50 years after his death, it’s time to talk about King

Dear subscribers,

I’m the furthest thing from a salesman. But I know this: Thursday night was a powerful argument in favor of subscribing to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Why?

Well, if you were among the AJC subscribers gathered at the Atlanta History Center you got a treat.

The AJC, along with our reporting partners Channel 2 Action News and WSB Radio, hosted an intimate, poignant discussion about the life, death and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here’s what you missed:

  • King confidant and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young choking back emotion recounting the day King was killed in Memphis 50 years ago. Young talked about King accepting death. He said it was a peace he witnessed in King that wasn't fatalistic but rather a determined destiny that he understood to be part of his calling.
  • King's youngest daughter Bernice King, who was 5 years old when her father was killed, talking about how having internationally famous parents robbed her of some rites of childhood. She was asked by a subscriber during a Q&A session about the difficulty of growing up without a father. Her answer was both heartbreaking and inspiring. Bernice King said that she was at peace with her family's sacrifice because she is a daily witness to how her parents' lives changed the world. Still, she grew up missing out on doing "girl things" with her mother because the late Corretta Scott King was often busy carrying on the work of her husband. And when she was around there was always a spotlight.
  • Friend of the King family Xernona Clayton sharing an anecdote about a conversation she had with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy on the day King was killed. Kennedy, she said, instructed her to book every hotel in Atlanta on his behalf. Effectively, anyone traveling to Atlanta for the funeral had to go through her. Luminaries such Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were at her mercy. "Now that's black power," she deadpanned.

We are 10 days away from the 50th anniversary of King’s death, a moment for us all to reflect on his life and his influence. And most important to right now, it’s a time to discuss the continued significance of King’s philosophy, teachings and public service. I am among the nearly 3 out of 4 Atlantans who weren’t alive while King was living.

To mark this moment, the AJC, under the leadership of Senior Managing Editor Monica Richardson, put together a powerhouse panel of the people closest to King and few others who qualify as King scholars.

The discussion was hosted by AJC Editor Kevin Riley. The panelists included:

  • Bernice King, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s youngest daughter
  • Civil rights icon, former Atlanta Mayor Ambassador Andrew Young
  • Pulitzer Prize winning author David Garrow, who wrote the King tome "Bearing the Cross"
  • Civil rights pioneer Xernona Clayton, a friend to the King family who aided and counseled Corretta Scott King
  • Pulitzer Prize winner and former AJC managing editor Hank Klibanoff, who spent stretches of his career covering civil rights in the South.

The evening ended with an exclusive screening of “The Last Days of Dr. Martin Luther King,” a fantastic historical record of King unearthed from the television station’s extensive archives. It delivers on the promise “to take present day viewers back to that tragic time in history.”

The documentary includes King’s funeral, where audio of a speech he gave preaching his own funeral was played.

And there we sat with three people who were there, Clayton in the church, Bernice King sitting on her mother’s lap and Young, who walked the funeral procession in downtown Atlanta right behind King’s casket.

It was a moment measured in murmurs, sighs and even a few tears. I brought my wife and my 15 year-old daughter. She was moved by the evening, contemplating a history that for her felt as distant as the Civil War. On this night there was connection to the people who were able to describe King the man, not the statue or the holiday. We got to hear about the husband who bought his wife silk flowers a week or so before his death because he wanted her to “have something to keep.” We also heard about the friend who teased his buddies and pushed them to their limits.

If you missed this, then you missed out.

There is more to come.

Thursday began a countdown of remembrance across the combined platforms of Channel 2 Action News, the AJC and WSB Radio.

Again, I’m no salesman but I encourge you to subscribe. Tune-in. Find “The Last Days of Dr. Martin Luther King,” online and watch that documentary.

Remember with us.

Email Deputy Managing Editor Leroy Chapman Jr. at Leroy.Chapman@ajc.com