Free at Last
Monday, January 18, 2021, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the third Monday in January of each year.
In 1955, 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 Ku Klux 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.
In April of 1966, I was drafted into the U.S. Army (Vietnam Era) and stationed at Ft. McPherson, Headquarters of the Third Army, in Atlanta, Georgia, whereupon I was one of a half dozen data processing analysts, working night shift, supervised by a civilian employee, coding documents to be processed by computer.
On April 3, 1968, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) was in Memphis, Tennessee, speaking to a capacity crowd of striking garbage workers and others at Mason Temple about the climate of racial hatred.
King’s final words in his last speech were… “I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
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. He was 39 years old.
Racial riots broke out that night in over 100 cities, including Detroit, Chicago, Boston, New York, Newark, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Nashville, Kansas City, Oakland, Memphis, etc.
On April 5, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson called out 4,000 federal troops to quell the rioting in Washington DC -- plus, 20,000 Army and 34,000 National Guardsmen had been ordered to anti-riot duty elsewhere.
April 11, 1968, was my scheduled discharge date from the U.S. Army. However, King’s funeral was to be conducted on April 9 in Atlanta, just a few miles from Ft. McPherson. My expectations of becoming 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, Maddox 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. 30,000 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.
Governor 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.
Two days later, I was discharged from the Army and returned home to Minneapolis, where I kissed the ground and embarked on a new life once again.
The human conscience is eternal and will never die.
Quote for the Day – “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Bret Burquest is the author of 12 books. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a few dogs and has many memories of Atlanta, Georgia, in the mid 1960s.