Tales of Old Atlanta – The photo journalism of Boyd Lewis 1969-79.
How “the most dangerous man in America” was transformed into a feel-good platitude rolled out every January 15 to assure us racism is a thing of the past.
Since Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, The United States has initiated more violence than any other nation on the planet. The military and “national security” consume a higher percentage of the national budget than at the height of the Vietnam War. The gap between rich and poor has grown exponentially. Race hatred is again commonplace. What’s happening?
The ongoing legacy of Martin and Coretta King, shown here in their conjoined crypt at Atlanta’s King Center, was supposed to carry the struggles of 1955, 1963, 1964 and 1968 into the 21st century using new strategies to address new facets of the age-old evils of injustice, war and inequality. But the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change has been largely mute in these increasingly desperate times. Cash-strapped management can’t even afford to patch the cracks in the moat surrounding the tomb. King’s dynamic legacy is inert just when the nation needs it most.
Coretta Scott King was just forming the center designed to carry forward her husband’s legacy when this photo was taken of her in 1970. Checks from around the world flowed into SCLC following Dr. King’s death in 1968. SCLC was organizing a movement uniting the nation’s poor to demand economic justice, and badly needed money. But Mrs. King told SCLC President Ralph David Abernathy to forward the checks to her to build the King Center. SCLC wanted to fund a movement. Mrs. King wanted to build a monument. The “Poor People’s Campaign” was a disaster. SCLC went into eclipse.
Mrs. King with her sons Martin Luther King III (left) and Dexter King (right) in 1976. The corrosive dismemberment of Dr. King’s activist legacy since 1968 has many causes. But the heirs to that legacy must bear some of the blame. The King family and their retainers have erected a toll booth and a “no trespassing” sign around Dr. King’s life and work. An American prophet has been converted into that singular American value–For Profit. The Martin Luther King Center has exchanged the goal of social change for spasms of rhetoric and nostalgia. The Center has been reduced to a cluster of seldom open buildings. Scholars of the civil rights movement complain that management refuses access to its hoard of documents. Within the secret, insulated world of the King Center, nepotism has run amuck and dedicated professional staff and volunteers have been treated with such disrespect by the family that there has been a revolving door aspect to the Center’s management team for decades.
In 1971, people who worked with Dr. King and SCLC staff picketed a fundraising concert for the King Center because it refused to share proceeds with the civil rights organization founded by Dr. King. With very little money coming in from the three million visitors who visit the King Center annually, the corporate gifts and government grants began to force the Center to shed even the pretense of challenging that selfsame system to provide social justice. Corporations and federal agencies financed the start-up and first few years of operation of the King Center. I suppose it was simple economics. Who else would fund the center? Poor people? And who would the center then be required to represent? Poor people? The perceived elitism of the King Center and its notorious lack of contact with low-income Atlanta caused so much bad blood that Dr. King’s organization, the SCLC, organized a march of the city workers union, domestic workers union and Atlanta’s welfare rights chapter to demonstrate against Mrs. King’s leadership on Jan. 14, 1979. Nearly 300 persons gathered in the bitter cold to sing “Ain’t Gonna Let Coretta Turn Us Round” as Mrs. King presented President Jimmy Carter with the Nonviolent Peace Prize for that year. For years, there was no formal SCLC presence at the Jan. 15 observance. That was Coretta’s show. SCLC instead chose the date of Dr. King’s assassination, April 4, for its annual memorial.
Following Mrs. King’s death in 2006, a treasure trove of Dr. King’s notes and sermons which had been stacked alongside boxes of Christmas ornaments in her home was offered up for auction to the highest bidder by the King children. Sotheby’s Auctions estimated the documents could bring from $15 to $20 million from global bidders. A previous cache of King papers had been lost to Stanford University. Stanford’s Claiborne Carlson, out on the “curvaceous slopes of California” outbid Emory University which sought to keep these relics of American history in Atlanta. The bleeding of this remaining archive from Dr. King’s hometown was too much for Atlanta’s already injured civic pride. Cajoled by former congressman and King aide Andy Young, the city’s business community dug deep and came up with collateral for a $32 million bank loan to buy the archive of their father from the King heirs which would then displayed at the Atlanta History Center, then handed over to Dr. King’s alma mater, Morehouse College. The King legacy as commodity has been a circle completed. Atlanta kept the works of its native son but it took top dollar– $12 million more than Sotheby’s highest estimate– to do the deed. The family was once more enriched. The King legacy was further impoverished.
