Books - What happened after MLK died?
Rebecca Burns examines the week following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in her new book, Burial for a King
On Thursday, April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped out onto the balcony of a Memphis hotel and was killed by an assassin's bullet. The story typically ends there, with the slain civil rights leader on the ground, surrounded by blood-stained colleagues left to carry on his vision. Rebecca Burns' new book, Burial for a King, begins that day in Atlanta, as the news passes through restaurants and telephones, from radios and televisions, over symphonies and street corners, and ends as his body is laid in the ground the following Tuesday, April 9. Through enormous research and a careful narrative hand, Burns has crafted this week of history into a vivid, microcosmic moment. Spanning from Auburn Avenue in Atlanta to the mountains of South Vietnam, Burial for a King makes the reverberations of King's life and death feel raw and clear again.
After news of King's death broke, riots erupted almost immediately throughout the country. In Washington, D.C., "King's death was announced by radio at 8:19 that Thursday night, and by 9:25 rioters shattered the first window. By midnight, the fire department logged at least a hundred blazes," Burns notes in the book. Detroit, Chicago, Hartford, Conn., and dozens of other cities were gripped with retaliatory violence and fires. By the weekend, "empty shells of destroyed buildings were clouded with smoke from fires that still smoldered."
In Atlanta, tensions were high that similar violence would break out. Gov. Lester Maddox refused to lower the flag at the State Capitol in honor of King, and reportedly ordered troopers to "shoot them down and stack them up" if protestors tried to enter the building. (He later agreed to lower the flag when he was told it was a federal mandate.) Black Power author Stokely Carmichael addressed a memorial service at Howard University by "waving a pistol and repeating, 'Stay off the streets if you don't have a gun, because there's going to be shooting.'"
Amid the story's chaos, Burns turns her focus to the relatives, city officials, community leaders, students, and volunteers who saw to it that King's nonviolent vision was preserved in Atlanta. The book shifts between perspectives and places constantly, adopting a kaleidoscopic, nimble structure that wouldn't be out of place in a Richard Price novel.
These quick passages - sometimes covering just a few minutes in a single place - owe their specificity and insights, in part, to an oral history that Burns worked on for Atlanta Magazine (where she was editor-in-chief from late 2002 to April 2009). That piece, "Funeral," was part of a National Magazine Award-nominated special issue on MLK's legacy. "Funeral" talked with community leaders including Xernona Clayton, Ron English, Jesse Jackson and others about the days following King's assassination. As she expanded that work into a narrative, book-length work, her research grew exponentially. "I had done a couple dozen interviews for the oral history and then I probably did twice as many again for the book," she says. "I had conceived it as only focusing on Atlanta, but, once I got digging into it, it made more sense to focus on these seven days and events that were happening in other parts of the country and the bearing they had on Atlanta."
The research became an overwhelming focus of Burns' life. While working on the oral history and this book, she also completed a master's thesis at Georgia State University that examined King's "Atlanta Funeral as an Image Event." Burns' interest in civil rights history was stoked by her childhood experiences — she was raised mostly in India by her missionary parents. "When I returned to the states for college, I was really struck by the parallels between Jim Crow segregation and India's caste system. That's what drew me to this subject matter. Americans are critical of discrimination in other cultures, but there is something equally evil in our own history that we need to understand."
Burns achieves a distinct understanding of Atlanta's inner-workings by keeping her focus small. The grief and quiet drama of Xernona Clayton shopping for funeral clothes for the King family, or Daddy King in the empty stands of an Atlanta Braves practice, for example, feel as significant as the high-powered decisions of Mayor Ivan Allen or Hosea Williams. "There were so many time lines that I needed to keep track of. It was really important to me that the book feel fast-paced, to feel narrative, to feel literary and that it was not just a history book. I'm not, by background, a historian," Burns says.
By the time the book reaches the funeral, the accumulation of intimate details and powerful figures becomes overwhelming and surreal. "The whole day felt 'like a daze — like being underwater or in humid weather; you're aware of the moment but not aware fully of all that is around you,'" a volunteer told Burns.
Martin Luther King Jr. is, of course, absent from the book, visible only as a body in a casket or as a memory in the minds of those who knew him. Yet, he resonates on every page of Burial for a King, there and not there at the same time. Perhaps this is how it felt to be in the crowd that day and to hear a scratchy recording of his voice explain what he would like said at his own funeral: "I'd like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody. Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. 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."
Burial for a King by Rebecca Burns. Scribner. $25. 256 pp.
?EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated from its original version.