Burial for a King: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Funeral and the Week that Transformed Atlanta and Rocked the Nationby Rebecca Burns
In the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, riots broke out in 110 cities across the country. For five days, Atlanta braced for chaos while preparing to host King’s funeral. An unlikely alliance of former student radicals, the middle-aged patrician mayor, the no-nonsense police chief, black ministers, white churchgoers, Atlanta’s business leaders, King’s grieving family members, and his stunned SCLC colleagues worked to keep Atlanta safe, honor a murdered hero, and host the tens of thousands who came to pay tribute.
On April 9, 1968, 150,000 mourners took part in a daylong series of rituals honoring King—the largest funeral staged for a private U.S. citizen. King’s funeral was a dramatic event that took place against a national backdrop of war protests and presidential politics in a still-segregationist South, where Georgia’s governor surrounded the state capitol with troops and refused to lower the flag in acknowledgment of King’s death. Award-winning journalist Rebecca Burns delivers a riveting account of this landmark week and chronicles the convergence of politicians, celebrities, militants, and ordinary people who mourned in a peaceful Atlanta while other cities burned. Drawing upon copious research and dozens of interviews— from staffers at the White House who dealt with the threat of violence to members of King’s family and inner circle—Burns brings this dramatic story to life in vivid scenes that sweep readers from the mayor’s office to the White House to Coretta Scott King’s bedroom. Compelling and original, Burial for a King captures a defining moment in America’s history. It encapsulates King’s legacy, America’s shifting attitude toward race, and the emergence of Atlanta as a new kind of Southern city.
“A compelling look at a pivotal time.” –Booklist
“Burial for a King is a gripping piece of work. Some of Rebecca Burns’s voices belong to friends, which made it haunting, but many of them were fresh discoveries to me. This book is a great tribute.”
–Taylor Branch, author of the America in the King Years trilogy
“Now, finally, we can see what couldn’t be seen and know what couldn’t be known about the way Atlanta held together to honor and bury its most celebrated and controversial son. Day by day, hour by hour, step by step, the behind-the-scenes dramaturgy of the national week of mourning for Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. comes vividly alive in Burial for a King. Even as the national mood swung wildly from catatonic to chaotic, Rebecca Burns deftly shows, the suites and streets of Atlanta found common ground in a calming field that explains Atlanta’s modern-day transcendence.”
–Hank Klibanoff, co-author of The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation
winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in History
“Rebecca Burns is a gifted storyteller with a keen understanding of the small details that make history so interesting, and in Burial for a King, she has woven dozens of interviews into a fast-paced narrative so vivid and poignant that you may catch yourself feeling almost as if you are eavesdropping. The book focuses on a single week in 1968—a week that happens to include some of the most painful days of my entire life—and the fact that I have difficulty reading its pages is actually a testament to the power of the author’s uncommon skill. Burns literally has opened a window into the past.”
—Andrew Young who has served as Mayor of Atlanta, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, President of the National Council of Churches USA, and was a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
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.
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