A Southern editor's anguished lament at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr.
On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we thought it would be appropriate to look at some of the journalism from his era, and try to find a way to explore the emotions around his death from an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968.
We didn’t have to look very far. The Poynter Institute’s Roy Peter Clark was a co-editor of a 2002 book called “The Changing South of Gene Patterson.” (Historian Raymond Arsenault was the other editor.)
Patterson, who succeeded Nelson Poynter as chairman of the Times Publishing Co., which the Poynter Institute owns, wrote editorials for the Atlanta Constitution from 1960-68, many of them centered on the cause of civil rights.
A native Georgian and a former tank commander in George S. Patton’s 3rd Army in World War II, he wrote with fervor trying to convince his fellow Southerners to do what was right. He once asked readers to send in money to help rebuild two burned black churches, urging them to show that Georgians, and not Northerners, could make reparations. They did so, with a dime here and a dollar there.
While Patterson wrote eloquently on the immediate days following King’s assassination, we have chosen this piece to feature because it speaks to his hope that whites would realize the harm they had done. (Patterson told Clark that he had been let in a side door to attend the service.)
(As you can see, some of the language is from that era, and the book’s editors chose not to change it.)
April 10, 1968
A Memorial for Dr. King
Television doesn’t quite close the distance. You’ve got to be inside the Ebenezer Baptist Church, among the intensely human family called the Negro people, as they sing, “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling” over the body of their dead brother — among them in the heat of the little church where tears mingle with perspiration and the lips of the choir singers tremble.
You’ve got to sit between the mourners and touch shoulders with them in the crowd and feel the heat come up through your shoes from the hot pavement as you march with them behind the casket drawn, with perfect fitness, by a two-mule wagon.
TV doesn’t catch it at all. On the contrary I think it symbolizes what the trouble is. You look at them from a distance. They are just a picture then. It gives you the illusion of knowing them. You do not know them until you join them, and look them in the face, and white Americans have not done that yet.
You have to be there in the pews for the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to know the full truth — that we whites have committed the monstrous wrong of thrusting away a people we do not even know, and hurting them out of fear born of our ignorance. It is absurd to have been afraid of them.
Surely these are the gentlest of people, the most loving of people, the people of deepest forgiveness and faith in all of this land. And they have had so little, these worshippers whose humble red brick church is bare of all elegance, its planked-in staircases looking homemade though painted to a loving neatness.
We have treated them as if they are somehow dangerous — these loyal, warm, large-hearted, vulnerable neighbors of ours who have asked so little of America, and received so much less. The demagogues have slandered them until we have somehow blinded ourselves to the humble gift of friendship they have been offering. Their hateful, violent underclass, which is only a counterpart to the white violent underclass, has been seized upon by us as an unworthy excuse to libel their color.
You have to be among them to receive the full impact of the stupid wrongs we have committed in our hearts and in our acts. Suddenly you realize these gentle folk were not eager to press demands for rights; they were afraid. As an act of will they must quell fears we whites do not even comprehend before they can bring themselves to make challenges to the white man. And we, who do not even know them, dared to be outraged when Dr. King gave them courage by accepting our punishments, and finally our death. All of us, in one degree or another, belabored him for disordering our lives with bus boycotts and sit-ins, freedom rides and marches. But now that these good and gentle people we mistreated can vote, and sit in waiting rooms, and eat lunch where they are hungry, and seat their children with dignity anywhere on the bus, we ought to be overcome with bitter remorse that we would not see the justice of these things until he showed us.
We will not even now see the overwhelming injustice we continue to visit upon these people who still believe in us unless Dr. King’s death teaches us that we must hereafter be among them, and know them, and take their hands and walk with them as men whose friendship will ennoble us. Their faith in us runs deeper than the faith we have shown in ourselves, and we ought to be deeply ashamed of the cruelties we offered in return for such trust and love. Jobs, housing, education are only programs. Knowing and loving our neighbors is the needed memorial to Dr. King. And that is so easy, when you are among them.