Martin Luther King Jr. under shepherd's watch: debunking urban legend
As the country marks the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s day of celebration, I recall one photograph I have most often heard described as “eerie.”
It is one of those iconic images that, in almost every instance I have heard it described, the explanation provided is almost always wrong.
Most recently, during the MLK Heritage Lecture series at Poynter, two attendees asked me what I knew about the photograph. That conversation reminded me of a very similar one I had this summer with actor Forest Steven Whitaker at the National Association of Black Journalists Convention in Orlando, during the Visual Task Force Scholarship Auction.
When Whitaker asked, “what’s going on in this picture?” someone quickly quipped: “Dr. King is being protected by the German shepherd in a friend’s vehicle.”
This is like one of many legendary photographs in which people remember the image but not the headline or the authentic context.
On June 13, 1964, The St. Petersburg Times presented a front page news story above the fold under the headline "St. Augustine Negros, Klan March Peacefully" written by staff writer Martin Waldron. The article was accompanied by a two-column, black-and-white photograph taken by staff photographer Bob Moreland.
Dr. King had been arrested in St. Augustine two days earlier during a sit-in at the Monson motel restaurant. The article reports that, under the cover of night, King was transported from St. Augustine’s St. Johns County Jail to Duval County jail following death threats, and that he arrived in Jacksonville in a car with six police officers and a police dog.
Twice in the story the author used the word eerie. In the first sentence, and on the jump page with the headline "St. Augustine Demonstrations Peaceful But Eerie."
The story actually quotes KKK leader J. B. Stoner of Atlanta, who the paper describes as a “cripple,” urging the crowd not to retaliate against “the niggers.”
The article is a fitting affirmation of the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. And sometimes a picture is worth a thousand pictures.
David Shedden, head of the Eugene Patterson Library at Poynter, contributed research for this article.