One of the most illustrious names in the history of America goes with this young man. Martin Luther King III, seen here in 1974, could rally millions to demand that it’s high time to build the beloved community sought by Dr. King He could tell the nation that the war economy must beat its swords into ploughshares. He could pick up the fallen banner his father let fall from that Memphis motel balcony and lead his struggle, our struggle, into the future. Instead, “Marty” King has been content in the shadow of his father for four decades. He briefly held his father’s post as president of the SCLC before the board showed him the door. He became a county commissioner but voters turned him out. He is present at ceremonies and press conferences. Perhaps there’s more.
An incident at the King Day parade, Los Angeles, 2006 My wife and I had gone to the Crenshaw district where the Jan.15 celebrations in L.A. were centered. We saw maybe a half dozen other white people out of the 10,000 or so lining the streets. In the parade, the U.S. Army had a brightly decorated Hummer and killer sound system to recruit new meat for the Iraq war. The Budweiser Clydesdales and wagon trotted down the street encouraging us to drink beer. Girls with white wooden rifles did their Chasseurs d’Afrique routines. Hip hop radio stations had their DJ’s aboard floats encouraging us to go gangsta and shake our junk. Two local gangs associated with the Crips, the Rollin’ 30s and Rollin’40s had declared a truce for the parade. But Deborah and I got caught in the middle of competing gangs “representing”, flashing competing gang signs at each other and yelling, then turning the corner and continuing into Martin Luther King Jr. Park on Western Avenue. Squad cars, cops on bicycles and two trucks full of armored SWAT teams with tear gas and concussion grenade guns instantly converged and rushed to the park. The gangs backed down. It was an odd way of paying tribute to the man who lived and died by the guiding light of nonviolence. The following year, King Day organizers again allowed ROTC units to parade with rifles but turned down a request by the anti-war coalition ANSWER to march condemning war as boldly as had Dr. King four decades earlier. Only when ANSWER supporters showed up in force and demanded a place in the parade did organizers relent. Police were told to stand down and the parade’s only expression of peace was allowed to join the march honoring Martin Luther King. And don’t get me started on how Martin Luther King III and his sister had to file a lawsuit against their brother Dexter (now of Malibu, Calif.) to stop him from secretly trying to set up a movie deal with Stephen Spielberg about their father.
All of this may seem odd coming from a southern white man. But when I moved to Atlanta just 15 months after Dr. King’s assassination, I found his hometown was still wrapped in and propelled by his spirit. Martin King was an inspiration, not a commodity. His soul force was vibrant, not a dulled cliché.
Dr. King beckoned us to pursue justice and peace for future generations. In no way was he a relic of the past. But that was then. And this is the dispirited now. The most dangerous man in America has been rendered noncontroversial, safe and neutral. The forces of oppression and exploitation have nothing to fear from his legacy. And yet………………
This free webzine is meant for your entertainment and information only. All photographs copyright Boyd Lewis/Atlanta History Center. Except as permitted under the Copyright Act of 1976, these images may not be reproduced in whole or in part with permission in writing from copyright owner. For information, contact Boyd Lewis. Or snail mail me at Boyd Lewis, 2858 Marengo Ave., Altadena, Calif. 91001.
Tales of Old Atlanta is also available at: www.talesofoldatlanta.com.
New Orleans family. War baby. Family moved a lot. Secondary and college education in Memphis, TN. Just before 1967 graduation, commissioning and tour of leafy, lovely Vietnam, banged up in auto accident. Decided to go into journalism. Tennessee mountain weekly, small Mississippi daily and nearly three decades in Atlanta. Black and alternative newspapers, freelance photojournalist, public radio news and documentary producer, news writer for CNN. Married Deborah James, followed her to Los Angeles for job. Quit the dismal trade and became middle school English teacher in LA barrio school. Quite happy.