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50 years on: Moving memoirs of Martin Luther King’s funeral

50 years on: Moving memoirs of Martin Luther King’s funeral

It was an event which brought together men and women from every background and race: the funeral of Martin Luther King on April 9, 1968.

And now, exactly half a century later, the Press and Journal has been given access to the memories of a north-east teacher who was among the mourners in Atlanta.

Alan Small, who worked as a youth worker at St Katherine’s Club and Community Centre – now the Lemon Tree – in the early 1960s, was a teacher at the city’s Summerhill School.

But he spent a year in Atlanta with his family and watched the Stateside news programmes with horror, following the assassination of Dr King.

Indeed, he was so moved by the tragedy he made a recording of the momentous events which devastated America and the tape has now been transcribed by his son, Chris, following Mr Small’s death in 2012.

“First, there was a private service in Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King served as co-pastor,” he recalls in the tapes.

“We decided we would watch the service on television and join the march afterwards.

“The service was extremely moving. It was the first funeral of a black person to be nationally televised and was attended by so many national figures.

“These included Robert Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, vice-president Hubert Humphrey and [later President] Richard Nixon.

“By the time we got to our spot overlooking the street in front of the state capital, there was a powerful air of expectancy. No one was quite sure what was going to happen.

“Then, over the brow of a hill, to our right, half a mile away, we gradually heard the noise of the march which was preceded by the coffin containing Martin Luther King’s body.

“I will never forget the visual impact of the scene as a mass of people – the number has been variously estimated as anything from 75,000 to 150,000 – came over the hill towards us and the street was jammed solid.

“I had my camera with me. But somehow when the coffin drew level with us, I felt that I was too emotionally involved and taking photographs would have been completely inappropriate.

“I was involved, I was committed and I became a participant in it. I would not need a photograph or a colour slide to remind me of the scene.

“Having let most of the immediate march go past, we simply left our place on the sidewalk and joined them. The three or four short steps from the pavement to the march appeared to be an act of commitment.

“As long as you were on the sidewalk, you could act as if you were an onlooker watching the action, but not involved in it either physically or emotionally.

“But as soon as you were part of the march, you were identified with it. This went a lot further than simply identifying with the death of Martin Luther King.

“For me, it meant emotionally, and I hope at an intellectual level too – a commitment to the causes he lived for and died for.”

Mr Small was impressed by the lack of pomp surrounding the occasion.

He added: “The Southern Christian Leadership Conference had decided that, in order to convey an impression of the causes dear to Martin Luther King, his coffin should be carried in an old four-wheeled wooden farm cart and that this should be drawn by two farm mules.

“The symbolism of this is that the mule is the means of power used by the poorest sharecropper, by which he hauls all of his materials and ploughs the land.

“Martin Luther King was essentially concerned with establishing the dignity and the worth of black people within American society, but also with the plight of poor white people in the Appalachians, the poor whites who had flooded north to Chicago. It is extraordinary to think that [when he was assassinated] he was in Memphis trying to establish better conditions of work for garbage workers in the city.

“Almost entirely made up of black men, these workers were not allowed to be members of a union and had very low wage levels.

“King always said he had grown up not being conscious in his own house and family life of want or need and privation, and yet had this acute awareness of the needs of other people who were less fortunate than himself.

“This man was supra-race, supra-national, supra-denominational, supra-political.

“It is hard to put a percentage on the number of white people who were making up the march. I reckon probably 10% to 15%. And yet one had a profound feeling of community with the black men and women marching. They seemed to accept our presence, to be in a deep sense forgiving, and yet conscious of their dignity.

“The heat was tremendous – it was about 80 degrees, the hottest day of the spring. We marched in close formation, four lanes abreast, stretching for about a mile.

“There were times where the highway dipped down to a hollow and, if you looked forward or back, all you could see was a solid mass of people.

“For the first time, I was conscious of the power of non-violence. I can imagine few more powerful groups than that group of people who were marching. I felt it and it was very real to me.

From the standpoint of history, Martin Luther King was a giant of a man who spoke in non-violent terms to a violent society, and to a largely violent world.

“And the violent society and the violent world couldn’t tolerate him. So they had to get rid of him.”

The marchers included celebrities and film stars, such as Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis Jnr and Eartha Kitt. But there was no standing on ceremony.

Mr Small said: “Following the funeral service, we walked back to Atlanta and stopped and sat on the steps of a negro Baptist church.

“Two black women in their fifties or sixties came around the corner and asked us if we were hungry. They said: ‘They have food and cold drinks downstairs below the church and you’re welcome to go down”.

“My friend introduced me as being from Scotland. And these two women reacted in an amazing way. They assumed I had come from Scotland to attend this funeral service and they were quite ecstatic about this.

“One of them said to us: “They’ve killed our leader, they’ve taken him away – and we needed him.”

“Then they said: “But you’ll never know how much it means to us that you” – and she meant us as representative members of the white community – “have come and have shared”.

“And in that situation, one got a glimpse of the tragedy and yet I hope in a way the victory, too.”

His ex-wife, Moira Small, told The Press and Journal: “I stayed away from the funeral as our two sons, Steven and Patrick, were only four and two at the time, and the temperature was 80 degrees with high humidity – no place for small children.

“I kept Steven, our youngest son, at home as a mark of respect for Dr King, as many people did, although the lady at the First Presbyterian Nursery which Steven attended was adamant that they would be there.

“Our friends at Westminster school and our neighbours were, like me, absolutely horrified by his killing.

“People were asked to drive with headlights on even in the daylight as a mark of respect for Dr King.

“The church we attended while we were there was the Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Atlanta. It opened its doors and welcomed people from all over America.

“They slept in the church on the pews and were fed, and their children looked after. It was an impressive act of hospitality.”

Moira Small is currently raising money in Alan’s memory for Children’s Literature for Children, a charity working to build school libraries and supply books to children in Africa.

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