Gripping re-creation of the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Former Atlanta magazine editor Burns (Rage in the Gate City: The Story of the 1906 Race Riot, 2006, etc.) originally addressed the subject of MLK’s funeral in a 2008 oral history for the magazine. In this brief yet effective narrative, she provides a snapshot of a still-segregated nation poised between uneasy reconciliation and violent chaos. Using terse language and precise, straightforward descriptions—nearly every person who appears is extensively footnoted, a shrewd tactic because it enlivens the obscure and famous alike—she views the crisis and aftermath of King’s death in Memphis through multiple points of view, beginning with the traumatic center of his family and closest associates in Atlanta. Simultaneously, she argues that the white power structure in the city, personified by Mayor Ivan Allen, the police chief and others, behaved with compassion and foresight. Consequently, a fragile coalition managed the funeral and allowed the city to avoid the racial violence then occurring in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Burns follows the perspectives of multiple figures through the days following the assassination, from Lyndon Johnson on down. Numerous people poured into the tense city, including Robert Kennedy and celebrities like Harry Belafonte. The author evokes the funeral as a cathartic ritual of controlled chaos, and the documentary style also captures the inevitable fracturing of King’s movement, starting with the controversial Poor People’s Campaign, with which he was deeply involved. Arguably, the King family’s dignity in response to tragedy, and the somber televised spectacle of King’s funeral, helped convince many Americans that full civil rights were past due.
A pertinent, you-are-there historical page-turner with a strong moral message.