Three people with direct ties to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reflect on his murder 50 years ago.
BY MICHAEL LIVINGSTON
LOS ANGELES TIMES / TNS
Xernona Clayton remembers Coretta Scott King being unable to tell her children their father was dead.
Abraham L. Davis remembers the vast crowds at the funeral.
And Lawrence G. Campbell remembers a memorial service that left mourners more determined to continue the struggle for civil rights.
All three had connections to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and, like millions of Americans, his assassination on April 4, 1968, was seared into their memories.
On the 50th anniversary of his death, Clayton, Davis and Campbell reflected on how they learned the terrible news and what happened next.
Ignored the message
Clayton, a civil rights activist, was dining at an Atlanta restaurant when a waitress brought a note to her table. Clayton, not realizing it was urgent, ignored it and continued with her meal until the woman came back.
“I hate to interrupt,” Clayton recalled her saying, “but I got the news that some harm had been done to King in Memphis.”
Davis was asleep in his Atlanta apartment when the sound of his neighbor’s television woke him up. It was a news report.
“I kept hearing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and his birth date. As soon as I turned my TV on, it showed King’s picture, his birthdate and the day’s date,” said Davis, 79. “That day is deeply etched in my memory. The next day was very solemn in Atlanta.”
Like King, Davis had attended historically Black, all-male Morehouse College in Atlanta. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. graduated in 1948, 13 years before Davis. Davis had been a political science professor at Morehouse College for a year when the assassination happened.
Kept the kids
Clayton called the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. home in Atlanta, but the phone lines were busy. She drove to the house, arriving just as Coretta was leaving for the airport with Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. accompanied by a police escort. Coretta asked Clayton to stay with Coretta’s parents and children.
“When she got to the airport, she got the message that King had died,” Clayton said. Coretta chose not to fly to Memphis and went back to her children. When she arrived, the King house on Sunset Avenue was surrounded by people well-wishers, reporters, neighbors.“She was such a gracious lady,” Clayton said of Coretta. “She thanked everyone for their interest and concern.”
Clayton, 88, had grown close to the King family through organizing events and marches for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Clayton was present when King’s widow received phone calls from President Lyndon B. Johnson and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. She was there as Coretta tried speaking to her children.
Couldn’t tell them
“Coretta did not tell the kids right away that he had died,” Clayton said. “Coretta told the kids, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been hurt. She couldn’t give them the truth just yet.”
Dexter, King’s second son, pleaded for more information about his father. “What will I tell my friends at school tomorrow?” he asked. Coretta told Dexter he wasn’t going to school the next day. “I think your teacher will understand,” she said.
Clayton also recounts witnessing ascene with Coretta and her first daughter Yolanda, then 13. They were sitting together on a bed in Coretta’s room. “Mommy, we’re not going to cry because we’re big girls and we can handle this,” Yolanda told her mother. “I know you loved him and he loved you. The love will sustain us. We’re not gonna cry at all.”
Despite the brave words, mother and daughter wept.
The day after King’s assassination, Coretta did travel to Memphis on a plane arraigned by Sen. Kennedy. She returned to Atlanta with King’s body to prepare for two funerals on April 9.
Campbell and his wife, Gloria, attended the private viewing for family, friends and dignitaries at Ebenezer Baptist Church at 10 a.m.
Davis attended the afternoon public service at Morehouse College.
At a private viewing of King’s body, Clayton could not believe King looked so bad in his casket.
He “looked like someone grabbed a whole glob of red clay and slapped it across his face,” Clayton said. She was appalled that King would be seen this way by thousands of people.
“We all wanted him to look good, look natural and like himself,” she said. “I eased over to the mortician and asked if there was anything you can do to tone down that face. The mortician said, ‘The jaw was blown off! That’s the best I could do.’”
Fixing MLK’s face
Growing desperate, Clayton mixed together face powder she borrowed from Coretta and Julie Robinson, then the wife of Harry Belafonte. She mixed the brown and white powder and applied it with a handkerchief.
“I was trying to make that mark blend in to look more natural. And it worked,” Clayton said.
She applied the mixture to King’s face three times: at the viewing with the family, at midnight before he was taken to the church and the morning before the private funeral service.
Saw the scar
Among those in the congregation was Campbell, who had met King when the civil rights leader traveled to Danville, Va., in 1963 to show solidarity with protesters who were brutally beaten by police officers on what has become known as Bloody Monday.
Campbell was co-founder and bishop of Bibleway Cathedral in the city. On June 10, 1963, around 40 protesters in Danville were arrested after marching to the municipal building to demand civil rights. Police went after them with billy clubs and fire hoses.
After King’s visit to Danville, Campbell and local leaders took him to a Holiday Inn in Greensboro, N.C. That’s when Campbell, now 88, saw a reminder of the perils King had faced – a scar on his chest.
Seven years earlier, at a book signing in Harlem, King was attacked by Izola Curry, who stabbed him with a letter opener. “He just chose to relax and when he took off his shirt, we could see it,” Campbell said of the scar.’
Campbell remembers how, during the service at Ebenezer Baptist Church, a recording was played of one of King’s signature speeches, “The Drum Major Instinct.” In that speech, King imagines his own funeral. Campbell said the speech had the effect King had intended. “It was not an atmosphere of death,” Campbell said of the funeral.
“We felt more confident we would overcome the situations before us. It was a feeling for me and others to rejoice, not because of his death but what he died for.”
‘Morehouse Men’ gather
King’s casket arrived at Morehouse after a three-mile procession and Davis remembers how younger mourners scrambled to view it. “I could see these youngsters climbing the trees so they could get a good spot,” Davis said.
Davis could hardly move in the crowded campus chapel, where the congregation listened to spirituals and then-college President Benjamin Mays deliver the eulogy. During his eulogy, Mays addressed the violence that erupted days after King’s assassination. Riots took place in several cities across the nation, leading to thousands of arrests and injuries, and dozens of people dead.
Mays ended with his eulogy with a call to action. “Permit me to say that Martin Luther King Jr.’s unfinished work on Earth must truly be our own,” he said.
Davis’s path had crossed with King’s twice before. He had met King during a protest orientation at an Atlanta church years before in the early 1960s and saw him at the March on Washington in 1963.
‘Raise your hand’
Years later, Davis would make another, more personal, connection with the King family. Davis taught Martin Luther King III in his political science classes at Morehouse. “He took more courses under me than any other professor in his major,” Davis said.
Another student had told Davis of King III’s presence, which was a surprise but also reflected family tradition: King’s father and brother also attended Morehouse.
“Martin Luther King, III, can you raise your hand?” Davis asked him in front of the entire class.