Free at Last
At age 26, Martin Luther King Jr. was thrust into civil-rights leadership in Montgomery, Alabama, after Rosa Parks had made her courageous stand not to move to the back of the bus. A group of blacks, formed by the community to lead a bus boycott, chose King as a compromise candidate to lead their moral crusade.
Immediately, King was besieged with threats. The Klan gave him three days to leave town. He spent a night in jail for driving 30 mph in a 25-mph zone. A bomb exploded on his front porch. But it only made him stronger.
On April 3, 1968, King was in Memphis, Tennessee, speaking to a capacity crowd at Mason Temple about the climate of racial hatred. His closing words were, "I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land."
At 6:01 the following evening, King was struck in the face by a rifle bullet as he stood on the balcony outside of room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. He was rushed to St. Joseph's Hospital and pronounced dead at 7:05.
Martin Luther King Jr. believed in non-violent protest of racial injustice. It cost him his life.
Racial disturbances (rioting) broke out that night in Detroit, Chicago, Boston, New York, Newark, Trenton, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Nashville, Kansas City, Oakland, Memphis and elsewhere.
On April 5 President Johnson called out 4,000 federal troops to quell the rioting in Washington. Twenty thousand Army and 34,000 National Guardsmen had been ordered to anti-riot duty. And I was right in the middle of it all.
April 12, 1968, was my scheduled discharge date from the U.S. Army. I was stationed at Fort MacPherson in the city of Atlanta, Georgia. However, King's funeral was to be conducted on April 9 in Atlanta. My plans to become a civilian once again were temporarily put on hold. The entire world, including the Army, expected massive outbreaks of chaos during or shortly after the ceremony. Instead of packing to go home, I was in combat gear, practicing bayonet thrusts, wondering how much live ammo would be distributed for riot control.
Lester Maddox, an outspoken racist who once chased blacks out of his restaurant by passing out axe handles to his white patrons, was the governor at the time. He was furious that flags at state buildings in the capitol of Atlanta, and elsewhere, were at half-mast the day of the funeral. Surrounded by 200 armed state agents, he proceeded to personally hoist the two flags back up, but backed off when the major TV networks showed up to record the action. This added mayhem gave those of us standing by with bayonets an extra sense of anticipation.
The funeral service was held in Ebenezer Baptist Church. King's casket was placed on an old farm wagon, with steel-rim, wooden-spoke wheels. Thirty thousand marchers were sent ahead to start the procession. An estimated 200,000 mourners took part in the procession that eventually passed directly in front of the Capitol.
Lester Maddox, along with 160 helmeted troopers and 40 enforcement officers from other state agencies, remained inside the statehouse. There were eight armed men at each entrance. Maddox had given them the following orders: "If they should go so far as to break through the locked doors, then start shooting and don't stop until they are stacked so high above the threshold the followers would be unable to climb over them."
The procession passed by solemnly and the funeral occurred without incident.
Three days later, I was discharged from the Army and re-entered the real world. The structured insanity of the military was replaced by the self-destructive insanity of civilian life. One nightmare replaced the other.
Coretta King, King's widow, had spoken at the Memphis rally her husband was to attend on the evening of his death. She urged everyone to carry on, adding, "How many men must die before we can really have a free and true and peaceful society? How long will it take?"
Monday, January 20, is Martin Luther King Jr. Day -- an occasion to honor the man and also honor his message.
How long will it take?