Sorrow in the Spring: Memories of Dr. King’s Memorial

As I write of the memorial services for Martin Luther King, Jr., we’re in a similar crisis today, as Ferguson, Missouri, joins the ranks of Memphis, Watts, Selma and far too many other locations where our nation’s racism has given us a shameful record of violations of human rights.
The spirit takes flight. Art by Christa Occhiogrosso

The spirit takes flight. Art by Christa Occhiogrosso

 

by C. Tom Ross

April 4, 1968, was a time of crisis for the United States. A large part of the national crisis was the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I was living in Atlanta at the time, where I was teaching at historically black Clark College, now merged with Atlanta University.

As I write of the memorial services for Martin Luther King Jr., we’re in a similar crisis today, as Ferguson, Missouri, joins the ranks of Memphis, Watts, Selma and far too many other locations where our nation’s racism has given us a shameful record of violations of human rights. I’m reminded of two lines from a poem I had long since forgotten:

When will the warring legions pass,

and all the strife of caste and class?

Services began in the morning at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King and his father had preached for many years. This was an event for friends, family and dignitaries. Television coverage showed a crowd of people, including Robert and Ted Kennedy, entering the church.

The afternoon ceremonies were to be held on the beautiful campus shared by Morehouse College, Dr. King’s alma mater, and Atlanta University. That campus, with a vast expanse of green grass and flowers, is especially scenic in spring.

I got there early, and found a vantage point with both a northerly and easterly view. Looking north, I could see West Fair Street where the parade from Ebenezer Baptist Church came from downtown. Looking east, I could see rows of seats in front of the podium which faced west from Chestnut Street SW. Looking north, I watched the parade of mourners, which followed the flag-draped mile cart bearing the casket of Dr. King.

The seats facing the podium were quickly filled and many people had to stand behind the seats. One black man, in slacks and short-sleeved sport shirt, perhaps having traveled from a great distance, lay stretched out on the grass. I felt he was a perfect symbol of how tragedy can exhaust people, especially after centuries of oppression.

Dr. Benjamin Mays, president-emeritus of Morehouse College, gave the eulogy, very eloquent and insightful about both those who loved and those who hated Dr. King.

I then considered how much we had lost when Dr. King died. A portion of that loss was driven home to me about eleven months earlier, as Dr. King addressed the “Hungry Club,” a periodic luncheon at the downtown Atlanta YMCA.

Around the venue were printed defenses of Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, given only a month before. To answer critics of that address, various paragraphs were headed: “Has he the knowledge… ?” “Has he the right … ?” “Has he the authority … ?”

For me, Dr. King answered those questions when he said that, although our government leaders say we’re fighting communism, the U.S. State Department knows that only 25 percent of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam are actual members of the Communist Party. Besides being a brilliant strategist of nonviolent protest, Dr. King was a great “whistle blower.”

Today I am grateful for the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His life is a treasured part of the heritage of all the world’s people.

*******

Eulogy for Martin Luther King

by Benjamin Mays

Editor’s Note: After funeral services were held for Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Ebenezer Baptist Church, King’s mahogany coffin was born to Morehouse College on a farm wagon pulled by two mules. There, Benjamin Mays, the school’s 70-year-old president emeritus, delivered a final eulogy on April 9, 1968.

The following excerpt from the eulogy of Benjamin Mays, delivered only five days after the assassination of his close friend, displays Mays’s profound understanding of the principled commitment to nonviolence and the unwavering courage that enabled Rev. Martin Luther King to play such a prophetic role in the struggle against racism, war and poverty.

An Excerpt from Benjamin Mays Eulogy:

We have assembled here from every section of this great nation and from other parts of the world to give thanks to God that He gave to America, at this moment in history, Martin Luther King Jr. Truly God is no respecter of persons. How strange! God called the grandson of a slave on his father’s side, and the grandson of a man born during the Civil War on his mother’s side, and said to him: Martin Luther, speak to America about war and peace; about social justice and racial discrimination; about its obligation to the poor; and about nonviolence as a way of perfecting social change in a world of brutality and war.

Here was a man who believed with all of his might that the pursuit of violence at any time is ethically and morally wrong; that God and the moral weight of the universe are against it; that violence is self-defeating; and that only love and forgiveness can break the vicious circle of revenge. He believed that nonviolence would prove effective in the abolition of injustice in politics, in economics, in education, and in race relations. He was convinced, also, that people could not be moved to abolish voluntarily the inhumanity of man to man by mere persuasion and pleading, but that they could be moved to do so by dramatizing the evil through massive nonviolent resistance. He believed that nonviolent direct action was necessary to supplement the nonviolent victories won in federal courts. He believed that the nonviolent approach to solving social problems would ultimately prove to be redemptive.

Out of this conviction, history records the marches in Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, Chicago and other cities. He gave people an ethical and moral way to engage in activities designed to perfect social change without bloodshed and violence; and when violence did erupt it was that which is potential in any protest which aims to uproot deeply entrenched wrongs. No reasonable person would deny that the activities and the personality of Martin Luther King Jr. contributed largely to the success of the student sit-in movements in abolishing segregation in downtown establishments; and that his activities contributed mightily to the passage of the Civil Rights legislation of 1964 and 1965.

Martin Luther King Jr. believed in a united America. He believed that the walls of separation brought on by legal and de facto segregation, and discrimination based on race and color, could be eradicated. As he said in his Washington Monument address: “I have a dream.”

