Editor’s note: Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by an assassin's bullet on April 4, 1968. Reporter and columnist Celestine Sibley wrote about where she was when she learned about King’s death. This column was published April 9, 1968, the day of King’s Atlanta funeral, in the Atlanta Constitution.
It's odd how the human mind can get used to a monstrous tragedy. First there's shock and disbelief and then grief and then I guess for everybody there comes a time of trying to cope with a hideous memory by fitting it into the homely setting of one's personal life. You know how people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they received terrible news. "The baby was sick and I was filling the croup kettle when I heard about Pearl Harbor on the radio." ... "I was mopping the floor when a neighbor called across the street and told me President Roosevelt was dead." ... "I stopped by the florist to buy some flowers and she said, 'Did you hear about somebody shooting John Kennedy?'"
It is the same with the death of Martin Luther King Jr. The fact of his assassination is no less terrible but to accept it people somehow have to go back and tell you how it was with them when they heard the news.
Credit: Renee Hannans
Credit: Renee Hannans
I was driving along a Mississippi road in the dark with the rain beating against the windshield and lightning flashing wildly across the sky. Static made me turn off the radio but it was lonesome on the dark rain-swept highway (John, the 5-year-old, had been asleep on the back seat since we stopped for a hamburger in Montgomery.) So I fiddled with the dial hoping for some news and then I got a fragment or two about a shooting somewhere. It was many minutes before the crack of lightning and the roar of the wind and rain let the whole story come through. Dr. Martin Luther King, a kind man, an eloquent man, gone.
The lights of a truck stop were just ahead and I pulled off and sat there. The impulse of all newspaper reporters is to call the office when news of a great moment happens -- to ask, "Do you need me? Shall I come in?" But I was more than 300 miles away with a sleeping child on the back seat and other children ahead, waiting for me. The need for any services of mine would be over by the time I could get back so I sat there by the Mississippi truck stop, watching the rain make mud out of the parking area, watching the big trucks pull in to wait out the rain, and thinking about Dr. King.
My personal acquaintance with him was so slight. He had done me a favor once and I couldn't remember if I'd ever thanked him for it. My youngest daughter was but 14 or 15 at the time and urgently concerned to have a hand in making things better for downtrodden people. It wasn't enough to carry a sign with pickets. She wanted to fill our house with hungry and homeless people. She wanted to be a freedom rider. And one day when I thought she was safe in summer school, making up history which she was failing, she caught a bus for Montgomery.
Frightened and frantic, I called Dr. King. With his own people being beaten and killed my concern for my little white child might well have amused him. It didn't. "She's got to LEARN history before she can MAKE it!" I wailed. He said he would find her and talk to her and within a few hours one of his aides took her to the Montgomery airport, boarded a plane with her and brought her home.
Sitting there by the truck stop I wished I had done something to help his cause. And I wasn't even sure I'd said thank you.
»Local and indepth: How the AJC covered the civil rights movement
»Before Twitter and the Internet: How the nation heard the news of MLK's assassination
»LEARN MORE: AJC coverage of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination
The March 21 documentary 'The Last Days of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.' on Channel 2 kicked off a countdown of remembrance across the combined platforms of Channel 2 and its partners, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB Radio.
The three Atlanta news sources will release comprehensive multi-platform content until April 9, the anniversary of King’s funeral.
On April 4, the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, the three properties will devote extensive live coverage to the memorials in Atlanta, Memphis and around the country.
The project will present a living timeline in real time as it occurred on that day in 1968, right down to the time the fatal shot was fired that ended his life an hour later.
The project will culminate on April 9 with coverage of the special processional in Atlanta marking the path of Dr. King’s funeral, which was watched by the world.
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Credit: Courtesy Roman United / Jason Getz