Photo above: Inching his way toward Ebenezer Baptist Church, Ken Guthrie was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people and the lengths to which they'd gone to get just a glimpse of the proceedings. People climbed trees, like the men in the upper left of this photo. Behind the men is an empty lot. It was used as extra church parking back then, but today the Martin Luther King Center for Non-Violent Social Change sits on that land, along with the crypts of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
April 9, 1968: Tens of thousands clogged nearly every horizontal surface surrounding Ebenezer Baptist Church, from hilltops to rooftops, all craning for a view of the dignitaries, celebrities and the hearse bearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s body. Ken Guthrie, a Reinhardt College student, wedged into the crowd and began snapping pictures on his single roll of film.
This special presentation tells the story of King's funeral procession from three perspectives. First is Ken Guthrie's view and the photos he shot that day along the route. Second is the extraordinary tableau that marchers passed by at the state Capitol: just a block apart, they saw the old and hateful South juxtaposed with the newer and more inclusive South, the one that King died to secure. And third is the route itself: these are streets and avenues that we know well and travel regularly. But most of us don't realize that Martin Luther King Jr. traveled them for a final time on that spring day in 1968.
PHOTOS LOST AND FOUND
Five days had passed since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Ken Guthrie was ready for the final goodbye.
He and some friends from Reinhardt College in Waleska piled into his Mustang for the hour drive to Atlanta. Guthrie had been taking pictures since he was 13, just as a hobby. Now 20 and with a sharper eye and greater skill, he wanted to use all he'd learned to photograph what he knew would be an important moment in the nation's history: the funeral of King.
"I was intensely aware of what was going on and wanted to be a part of it," Guthrie said.
The group made good time getting to Atlanta. Guthrie found a parking lot near Five Points downtown, and the friends set out for Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the first of two services would be held that day. Using a newspaper description of the 4.3 mile-processional route, Guthrie and his group made their way toward Auburn Avenue. Block by block, the crowds swelled. People had begun camping camped out long before dawn to secure the best vantage points.
Respect for the moment was evident in the way people were dressed. Men wore hats, suits and ties. Women wore their best Sunday hats, dresses and stoles. Most knew they would not get into the church for the first service, which was private. In fact, with tens of thousands of people clotting the sidewalks and streets in the district, they wouldn't even get close to the building.
As he got near Wheat Street Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue, Guthrie began snapping pictures. A college student on a budget, he'd only brought one roll of film. He'd have to conserve. Spotting a cluster of police officers, he surmised that was the spot where dignitaries, celebrities and politicians would be dropped off and escorted to the church.
He was right. From that vantage point, Guthrie recorded significant moments of the morning. Not simply the arrivals of high-profile guests, but the anguish and despondency of nameless mourners. Later, after the service was over at Ebenezer, Guthrie continued to take pictures as the processional made its way to Morehouse College for the public memorial service.
Guthrie got back to the Mustang, avoided the crowds and found his way to the pedestrian bridge over West Hunter Street at Morris Brown College. He had no press credentials but positioned himself among the other photographers on the bridge - the perfect vantage point from which to see the sheer mass of the crowd. An uninterrupted column of people all the way east to downtown.
The clop, clop of the mules punctuated the air as the wagon drew near. Guthrie aimed his camera just as Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, James Orange and King's two sons, Martin III and Dexter, were about to pass below. He kept taking pictures until a security guard noticed he had no identification and forced him off the bridge.
By then, it didn't matter. Guthrie had what he'd come for.
Later, back at Reinhardt, Guthrie printed only a couple of images. The rest of the negatives he tucked away for printing later. But one day turned into two, weeks turned into months, then years, and at some point, Guthrie looked for the negatives and could not find them. Memories of the day grew fuzzier in his mind. The tangible evidence was lost.
Guthrie, now 70, went on to the military, had a career in marketing and later became an instructor at Georgia State University.
Then, one day about 10 or 15 years ago, his sister, Janet, called from Dahlonega. She'd been going through boxes in her basement and found a cardboard box with her name written on it in their mother's handwriting.
