“The cemetery is too small for his spirit, but we commit his body to the ground. The grave is too narrow for his soul, but we commit his body to the ground. No coffin, no crypt, no vault, no stone can hold his greatness, but we commit his body to the ground.”
- Dr. Ralph Abernathy
Most of us know about the life and death of the great Martin Luther King Jr., but many do not know any of the events that took place around his funeral and memorial services. Today, in honor of the life of MLK, we will unwrap history to peer into the ceremonies that laid to rest a giant of the civil rights movement.
On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis Tennessee where he had been leading a strike of garbage collection workers. News of the murder created much unrest and emotion in a country that was already tumultuous. Deadly riots took place between the day of the murder and the day of the funeral.
After King was pronounced dead, a local funeral director, Robert Lewis Jr. was contacted. Lewis had coincidentally met King just two days prior to his death. The funeral director retrieved his body and started the preparations for the viewing.
Some of the details of his funeral preparations are less well known. The governor of Georgia, Lester Maddox viewed Dr. King as an “enemy of the country” and refused him a state funeral. For those who aren’t familiar with this concept, a state funeral or lying in state is a funeral ceremony held in honor of someone who had national significance. Rather than honoring Dr. King, Maddox stationed 64 riot-helmeted state troopers at the steps of the state capitol in Atlanta to protect state property. He also initially refused to allow the state flag to be lowered at half-mast, but was compelled to do so when told that the lowering was a federal mandate.1
The first service was held at a Memphis funeral home, then King’s body was transported to Georgia for the three services held in Atlanta. The first service was privately held at Ebenezer Baptist Church where King’s widow, Coretta, Scott King requested that his last sermon at the church be his eulogy. Below is an excerpt from an article published in Atlanta on April 9th, 1968.
“His voice, tape recorded early in February, rang through the church. Dr. King said to tell the man who eulogized him ‘not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize - that isn't important.’
‘If you want to,’ the ghostly voice said, ‘say that I was a drum major. Say that I was a drum major for justice.’ Most of the congregation burst into tears.
‘Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all the other shallow things will not matter.’ ”2
Following the private service, King’s casket was loaded onto a simple wooden cart harnessed to two donkeys. From there, the procession of over 100,000 people began. The Atlanta police limited their involvement with the services so the Southern Christian Leadership Council had to arrange for their own security to manage the crowds.
There was a mixture of white and black folks, silence and singing on that four mile march to Morehouse College. During that last memorial, Dr. King was eulogized by the college president, Benjamin Mays who called King “a prophet for the 20th century” and a “champion of all.”
At the end of the day, Dr. King’s body was laid to rest in Southview Cemetery, a century old cemetery in southeast Atlanta. Many slaves as well as King’s maternal grandparents were buried there. As Dr. King said, “The quality, not the longevity, of one's life is what is important. If you are cut down in a movement that is designed to save the soul of a nation, then no other death could be more redemptive.”
1 Funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funeral_of_Martin_Luther_King_Jr.
2 UPI Archives http://www.upi.com/Archives/1968/04/09/Vast-throng-pays-King-last-tribute/2254143681508/