice hotel with indoor corridors and better security after seeing his friend murdered in front of him and knowing he could have been killed as well.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:07 PM on November 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

hydropsyche... The only person I recognized, besides Abernathy, was Bill Russell, if I recall there were two other people, both African Americans present, it was 2 am.

You make some good points regarding security, that never crossed my mind.

The the bill for the order I took to the room was nearly $200, an appropriate tip would have been in the $20, and Abernathy knew that was the case. Note that "Abernathy began his professional career in 1950, when he was appointed Personnel Director at Alabama State University; he later assumed the position of Dean of Men and Professor of Social Studies and Mathematics. During this period, he hosted a radio show and became the first black man on radio in Montgomery. In 1951, he became the Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church, the largest black church in Montgomery, Alabama, where he served for ten years" (Wikipedia) He was not a poor man.

As to why I brought this account to this thread. The link in the FPP about the Poor Peoples March brought it to mind, so I shared it.
posted by HuronBob at 3:20 AM on November 10, 2014

Not being poor and being white are two very different things, to this day, and they were obviously incredibly different in 1968. For instance, Alabama State University's existence allowed the continued segregation of the University of Alabama, and it's black faculty and staff were paid considerably less than their white counterparts at other schools. I doubt that there were a lot of white service employees at an HBCU or anywhere in Montgomery.

Do you think a room full of white Republican politicians attending the convention would have tipped a black busboy $20?
posted by hydropsyche at 4:43 AM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do you think a room full of white Republican politicians attending the convention would have tipped a black busboy $20?

That's a very good question... You're probably right in your assumption. Of course, I doubt that a room full of white republican politicians would have tipped a skinny white kid $20 either...

Your points are well taken...
posted by HuronBob at 5:31 AM on November 10, 2014

Thanks, HuronBob. I apologize for coming on a little strong. The Poor People's Campaign was quite literally what Dr. King died for, and it turns out I have pretty strong feelings about it and Dr. Abernathy, too.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:37 AM on November 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

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