As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the book chosen for one local community-wide reading event is timely indeed. “Burial for a King: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Funeral and the Week that Transformed Atlanta and Rocked the Nation” by Rebecca Burns is Roswell Reads’ 2018 selection and the topic of related events this month.
Burns, former editor in chief of Atlanta magazine and current publisher of The Red & Black, an independent student media organization at the University of Georgia, where she also teaches part-time, has written three books on Atlanta history. “Burial for a King” details the aftermath of King’s assassination as the city of Atlanta prepared to host his funeral and accommodate the tens of thousands who came to pay tribute while riots raged in 110 cities across the country.
“Burial for a King” will be the focus of several Roswell Reads events, including trips to King sites in Atlanta, a writing workshop and, on March 17, a literary luncheon.
Founded in 2005 and based on the national “One Book” community reading initiative, Roswell Reads annually promotes a single title, made available at Roswell libraries and throughout the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library system. Having an entire city poring over her book is a first for Burns, who recently answered questions about “Burial for a King.”
While 2018 is the 50th anniversary of King’s death, “Burial for a King” was published in 2011. What motivated you to write the book?
The book grew out of an oral history that I wrote as part of Atlanta magazine’s April 2008 special edition on the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination and his legacy in his hometown. The publisher decided that the story offered a unique addition to reporting on King. I was drawn to the subject of the funeral, not so much as a look at King, but as a look at Atlanta. I’d covered the city for years at Atlanta magazine. My first book, “Rage in the Gate City,” was about the 1906 race riot in Atlanta. That was a very shameful and tragic chapter in Atlanta’s history, in which rioting white people killed at least two dozen black Atlantans and ransacked black homes, businesses and communities. I was drawn to the story of how, a little over a half-century later, Atlanta responded to an event much better. Both are about a crisis in the city.
Reading your descriptions of King’s death and the hours leading up to his funeral was like time traveling across the written page. What truths about 1968 seemto strike readers now as being stranger than fiction?
I think that if this was a movie, critics would say that the character of Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, holed up in his office on the day of the funeral with armed guards around the state Capitol, would be too broad a caricature. On a lighter note, they would be surprised by the host of celebrity cameos. Famous people from Bill Cosby and the Supremes, not to mention all those Kennedys, came to Atlanta to pay their respects.
While many aspects of American life have changed, many haven’t. What are some topics that were issues a half-century ago and still are today?
Many people want to claim that the country has evolved since King’s day and the issue he most famously fought for — racial equality — has been resolved. They like to point to the election of President Obama, or even the creation of a holiday honoring King, as symbols that King’s dream has been achieved. But nothing is that simple or clear cut, and today, we see strains along lines of race and ethnicity, in particular with the political backlash against immigrants.
Of King’s numerous iconic teachings, discuss some that remain just as vital as when Lyndon B. Johnson was president and the Vietnam War was still seven years away from ending.
Most people know about King and his famous “I Have a Dream” speech and his civil rights activism. But at the time of his assassination, King was actively protesting the Vietnam War, and in particular, the way that poor and minority Americans were less able to avoid the draft. He also was campaigning against poverty in the process of organizing the Poor People’s Campaign. Today, we have a volunteer armed services that represents only a fraction of the population. And income inequality is higher than ever — and especially in Atlanta.
You’ll be leading a writing workshop March 16. Writers may wonder how someone who was 2 years old in 1968 so vividly captured the essence of an era 40-plus years later.
One thing that I did was immerse myself in the era through music. I made a playlist of 1968 music and listened to it constantly — when I wasn’t listening to King’s sermons or recordings of interviews. I also watched as much TV footage as possible and had this huge bulletin board that kind of looked like something Carrie on “Homeland” would put together.
What are some tangible ways they and everyone in metro Atlanta can make a difference 50 years after King’s voice — though never his ideals — was silenced?
One of the first steps is to have conversations — real conversations — about issues of equality in our community. This is not comfortable, and all of us, especially Southerners, don’t like to have such conversations; but it’s important to understand the context that contributes in inequality that continues today. Yes, these events are still within the lifetimes of many of us. You can’t expect centuries of discrimination to vanish with a King speech, however eloquent. On a more practical note, I encourage Atlantans to reach out and help their neighbors, whether donating to or volunteering for a food bank or supporting an educational program.