Mercer, MLK and civil rights

Spencer B. King III, M.D., is professor of medicine emeritus at Emory University School of Medicine. He serves on the Mercer University Board of Trustees.

Last September, Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta, gave the keynote address kicking off the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the integration of Mercer University, highlighting his belief that Southern liberal arts institutions like Mercer had a great influence on the civil rights movement. Sharing the day with one of my Mercer classmates, the Rev. Bill Willis, spurred memories of my first encounter with Andrew Young.

On April 9, 1968, I received a call from Bill, who asked if I could leave my duties as a medical resident at Emory University to provide transportation from the airport to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. I picked up Bill and, to my surprise, Michigan Gov. George Romney and James Cavanaugh, mayor of Detroit. I felt out of place as I sat in Wheat Street Church next to Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, and observed the organization of celebrities who would be escorted through the crowd to the service at Ebenezer Church.

Bill and I were swept into the line, and an easily visible Wilt Chamberlain led the procession of many notables and a second-year Emory medicine resident. Getting out of the line was impossible.

As celebrities left the service, the throng across Auburn Avenue could see them before they passed us. There was quiet respect as Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Jackie Robinson, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller and many others left.

But then the silent reverence was broken with a sense of excitement that was palpable. Why? I imagined Harry Belafonte or Sammy Davis Jr. No, it was the anticipation of the passing of the torch of the movement to a new leader as Robert Kennedy emerged.

There was a tense moment when the casket was placed on the mule-drawn wagon, and a phalanx of white Atlanta police officers began to direct the crowd. Andrew Young, 45 years younger, bounded onto the wagon and looking into the eyes of the police lieutenant said, “If you want to help, let us do it.” The officer paused and then ordered the police to stand down to allow the volunteers to guide the procession.

As we passed the Georgia State Capitol, ringed with state troopers, shotguns at the ready, the procession broke into “We shall overcome!” Lester Maddox was the governor, and Capitol flags were kept at full staff. A few minutes later, we passed Atlanta City Hall, all draped in black with flags lowered to half-staff. Ivan Allen was mayor, and Atlanta developed a reputation as “the city too busy to hate.”

As Andrew Young spoke at that Mercer event, I was inspired by his reflections on what has been accomplished over the last 50 years and his hopes for the future. After the program, Sam Oni, one of the first black students at Mercer, remembered how faculty and students enabled the beginning of this 50-year evolution. But he reminded me, “There is more to be done.”

I am proud today that Mercer faculty and students — black and white — are committed to doing more to bring Dr. King’s dream closer to reality.

Spencer B. King III, M.D., is professor of medicine emeritus at Emory University School of Medicine. He serves on the Mercer University Board of Trustees.