By GENE HERRICK
A journalist’s memory book
Time does fly, and suddenly the memories of the beginning and the ending of the historic life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. come flooding back on this anniversary of the day the nation has set aside to honor the man and his birthday. He was born Jan. 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia.
It was 62 years ago in 1956 when the powerful and demanding voice of a black preacher echoed from the pulpit of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. That voice was a blowback to the years and years of mistreatment of black people in the South, and especially then, about the removal of a black lady from a city bus in Montgomery.
As an Associated Press photographer working out of the Memphis, Tennessee bureau, I covered both of these events, which were a major part of the beginning of the civil rights movement that spread quickly throughout this country, and really, to all parts of the world.
Ironically, I also covered Rev. King’s assassination in Memphis in 1968.
Memories of King, for me, usually center on his commanding voice and message. Veteran journalists have covered many good speakers, but King’s sermons or speeches seem to vibrate the airwaves and generally leave the audiences in awe or raucously responding. The fiber of his voice was commanding. I remember shaking his hand.
I remember the picture I took of his wife, Coretta, kissing King on the cheek while among cheering supporters after he was leaving court in 1956. He was found guilty of conspiracy to boycott city buses in a campaign to desegregate the bus system. This picture has received a lot of recognition, as did the picture of Rosa Parks being fingerprinted following her arrest for not moving from the white section of a city bus to the area reserved for black people.
Those days of covering King giving speeches and sermons in his church are still memorable and frequently recalled because of the impact this man created such a legacy in the world in his battle for the freedom for black people who, for years, had suffered terrible indignities and slavery. His oratory voice seemed to shake the rafters of the relatively small church in Montgomery. The church was always jammed with parishioners and guests.
This great voice went on to events around this country and the world. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. While in Montgomery, King stayed busy with his sermons, going to court, as well as visiting with lawyers and groups of regular citizens.
King, it is reported, was almost always fearful for his life, because he knew he was stepping on many customs or feelings of people who opposed his ever-gaining following. He had a scary time in Cicero, Illinois in the 1960s. In Memphis, on April 3, 1968, King delivered his famous speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top.” The next day, a sniper took King’s life with a bullet to his throat while he was standing on the walkway of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968.
AP photographer Charles Knoblock and I were immediately dispatched from Chicago to Memphis to cover this historic event.
I received a phone call from my New York office and learned of King’s assassination. My boss said that since I had worked out of Memphis and covered King before that I should get down there as soon as possible. I called the airline we most often used. They put me on the next flight that left in one hour. I got my ticket, ran like everything and got on the plane with engines already churning. The other passengers were already abuzz about the killing.
About halfway there, the stewardess informed me that the pilot said they would have to overfly Memphis and go to Baton Rouge, Louisianna. “No, no,” I replied strongly. “Please explain to the pilot — I would lose so many hours to do that and return to cover the story.”
She returned and told me the pilot said martial law had been declared, and that there were military, tanks and machine guns at the airport, and that I could not get into Memphis.
I replied, “Please tell the pilot I had all sorts of identification and could get into town.” I also told her to please ask the pilot to just land the plane out in the grass and let me off. I could get into town. The pilot did land in the grassy area at Memphis, and I got off, walked to the terminal, caught a cab and went into town. Wow.
But my most outstanding memory of that event was standing in the flophouse bathtub where the killer had stood to assassinate King. There I had strange emotional feelings — on the one hand the very pleasant and moving coverage of King in the beginning, then the horrible shocking thoughts of his tragic death and the silencing of one of the world’s great voices. I stood in that bathtub, put my arms on the windowsill, where the assassin held his killing gun and looked across the marrow space between buildings to the platform of the Lorraine Motel balcony. All of these years later, I still remember.
It is the commanding voice and the commanding persona of a man fighting against all odds to change the world’s behaviors, beliefs and treatment of black people, minority groups and those subverted by prejudice and hate, that my memory focuses on that event even until this day. The memories range from the beginning 64 years ago and the ending 52 years ago.
In his last speech, he said, “Then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
“And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
“And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
His memory lives on.