Gordon Parks believed that images and words could be used as weapons to fight racism, poverty, and all forms of discrimination. This is the second of a two-part feature this month that presents Gordon Parks’s own words, in solidarity with social justice protests happening nationally and internationally.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis Tennessee. Just over two weeks later, Life magazine sent Gordon Parks to Atlanta, Georgia to cover Dr. King's funeral as a journalist, not a photographer. The essay chronicled the event, but also conveyed a searing reflection on the conscience of white America—one that was met with apprehension by Life’s editors. The accompanying photographs of the funeral were not taken by Gordon Parks, but by Black Star photographers Bob Black, Bob Fitch, and Flip Schulke. The essay’s title, “The Man Who Tried to Love Somebody,” was borrowed from a sermon titled “The Drum Major Instinct,” delivered by Dr. King at Ebenezer Baptist Church on February 4, 1968, just two months before his assasination. In that speech, he told the congregation what he would like said at his funeral: “I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.”
The following is Park’s essay in its entirety. To see it in print in Life, click here.
“Here again was the stench of carnations sweetening the Southern closeness, the white-robed choir singing hymns so familiar to our down-home Sabbath, the black children wondering about the soul of the deceased floating somewhere above them. Here again were the minister and his elders praying to God to take charge of the departed soul. And here was the widow, veiled and beautiful in grief. But in little Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, packed with its black congregation and a strange scattering of familiar whitefaces, there was also something hauntingly different. The scratchy, taped voice of the man we sorrowed for echoed off the walls and penetrated our hearts. ". . . and if you're around when I have to meet my day, I don't want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell him not to talk too long.” The quiet as heavy as the magnificent revivalist voice of our murdered black leaders rolled on. " I'd Like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody. . . Standing in the crush along the wall, I close my eyes, remembering back 50 years, past my sight of the King children, indeed, through them, through the odor of camphor and the swishing of fans, to the black funerals of my childhood. Things hadn't got that much better for us. This man, our most celebrated spokesman, lies in a black man's burial ground. " / want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity!”
In the coffin lay one who had filled us with a sense of hope, a hope that seemed, at this despairing moment, shattered. But in death he had made us know who we are and what we are. He made us know that we were still in a land of oppression and assassins. In Spite of the tears in Ebenezer and all over the country, how moved, really moved, was the white conscience?
White racists warned Dr. King that they would kill him. They kept their word. And even now, as we sat mourning this tragedy, the spring air over dozens of American cities was darkening to arsonist smoke— the black ghetto's answer to the white racist deed. A distinguished gathering of white government leaders, all visibly moved, sat beneath the hot roof of Ebenezer. Some had helped Dr. King during his trials. But others hadn't, and most of their soul brothers hadn't cared at all. Over a bonfire in Yazoo City, Miss, one night, Martin had answered the black extremist who shouted for blood and fire: " I'm tired of shooting! I'm tired of clubs! I'm tired of killing! I'm tired of war! I'm not going to use violence, no matter who says so!" He had protested the way American whites preferred that he protest—nonviolently. He spent the last dozen years of his life preaching love to men of all colors. And for all this, a man, white like you, blasted a bullet through his neck. And in doing so the madman has just about eliminated the last symbol of peace between us. We must struggle to distinguish between his act and your conscience.
It is not enough any more when you ask that all whites not be blamed for what one did. You must know how we really feel— before grass takes root over Dr. King's grave. We are angry. All of us. I have spoken to hundreds since that Thursday— the Black Nationalists in Los Angeles, ministers from Minnesota and New York, college students in Atlanta. Believe this, no matter what anyone else tells you: you have pushed us to the precipice. Of course we don't blame all of you literally, but we cannot control what is deep in our hearts. The thousands of blacks killed between 1868 and 1968 for just trying to vote, the slayings of little Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, the three civil rights workers Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, and now Martin Luther King, have not endeared our hearts to you. Too many of us are still unaccounted for in the terror-ridden swamp lands of the South.
True, all the burning and looting won't help, but how else could you expect the black ghetto dweller to express his frustration? Could he have called the cop who has given him the back of his hand— and often the end of his club— through all these years? Should he have called the mayor or the White House?
We are wondering a lot of things. Maybe our questions are expressions of furious emotion, but black men are demanding the answers. Our own tragic experience as second-class citizens in the eyes of the law and the courts leads us to cry: how did one man elude 40 policemen assigned to protect Dr. King after blasting a shot over their heads in broad daylight? Where is the killer?
And what will the law do with him when he is caught? Medgar Evers' murderer is only one such assassin still at large. Even punished, Dr. King's killer will remain a symbol of the white attitude toward blacks— unless the redemption goes deeper. A new civil rights bill has passed. That is good, but white America must continue to show the strength of its conscience before we realize its worth.
We have grown to doubt the hopeful songs of our fathers. We wonder if we shall overcome our doubts about your promises. We have grown to lack the patience to wait for God's deliverance. We want a new life. Our youth refuses to sit and wait to share in the affluence that you surround them with. They will cross your line even if it means death. "A man must conquer the fear of death," Dr. King said, "otherwise he is lost already."
No man spoke harder against violence. Yet few men suffered more from it than he. His worship of a higher law got him jailed, stoned and stabbed. He led us into fire hoses, police dogs and police clubs. His only armor was truth and love. Now that he lies dead from a lower law, we begin to wonder if love is enough. Racism still engulfs us. The fires still smoulder and the extremists, black and white, are buying the guns. Everywhere—Army troops stand ready. Our President is warned against going to Atlanta. America is indeed in a state of shock. The white man, stricken, must stay firm in his conscience, and the black man must see that he does. If the death of this great man does not unite us, we are committing ourselves to suicide. If his lessons are not absorbed by the whites, by Congress, by my black brothers, by any who would use violence to dishonor his memory, that "dream" he had could vanish into a nightmare. You and I can fulfill his dream by observing his higher law of nonviolence to the echo of his drumbeat. To my black brothers, I say, remember his words: "Protest courageously, with dignity and Christian love. History will then say there lived a great people—a black people—who injected new meaning into the veins of civilization. This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility."
Life Magazine, April 19, 1968, pages 27-28.
Life Magazine, April 19, 1968, pages 29-30.
Life Magazine, April 19, 1968, pages 31-32.