Much has and will be said of the killing of Martin Luther King, as the 50th anniversary of his assassination passes on this April 4. Much of what I have read, in settings from the New York Times to National Geographic and in nearly every news source today, focuses on what has, or hasn’t, changed in the time that has passed. A few pieces have addressed the transition that has transpired from King as a leader in a movement to an icon. These are a few of my thoughts I believe worth sharing.
I was born in Atlanta, the home of King’s church and of his protest movement. I was 14 when he was shot in Memphis. 1968 was already a tumultuous year with racial tension and escalating war protests. Every issue took on added importance, with an election coming in November. It was all a far cry from the summer of love a year before.
I had followed the news from an early age and remember well when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I felt a sense of pride at his recognition for all the symbolism that is added to the cause of civil rights, but I also listened to the cautionary commentary, here in the South and beyond, that King might be emboldened to push for greater change more rapidly. At 10, I wasn’t sure enough of my own convictions to ignore those who feared such change.
Atlanta’s mayor, Ivan Allen, had been the only Southern elected official to endorse the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and he promoted Atlanta as “the city too busy to hate,” not just in words, but in deeds. As King prepared to travel to Oslo to accept his prize, Allen planned a dinner in King’s honor, following his return. It was meant to include business and other leaders from Atlanta’s black and white communities together. It was to be integrated.
As the date for the dinner neared, most white leaders had not responded. Robert Woodruff, the former head of Coca-Cola, who was funding the dinner as one of his many charitable causes, took action. He personally contacted many of the invitees and encouraged Paul Austin, the then head of Coke to speak out. Austin, who had served the company in South Africa, publicly questioned whether the company should have its world headquarters in a town where King was not honored.
1600 attended the dinner in which King spoke. In time one of his young deputies, Andy Young, became Atlanta’s mayor. John Lewis still serves in Congress on behalf of the community.
The causes that King worked and died for remain incomplete, but John Lewis, quoted by CNN, spoke of them well when he said:
On the day of King’s death, Robert Woodruff called Mayor Allen. Threats of violence were spreading across the country. Knowing that Atlanta, as King’s home and a symbol for racial cooperation, risked rioting, Woodruff urged caution and pledged to pay for the costs of maintaining the peace.
Much will be said and written today in King’s memory, but much more remains to be done.