He had faith in his country. He died striving to desegregate and integrate America to the end that this great nation of ours, born in revolution and blood, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created free and equal, will truly become the lighthouse of freedom where none will be denied because his skin is black and none favored because his eyes are blue; where our nation will be militarily strong but perpetually at peace; economically secure but just; learned but wise; where the poorest — the garbage collectors — will have bread enough and to spare; where no one will be poorly housed; each educated up to his capacity; and where the richest will understand the meaning of empathy. This was his dream, and the end toward which he strove. As he and his followers so often sang: “We shall overcome someday; black and white together.”

Let it be thoroughly understood that our deceased brother did not embrace nonviolence out of fear or cowardice. Moral courage was one of his noblest virtues. As Mahatma Gandhi challenged the British Empire without a sword and won, Martin Luther King Jr. challenged the interracial wrongs of his country without a gun. And he had the faith to believe that he would win the battle for social justice. I make bold to assert that it took more courage for King to practice nonviolence than it took his assassin to fire the fatal shot. The assassin is a coward: He committed his dastardly deed and fled. When Martin Luther disobeyed an unjust law, he accepted the consequences of his actions. He never ran away and he never begged for mercy. He returned to the Birmingham jail to serve his time.

Perhaps he was more courageous than soldiers who fight and die on the battlefield. There is an element of compulsion in their dying. But when Martin Luther faced death again and again, and finally embraced it, there was no external pressure. He was acting on an inner compulsion that drove him on. More courageous than those who advocate violence as a way out, for they carry weapons of destruction for defense. But Martin Luther faced the dogs, the police, jail, heavy criticism, and finally death; and he never carried a gun, not even a knife to defend himself. He had only his faith in a just God to rely on; and the belief that “thrice is he armed who has his quarrels just.” The faith that Browning writes about when he says:

“One who never turned his back but marched breast forward, / Never doubted clouds would break, / Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph, / Held we fall to rise, and baffled to fight better, / Sleep to wake.”

Coupled with moral courage was Martin Luther King Jr.’s capacity to love people. Though deeply committed to a program of freedom for Negroes, he had love and concern for all kinds of peoples.

He drew no distinction between the high and low; none between the rich and the poor. He believed especially that he was sent to champion the cause of the man farthest down. He would probably say that if death had to come, I am sure there was no greater cause to die for than fighting to get a just wage for garbage collectors. He was supra-race, supra-nation, supra-denomination, supra-class and supra-culture. He belonged to the world and to mankind. Now he belongs to posterity.

Portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. Art by Christa Occhiogrosso.

Portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. Art by Christa Occhiogrosso.

 

 

The Real King is Dead

by C. Tom Ross

Conniving, deadly shots in Memphis.

Angry, desperate, despairing flames in Washington, D.C.,

and so many other cities,

And a cold, sullen rain in Atlanta.

I felt trapped in my white neighborhood

near Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. Almost wishing I hadn’t moved out

of my faculty apartment on a black campus.

Both wishing and fearing to share

the pain and anger of my African-American friends and students.

But thankful that I switched channels after the

callous words, “We now return to our regular programming.”

On another station, I heard these discerning words:

“I don’t care what other stations do.

We can’t possibly return to our usual schedule.

We’ll stay with this story for the duration.

Once again, if you’ve just joined us,

Dr. King was standing on the balcony of

the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, when he was shot.

He was taken to a local hospital. We have no word of his condition,

except that hospital spokesmen describe it as ‘serious.’

Dr. King was in Memphis to lend his support to garbage workers

in their prolonged strike against the city administration.”

Then the dreaded words came:

The greatest architect of nonviolent protest was dead.

Network commentators ironically lament: A man of peace,

a minister, has been tragically cut down.

They conveniently leave this out: the government,

which these broadcasters serve as mouthpiece,

the government is guilty, and not just guilty

of planning and firing the fatal shot.

I looked out the door of my apartment building.

I heard nothing but the droning rain,

and thought I heard a brief siren,

coming from some far corner of the city,

Perhaps the rain had vetoed a rebellion.

 

The King Lies in State

by C. Tom Ross

I followed the line up the short stairway

to the outside door of the Spelman College auditorium.

Inside was dark, except for one high spotlight,

shining on the open casket…

of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The casket was placed between the front row and the stage.

A man of Great stature, he looked short and small in death.

I heard him speak three times,

including the March on Washington in 1963,

but I never came close enough to shake his hand… till now.

More than a hundred well-dressed middle-class black mourners

were filing past, silent in mourning,

and I, one lonely white man,

with plenty of liberal guilt and grief,

I almost felt I should apologize for my presence:

“I teach at the college across the street.”

A disabled man, but lucky enough to be born with a skin color

that gave me the education for the best job I ever had,

but knowing my will to remain in this position … was ending.

A few weeks before, I heard a militant black man speak

from the pulpit of the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco.

He said: “The Liberal non-black American

has no place in the black community.

He should go back to his own non-black community,

and undertake the tremendous task of

civilizing the white community.”

 

Just a few months later, I heeded his call,

resigned my job, and moved to San Francisco.

But that day, in the darkened Spelman College auditorium,

I stood in the long slow line,

far in back, behind the last row of seats,

and one lady, looking down at Dr. King’s corpse,

screamed out … “Mercy Jesus!”

Then she trailed off in muffled sobs.

An island of honest feeling, in a sea of weary resignation.

That woman, with her white handkerchief,

was the only figure lighted up beside the still martyr.

She moved on, making way for others of the bereaved.

Many days, we who mourned made lines of courageous protesters.

But that day, we made lines of downcast, grieving hearts.

 

 

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