The Day the Earth Stood Still: Memphis, April 4, 1968

Jackson Baker’s account of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the immediate aftermath. Originally written April 5, 1968.



photograph courtesy of Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries

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Editor’s note: The following article, written the day after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, is by Jackson Baker, now a contributing editor of Memphis magazine and a senior editor of the Memphis Flyer, and then — until two days before the assassination — a reporter for the Arkansas Gazette (he had left the newspaper to take part in a political campaign). This account — which is unchanged and in the distinctive idiom of the Sixties — first appeared in the April 1993 issue of Memphis

 

Memphis, April 5, 1968

They left the casket open Friday morning at the R.S. Lewis Funeral Home, and two sorts of spectators came — mourners, mostly Negroes, in the worst phases of grief, and journalists, mostly white, with the curious, morally indifferent look of scavengers.

Martin Luther King’s own face was peculiarly almond brown in the bronze casket, almost a composite of his people’s many colors. The sniper’s bullet had caught him in the neck, but the wound was scarcely discernible, and his features, as many of the mourners remarked, were “peaceful.” Whatever ordeal the man had passed through on earth, someone said, it would not enter the grave with him.

The funeral home was on Vance Avenue, in the downtown Negro district (not far from the smashed and boarded store windows of Beale Street), where Dr. King was shot Thursday night as he leaned down from the balcony of the Lorraine Motel to chat with friends standing around on the motel’s parking lot.

Dressed in dark suits and weeping, several of Dr. King’s associates in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference stopped by Room 306 later in the morning to retrieve his personal belongings. There was a crowd in the parking lot — divided, as was the pattern all day, into stricken groups of Negroes and hordes of strangely undisturbed reporters.

The men left in two black limousines, and one of them, who leaned from a window of the lead limousine to shake the hands of commiserating Negroes, was identified as the Reverend A.D. King, the dead man’s brother. He looked for a very long time at a scruffy red brick building which was just beyond a clump of trees on the other side of Mulberry Street, some fifty yards off. Then, with a quick movement, he turned away, hiding his face in his hands. The assassin, one learned, had fired from the bathroom window of the building, a flophouse.

The journalists — representing every conceivable press service and most of the tribes of mankind — piled into their rented cars and followed the limousines to Memphis Municipal Airport, where, they were told, Mrs. King would arrive shortly in a plane lent her by Senator Robert Kennedy. She would be taking on her husband’s body and a party of mourners for the trip back home to Atlanta.

Admission to the landing area was by press card only, and a growing crowd of others — mostly Negroes — clamored in vain for access to the strip. One of them, a woman wearing an expensive-looking white cloth coat and a black velvet turban hat, beseeched any journalist who would listen for help. She and about twenty other women clustered in the lobby were members of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Mrs. King’s own, and they wanted the widow to receive a “personal message,” explained the woman in the turban hat.

But temporarily only the journalists occupied the terrain, and they were herded from one part of the strip to another by crash-helmeted Memphis police. The police, carrying riot sticks, were soon joined by others with rifles and machine guns, and were further reinforced by a squad of National Guardsmen and several state troopers.

Before long, the Negroes in the terminal building had managed to infiltrate the crowd of journalists, and, as time went by and still the plane did not appear, their numbers grew. One of the Guardsmen, a ruddy-complexioned youth of perhaps 18, trembled as he stood at parade rest, the fixed bayonet of his rifle glistening in the sun.

Meanwhile, the woman with the black velvet turban hat had materialized and had cornered a reporter for an overseas press service. He took notes as she orated about Alpha Kappa Alpha. “Did you know, nationally, that’s the prestige sorority among Negroes?” “No, I didn’t,” the man said, entering the fact in his notebook.

Abruptly, before the plane was seen, there was the roar of its engines, and the peacekeepers moved the crowd off the apron altogether, across a driveway and against the side of a hangar from which white paint was flaking off in large strips.

 

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