53 Years Ago: April 9, 1968
The Funeral of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
People of a certain age, people of my generation, are aware that in the years since his assassination, it is rarely mentioned that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was cut down nine months before he reached his fortieth birthday. As a young pastor, he had been with us since 1955, after being launched onto the world stage from Montgomery, Alabama, my hometown, by the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But by 1968, his leadership of the Civil Rights Movement had made him an internationally known figure, and he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Further on in his journey, he was at odds with the Johnson administration, dealing with persistent death threats and attempts on his life, as well as with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s sick obsession to expose and destroy him. At the time of his death, Dr. King and his SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) organization were in the process of organizing a protest against poverty in the nation, which was to take place in Washington DC. He had recently become a virulently outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. Telling a rapt audience at Riverside Church in New York that he was against the ill-conceived, unjust, and unwinnable war. In the powerful speech, he said:
“We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem…”
Ironically, the speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”, also frequently referred to as “the Riverside Church speech”, was delivered by Dr. King on April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated in Memphis.
A personal note: April 4, 1968, Cleveland, Ohio:
Late in my third pregnancy, after finishing an afternoon of shopping at Higbee’s Department Store, I left the infants department and searched for a pay phone to call my then-husband to come and pick me up. When my mother-in-law, who was babysitting my 4-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter, answered the phone screaming hysterically, I became deeply concerned and almost as hysterical as she sounded. Fearing that something had happened to my children, I pressed her to tell me what was wrong. She calmed down slightly, enough to say: “Lord have mercy, Child! They done shot Martin Luther King!”
Stunned and heartbroken hearing this news, I stepped out onto the sidewalk to wait for my husband. Moments later, with my thoughts scattering all over the place, and grief for our community setting in, I suddenly remembered an incident in my family several weeks previously involving my cousin Elnora Frazier-Lee and her husband Bernard Lee, who was Dr. King’s long-time aide and personal assistant. In early March 1968, our large extended family was in Montgomery to attend funeral services for my cousin, Hazel Frazier Pierce, Elnora’s sister. After the funeral and burial, our family was gathered in my Aunt and Uncle’s house on the outskirts of Montgomery. Bernard was preparing to go out on the road with Dr. King again, so he said to his wife, Elnora: “Don’t let me forget, we need to go to the bank before I leave so you’ll have enough money to get the kids Easter things before something else happens.”
Sadly, there was no way of knowing that “something else” would soon be waiting in Memphis.
With the vivid memory of Bernard’s words still reverberating in my mind, I tried to process the shocking news of Dr. King’s death. Pacing up and down the sidewalk in front of the large department store, I thought of his family and my cousins, and the ultimate fate of the black community without this dedicated leader. Then, the strangest thing happened. Suddenly, there was a loud, rolling, and ominous sound of thunder. Then, when I glanced upward, the sky turned pitch dark for several extended moments, and there was a stillness around me that I had never experienced before. Several other shoppers and pedestrians and passersby also stopped dead in their tracks and commented on the strange occurrence. This scene was unmistakably eerie and downright Biblical. Reminiscent of the post-Crucifixion scene in the 1959 epic religious movie, Ben-Hur. As Jesus Christ hangs lifeless from the cross, rolling thunder was followed by a violent, torrential rainstorm. This powerfully solemn image signaled that His purpose on earth was completed. As was Dr. King’s.
By the time Easter Sunday arrived on April 14th, the nation was in mourning and many cities with significant Black populations had exploded in violence.