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For MLK funeral, some Georgia Tech students played a key role

The past week of Martin Luther King Jr. observances stirred Henry Cotten’smemory.

He opened an old photo album in his Dunwoody home and leafed through pages, stopping at images from April 9, 1968. Staring back at him was a picture of himself as a 22-year-old Georgia Tech engineering major. In it, Cotten stares expectantly at the camera. One hand is on his left hip, the other rests on the driver’s door of a gleaming white Dodge sedan. He is dressed in a black suit and tie, appropriate for the role he was to perform that day.

» Streets to close downtown for Monday march

Cotten and a handful of his classmates were pressed into service at the last minute to serve as drivers for dignitaries arriving in Atlanta for King’s funeral.

Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen and his wife, Louise, met dignitaries arriving at then Atlanta International Airport for the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Atlanta is readying for a march at noon Monday to commemorate the 1968 funeral procession. Gov. Nathan Deal has ordered that flags fly at half-staff, and closed Capitol office buildings for the day. State workers based at the complex have been directed to telecommute. While the original procession spanned 4.3 miles from Ebenezer Baptist Church through downtown and on to Morehouse College, Monday’s “March for Humanity” will go 1.3 miles from Ebenezer to the state Capitol. 

Cotten thought back on his role in 1968. He is 72 now, a semi-retired mechanical engineer at Georgia Tech Research Institute. His contribution was a small one but was emblematic of the way many ordinary Atlantans pitched in to assist with the funeral of Georgia’s most famous son. Volunteers cooked meals for visitors. When hotel rooms filled up, other volunteers opened their homes. Cotten assisted by driving.

“You don’t know at the time, but by doing this it was totally bigger than anything I’d have ever thought,” Cotten said last week.

Hundreds of dignitaries from around the globe attended the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. Here, rabbis and clergy from New York City, arrive at what was then Atlanta International Airport. Henry Cotten, (Not pictured) then a student at Georgia Tech, was among a group of students selected as drivers for the New York delegation. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

As he remembers it, on Sunday morning, April 7, the pay phone rang on the hall of his dormitory. Cotten thinks he may have been going down the hall to the bathroom, and he picked up the receiver. The man on the other end identified himself hurriedly.

“I’m looking for drivers for my cars,” Cotten remembers the man saying.

The man said he owned a limousine company. He needed drivers on Tuesday to take the New York City delegation of mourners to Ebenezer for the funeral. Cotten had never been involved in civil rights. Though he knew of King and the movement, the assassination of John F. Kennedy four and a half years prior had affected Cotten more deeply than King’s murder.

Still, in the moment, the limo company’s request seemed essential. Cotten knocked on doors asking other young men on his floor if they were interested in driving. The next morning about eight of them went to the limousine garage and met with the owner. Each young man was assigned a car and given cash to get them washed and detailed.

“He didn’t want any crumbs or anything in the seats,” Cotten said.

Early Tuesday, April 9, he and the other students picked up the cars and drove to Atlanta International Airport, where police escorted them onto the tarmac. Cotten brought along a Kodak Instamatic camera. Once all the drivers were in position, he started snapping pictures. The dignitaries began filing off the plane. Waiting for them at the bottom of the staircase was Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen and his wife, Louise. Click. New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller walked down the steps. Click. A contingent of rabbis, priests and other clergy followed. Click

Cotten drove Rockefeller’s nephew, Larry, and an African-American journalist, whose name Cotten cannot remember. The Georgia Tech drivers arrived to a crushing crowd at the church, dropped off their passengers and then headed to Morehouse. Another memorial service was planned there after the funeral procession arrived from Auburn Avenue.

Cotten and his friends passed the time talking, eating sandwiches and trying to stay cool as they waited. The day grew long. Finally, the passengers began streaming back to the cars and were taken back to the airport. Cotten and his friends returned the limousines then headed back to campus.

It didn’t seem like much at the time, Cotten said, but now as the commemorative procession nears, he’s proud of his role in one of the state’s most memorable goodbyes.

“I had put these in a scrapbook when I took them and there they have sat,” Cotten said. “I hope that this might, in some small way, help preserve a little piece of history of that day.”

MLK coverage from AJC and WSB

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