Fifty years ago next April…
Fifty years ago next April, a rickety, paint-faded farm wagon pulled by two mules made its way through the streets of downtown Atlanta. It was carrying a burden so heavy it was almost more than an entire nation could bear.
Inside the wagon sat a wooden casket; inside the casket was the body of Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated a few days earlier in Memphis. Accompanied by tens of thousands of mourners, the wagon and its cargo rolled down Washington Street, passing slowly in front of the Georgia state Capitol.
The massive procession moved silently; witnesses say the only sounds were the shuffling of feet, the rumble of wagon wheels and the striking of mule hoofs on pavement. It streamed beneath the statue of Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon, perched high on his horse on the Capitol grounds, and then passed on.
Inside the Capitol, stewing in his resentment and anger, sat Gov. Lester Maddox, an ardent segregationist. Maddox had defiantly refused to close state offices and schools in King’s honor. He had refused to attend the funeral of King, whom he had earlier denounced as “an enemy of the country.” He had even tried but failed to halt the lowering of American flags at the Capitol, as ordered by President Lyndon Johnson. He did, however, station 160 armed state troopers — all white, of course — around the Capitol grounds, reportedly with orders to shoot if any of the mourners attempted to enter. They did not.
But times change; people change.
On Monday morning, a bronze statue of King, Georgia’s most famous son, was finally, belatedly unveiled on the grounds of that same state Capitol. “Our actions here today symbolize the evolved mindset of our state, as we continue to reconcile our history and our hearts,” said Gov. Nathan Deal, who had been instrumental in the statue’s creation and placement.
Those words were well-chosen; even after all this time, the reconciliation of our history and our hearts is indeed ongoing. House Speaker David Ralston acknowledged it in his own remarks, noting that the fight for “righteousness is often met with hostility,” and that “too many yesterdays have passed” without proper recognition for King. And while this particular wrong had finally been righted, Ralston said, “When it comes to righteousness, we still have a long way to go.”
The last speaker at the event was the Rev. Bernice King, who had been five years old when an assassin’s bullet took her father. She too spoke of the passage of time, how it changes and reveals and how profound those shifts in perspective can be.
“Forty-nine years ago, when my father was assassinated, he was the most hated man in America,” she reminded the crowd. “Today, he is one of the most loved men in the world.”
As had other speakers, King alluded gracefully to the current controversy over how we celebrate and acknowledge our shared history in the public spaces that we also share, and the painful conversations that have yet to take place.
After the ceremony, I wandered over to the other side of the Capitol, where the statue of Gordon still stands watch as it has for more than a century now. As a plaque on the base of the statue reminds us, the general went on to enjoy a long career in public life after the war, serving as a U.S. senator and governor.
However, that plaque omits any mention of the fact that the stern-visaged Gordon also was a co-founder and national leader of the Ku Klux Klan, that as a U.S. senator he had been instrumental in the political deal that ended Reconstruction and that returned generations of black Georgians to a cruel repression that wasn’t quite slavery, but was well short of freedom. He was, in short, a major architect of the very system that Martin Luther King Jr. would die attempting to dismantle.
Those who erected that statue of Gordon back in 1907 knew that part of his story quite well, although even then they knew enough to be ashamed of it. Indeed, his proud, defiant statue on the grounds of the Georgia state Capitol is less a memorial to Confederate defeat than a monument to the return of white supremacy.
“When it comes to righteousness, we still have a long way to go.”