"She told me, 'I just found a whole bunch of your photos and negatives in a box with my name on it,' " Guthrie said.
When cleaning out Guthrie's former room in the family's old Decatur home years ago, his mother put the film in the box and mistakenly wrote his sister's name on the outside. Inside were the negatives from April 9, 1968.
He printed some of the pictures immediately after his sister gave him the negatives. Over the past few years, from time to time he has shown one or two of them to his students at Georgia State. He said he asks them first where the photos were taken. Even with a few iconic buildings in the background, they can't identify the city. Then Guthrie asks them about the images.
"They say, 'Well it looks like the funeral of somebody,' but they don't know who,'" Guthrie said.
He said of three recent classes with a total of 86 students in them, only one student knew what the pictures depict. They have no idea that the funeral procession ran through their current campus. And they don't realize that when their instructor was their age, he recorded one of the world's most important events.
Now, for the first time, Guthrie is sharing many of the photos with the rest of the world, here in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The governor's fortress
The day of Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral, Atlanta public schools closed. Many downtown businesses and banks closed. Mayor Ivan Allen suspended liquor sales for the day. It was an official day of mourning.
City officials had been preparing for five days to make sure Atlanta showed the highest measure of respect for its fallen son. They had draped funereal black bunting on the faÃ§ade of City Hall.
But before the marchers in King's massive funeral procession could reach City Hall, they first had to pass the Georgia Capitol. It was here that King's marchers confronted the legacy of bigotry that had animated his career.
Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, a staunch segregationist, refused to direct school districts across the state to close in honor of King. Maddox also refused to close the Capitol on the funeral day or give state workers the day off to attend the services, telling reporters, "We don't ever close on Tuesday. Why shouldn't they be on the job?"
Maddox even resisted flying the American flag at half-staff atop the Capitol, in spite of President Lyndon B. Johnson's order that flags at federal buildings be flown in the position of respect and mourning.
But a rift opened within the Capitol. Georgia Secretary of State Ben. W. Fortson Jr. broke with Maddox, saying he would follow the presidential proclamation. The flag was lowered halfway.
"I'll never regret it," Fortson told The Atlanta Journal. "I may pay for it, but I'll never regret it."
Maddox was furious. He ordered 160 armed state troopers up to the Capitol, stationing some outside and some inside. He even called up 20 armed Game and Fish Commission officers as well. Some officers went to guard other buildings in the Capitol complex. Many were armed with riot guns, night sticks and rifles, with gas masks at their sides.
Maddox, who had announced he was not attending the funeral, anticipated violence across Atlanta and saw the Capitol as a potential target. He hunkered down at the Capitol, waiting.
As the mourners began streaming past the back of the Capitol before noon, the atmosphere tensed as they walked in front of all those guns. Then the bells of Central Presbyterian Church began to peal. For days the church, which a century before had been a Confederate landmark, played host to hundreds of people in town for the funeral. The church supplied hot meals and a place to sleep for black and white visitors, against the wishes of some parishioners.
Walking down Washington Street past the Capitol, the columns of marchers began to sing "We Shall Overcome." Maddox no doubt heard them from inside. He told state workers they could go home.
Following the route
Today, the route is a collection of heavily traveled thoroughfares with no sign that King's cortege passed there. It is crossed by tens of thousands of Atlantans each day. Most never realize they're stepping on it.
They're on the path when they board the Atlanta Streetcar and head west along Auburn Avenue. When students walk on Courtland Street to the bookstore at Georgia State University, they are on it. As legislators, Capitol and City Hall workers navigate Washington and Mitchell streets bordering their flagship buildings they are stepping on the route. As people file into the Mercedes-Benz Stadium and take their seats on the stadium's south side, they are sitting on it. And as students of the Atlanta University Center walk along the edge of the quadrangle at Morehouse College they are at the place where the procession culminated.
The maps, videos and photos in this presentation show what the route looked like on April 9, 1968, and what it looks like now. It's 4.3 miles of forgotten history. The course followed by the mule-drawn wagon carrying King's casket and 200,000 mourners and onlookers hides in plain sight.