A Funeral for a Man Named King

Martin Luther King Jr.

The writer of Ecclesiastes informs us that it is "better to go to a funeral than to a party; because this is the end of us all, and the living take it to heart" (Ecclesiastes 7:2).

Solomon's words offer glaring turths on two fronts: they speak to us about the certainty of life and death (one out of every one of us will die); and they challenge us to live in such a way that others would honor our life when we are gone.

In the first week of April, 1968, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis, Tennessee at the invitation of Reverend James Lawson. It was King's third trip; each time he raised his voice in support of the city's sanitation workers who were calling for fair pay and proper working conditions. King saw the more than 1,3000 worker sanitation strike as "phase two" of the Civil Rights Movement, which he argued was to address the growing economic divide between the rich and the poor, not only in Memphis, but within the nation as a whole; a nation filled with abundant resources.

King believed the "evil triplets" or racism, militarism, and poverty were a clear and present danger to not only the civil rights agenda but to the very soul and future of America. He asserted that "a society that has done something special against the Negro, must now do something special for him."1 That something, according to King, was not simply a redistribution of wealth but a revolution of values, where dignity of work demanded honorable pay, regardless of one's color.

On the evening of April 3, 1968, King was slated to attend a rally in support of the sanitation workers. Weary from travels and a slight head cold, King chose to not go to the rally, and sent his best friend and most trusted lieutenant, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, in his place. A violent rainstorm provided a fierce background for the evening, bringing tornado-level destruction in some parts of Memphis. Abernathy sensed the crowd's great disappointment when King did not appear alonside Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, and Andrew Young.2 Abernathy rushed to a phone in the lobby and informed King that this was a core group of sanitation workers who had "braved a night of hellfire to hear him, and the would feel cut off from a lifeline if he let them down."3 King's close confidant and friend urged him to reconsider, and he was easily swayed; Abernathy happily sent a car and driver to bring the 39-year-old civil rights leader to the rally.

By the time King stepped up to the pulpit, it was 9:30 p.m. local time. As he took center stage, the thundersorms reached a crescendo. But King's presence and words were far more powerful than a natural storm, their spirit consistent with the prophetic themes of justice and judgement seen in the sacred scriptures. On that rain-soaked April 3rd night, King covered a range of topics, including familiar sermonic riffs. He spoke of the battles and struggles of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington, and discussed the success of the Freedom Rides in the south. Additionally, this Baptist minister from two generations of preachers recalled his near-death experience on Septemeber 20, 1958, when he was stabbed by what he termed a "demented woman," who plunged a letter opener into his chest. The violent attack missed King's aorta by inches; the attending physicians later informed King that if he had merely sneezed, he would have died, drowining in his own blood.4

King shared with the audience that despite the constant threats against his life, including those related to his arrival in Memphis, he had an obligation to come and suppor the sanitation workers. He spoke with fervor and passion from the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help the bruised and battered Jewish man on the Jericho road. He risked his own safety, taking the question of: "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?," and offering a reversal: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" (Luke 10:25-37).

King presented his "I've Been to the Mountain" speech, in its best revival style; in a jubilant frenzy, the crowd celebrated King and praised God, as the Baptist preacher reached the crescendo of what would be his last sermon. He urged the crowd to remain committed to the work of freedom and justice regardless of what danger or uncertainty awaited them: "Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've some difficult days ahead. It really doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountain top."5

King asserted his preference to live a long life, but quickly pivoted to a higher devotion and his desire to just "do God's will." King stated that God had allowed him to see and experience a mountain top: "I may not get there with you," King called out, "but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. And so, I'm not worried about anything, I'm not fearing any man, my eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."6

At 39 years of age, King had less than 24 hours left on this earth. 

From sheer exhaustion, perhaps coupled with the gravity of that prophetic moment, King collapsed in his seat while his aides and the crowd rose to their feet, and the thousands gathered celebrated with hallelujahs, hand claps, and amens.

The next day, at the Lorraine Hotel, King bantered back and forth with Abernathy and his young disciple Jesse Jackson over who was or wasn't joining them for dinner that evening. Only minutes earlier King was in a full-on pillow fight in his room with his other disciple, Andrew Youn. Alongside Jackson was his friend, accomplished saxophonist and Memphis native Ben Branch. Branch played for Operation Breadbasket, an organization led by Jackson out of Chicago, dedicated to addressing the needs of the poor. King made a special request that Branch play King's favorite tune—a spiritual, "Precious Lord,"—for a gathering scheduled that evening. The reply: "Okay, Doc, I will." Temperatures were dropping and volunteer driver Solomon Jones suggested that King and the others bring their coats.

There was no reply.

