A Little Life

Burial For a King

by Rebecca Burns

Overview: In the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, riots broke out in 110 cities across the country. For five days, Atlanta braced for chaos while preparing to host King’s funeral. An unlikely alliance of former student radicals, the middle-aged patrician mayor, the no-nonsense police chief, black ministers, white churchgoers, Atlanta’s business leaders, King’s grieving family members, and his stunned SCLC colleagues worked to keep Atlanta safe, honor a murdered hero, and host the tens of thousands who came to pay tribute.

On April 9, 1968, 150,000 mourners took part in a daylong series of rituals honoring King—the largest funeral staged for a private U.S. citizen. King’s funeral was a dramatic event that took place against a national backdrop of war protests and presidential politics in a still-segregationist South, where Georgia’s governor surrounded the state capitol with troops and refused to lower the flag in acknowledgment of King’s death. Award-winning journalist Rebecca Burns delivers a riveting account of this landmark week and chronicles the convergence of politicians, celebrities, militants, and ordinary people who mourned in a peaceful Atlanta while other cities burned. Drawing upon copious research and dozens of interviews— from staffers at the White House who dealt with the threat of violence to members of King’s family and inner circle—Burns brings this dramatic story to life in vivid scenes that sweep readers from the mayor’s office to the White House to Coretta Scott King’s bedroom. Compelling and original, Burial for a King captures a defining moment in America’s history. It encapsulates King’s legacy, America’s shifting attitude toward race, and the emergence of Atlanta as a new kind of Southern city.

Deanna Boe (12/11/17):This book is so well written that you almost feel as if you are right there, caught up in all the happenings when Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. This style of writing is unique and difficult to do. What is more amazing to me is how little I remember from that time, which is far from true when President Kennedy was assassinated. I was a consultant working for a publishing company in San Francisco. Were there riots in that city or elsewhere in California, I draw a blank. I find this embarrassing to admit. Was I prejudiced at that point of my life, I don’t think so, but I do know this book is highly worth reading. To think I now live in the city where King was born and was buried. It is especially interesting to read how little in 1968 integration had advanced, especially in the South. This April it will be 50 years since King was assassinated and one still has to wonder just how significantly our country has progressed in terms of intolerance. I have donated this book to my hometown’s library in Iowa. It is an easy and worthwhile book to read. I have chosen to simply write facts from the book to show what life was like before and up to 1968 in the South.

• The governor of Georgia, Maddox, said his death was inevitable since civil disobedience as practiced by King and his followers, “builds the foundation for launched disorder and lawlessness.” (Maddox believed in total separation of the races.) He refused to lower the flags in Georgia until it was a federal mandate. After the Civil Rights Act was passed he closed his restaurant so he wouldn’t have to serve his food to blacks.

• The first black police officers in Atlanta were hired in 1947. They were not issued guns nor could they arrest white people, nor were they allowed to use the same facilities to change their clothes. In the ‘60’s there were only 35 black policemen to 830 whites.

• First black elected to GA. State house since Reconstruction was in the Sixties.

• Ghetto conditions in major cities were condoned.

• In Atlanta black income was half that of whites; 57% of whites owned homes, only 19% of blacks; over ¾’s of whites owned cars, less than 1/3 blacks

• GA still had Jim Crow laws - black only restaurants, water faucets, had to sit in balconies of theaters, couldn’t use changing rooms in stores, separate schools and hospitals.

• Atlanta’s black population was 32% but forced to live in 16% of the city.

• Ivan Allen became Mayor of Atlanta in 1962 and he did try to promote Civil Rights. He showed it was to the businessmen’s self-interest to stop Jim Crow laws. They followed under duress.

• “Riots increase the fears of whites and relieve them of guilt.” King said weeks before he was assassinated. Unfortunately over 100 cities rioted after his death, but amazingly Atlanta was a “city of peace.”

• “White slaves killed King…..they were slaves of fear.”

• When Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Atlanta opened its doors to help after the assassination, Pastor Taylor concluded: “Grief and fear and guilt were at work.”

• The night before King was murdered; he had delivered a speech where he talked about his having seen the top of the mountain. At the funeral they played his next to the last sermon where he said: “Every now and then I think about my own funeral….what would I like said…yes, if you say I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice…for peace…for righteousness.”

• Thank goodness for Mayor Allen throughout all of this. He worked tirelessly to keep peace throughout the days leading up to the funereal. How amazing the city of Martin’s birth and became his final resting place did not riot. It adhered to Martin’s belief in non-violence, sad it wasn’t true elsewhere.

These are just a few points I gleaned while reading this book. But, I still shake my head to think I was so oblivious as to what was happening in the South to our fellow Americans simply because of the color of their skin. I would never have believed then I would have someday Asian daughters, a black son-in-law, a black/Asian grandson, nor an African grandchild from Ethiopia. I like to think life has changed in the United States – but has it?
Rating: *****

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