“In the heat of Atlanta’s April, a Baptist preacher was honored and buried…in irony and agony consistent with his life and death,” begins WWD’s coverage of the April 1968 funeral of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The agony was evident on the faces of Coretta Scott King, his widow, their daughter Bernice and almost everyone either in attendance or watching the televised occasion. But the irony of how much of a spectacle this remembrance became — the remembrance of a man who supported organized, peaceful change — was particularly palpable to the people there.
The crowd included Jacqueline Kennedy, Wilt Chamberlain, Floyd Patterson, Bobby Kennedy and — interestingly enough — Stokely Carmichael, among others. They entered Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King had been brought up, through a crushing crowd and cheers and gasps.
“How in the name of God people come here and cheer celebrities I don’t know,” one man said. At one point, things were so out of control that Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, who was to succeed King as the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, climbed atop the hearse itself to ask the crowd to please move back. Later, a crowd of people stood on top of a Cadillac to get a better view, and the car’s roof caved in.
But amidst the shallow attempts to get a glimpse of the headliners was a very deep sadness and anger. King, a decided pacifist, was often criticized by others in the civil rights movement for being too soft. “They killed the wrong man,” one man said. “Love didn’t work. It’s gonna take some violence now to make these people understand.” So, the opening to Abernathy’s eulogy, broadcast over a loudspeaker perched atop the church, was apropos: “Where do we go from here, chaos or community?”
After his speech and several songs, a procession began from Ebenezer Baptist, passed the Georgia state capitol and ended at Morehouse College. There, Abernathy was joined at the podium by then-Presidential nominee Robert Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney and John Lindsay to speak about Dr. King. By the time King’s casket actually arrived at the cemetery, his funeral had been going for nearly seven hours. He had famously said in February of that year, “I don’t want a long funeral….I want you to say I tried to love and serve humanity.”
According to WWD’s reporter, it took a lot of time to say that.