Instead, "a shot [rang] out in the Memphis sky."7

King's life was taken by James Earl Ray; the assassin used a Remington Gamemaster deer rifle. The force of the bullet shattered King's lower jaw and spinal column, and tore off his necktie. He was rushed to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m.

On April 9, 1968, over 150,000 people descended on Atlanta, Georgia to honor the man who A. Philip Randolph once called "the greatest moral leader of our time." Days prior, a viewing was held at Sisters Chapel on the campus of Spelman College. Local residents made their homes available to complete strangers who came from all over the nation to grieve and pay their respects. Gathered inside Ebenezer Baptist Church were over 1,000 mourners. Outside, the crowd was ten times that number. Atlanta-based bottling company Coca-Cola gave away 16,000 bottles of Coke, while Krispy Kreme donated nearly 2000 doughnuts. Funeral attendees included the common as well as the celebrated.

King's leadership and influence were global, as well his impact on people from all walks of life. Political royalty was on display when he was laid to rest. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Senator Robert Kennedy attended. Only days earlier, the U.S. Senator placed a phone call to King's widow, offering his condolences and making a chartered private plane available for her to travel to Memphis to retrieve her husband's body (Kennedy even arranged for additional telephone lines to be placed in her her home to accommodate calls from would-be-well-wishers). Governors John Rockefeller (NY), George Romney (MI), and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall were on hand as well.

Lyndon Johnson did not attend.

Conflicting reports came out of Washington citing concerns for the president's safety as the primary reason why he did not. However, Johnson did call the grief-stricken widow in the aftermath of King's death. Additionally, he dispatched his Attorney General Ramsey Clark to the city of the crime, to bring to justice the person(s) responsible.8

Musical royalty, including Aretha Franklin, paid their respects and offered their tributes: Gospel great Mahalia Jackson sang. Harry Belafonte, a close confidant of King (who years earlier paid for a death policy to be taken out on King after he survived his frist assassination attempt) was there, visibly weeping. Sammy Davis Jr., Marlon Brando, Dick Gregory, and Paul Newman were there, too.

When King was laid to rest, the U.S. Stock Market stopped trading; it was the first time it had been closed for a private citizen. Longshoremen in seaports from the Atlantic to the Pacific and even the Gulf of Mexico (200,000 people in all) participated in a work stoppage in honor of King's death. Garment district workers suspended their labor; shops and restaurants in urban communities shut down; universities and colleges held vigils, from Morehouse and Spelman to Colombia nd Duke.

Noted writer James Baldwin arrived to honor King being laid to rest, wearing the same dark suit he'd only worn once before: a few months earlier when he and King were on the program together at Carnegie Hall. The acclaimed writer later stated that his tears seemed inadequate—he did all he could to keep from crying, for fear of not being able to stop. The church filled to capacity with mourners clothed in the weight of grief and pain; Baldwin proclaimed, "it was as if the heavens might crack."9 The choir offered the hymns, "Where He Leads Me, I Will Follow," and "Softly and Tenderly." A church deacon named Jethro English who had sung at King's wedding to Coretta Scott King, as well as at the wedding of King's parents, had trouble in offering his voice on that day.

At Coretta Scott King's request, King's own voice was heard: a recording was played of King's sermon, "A Drum Major Instinct"—given on February 4, 1968, exactly two months prior to the day King was killed. In that sermon, King "fiercely articulated the imperatives of faith and citizenship with the voice of a preacher who had mastered his art."10 King proclaimed that he had no desire to be remembered for anything commonly associated with greatness (money, fame, awards, success); but instead, desired to be remembered for how he "gave his life serving others"—as a drum major for justice.

King's casket was carried four miles by mule-led wagon, en route to his Alma Mater, Morehouse College, for another brief service. Civil rights activist and friend Hosea Williams, Coretta Scott King, and other members of King's inner circle felt such a gesture was consistent with the life and legacy of the slain leader: he was in touch with the poor, and labored on their behalf.

The heavens haled that day; but earth mourned the violent death of a man whose life was the antithesis of the manner in which we was taken. As we remember King, we not only remember how he lived but indeed how he died. It's been 53 years since he stood on that balcony in Memphis, yet violence is still among us: it's in our speech towards one another on social media, in our halls of Congress, in our universities and colleges, in our break rooms at work, in our pulpits, and even at our kitchen tables among family members. King's tragic death serves as an object lesson, for as King often stated: "an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind." May we honor him by choosing the pathway of peace, non-violence and compassion.

Written by Dr. Marcus "Goodie" Goodloe

Marcus "Goodie" Goodloe, Ph.D. is  Senior Fellow for Ethics and Justice Institute for Global Engagement at Dallas Baptist University.

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