Lewis’ funeral will surely be different, too: The Covid-19 pandemic will require social distancing, which means Lewis’ funeral won’t be the local phenomenon that King’s was. But both funerals will have taken place during moments of great potential for change on racial justice and the political pushback those reckonings trigger. After King’s funeral, it appeared that his vision for change won out. But over the decades, even as Americans continued to worship the irreproachable, beatific myth they built King into, Washington’s commitment to his real-world legacy weakened. The Lewis funeral, sure to be a more restrained affair amid Covid-era conditions, will give Americans another chance to rededicate themselves not just to a myth but to the cause that united both men—and the difficult, often controversial political work it requires.
In the days leading up to King’s funeral, thousands of mourners arrived at the Atlanta bus station, and celebrities—including Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Bill Cosby, all of the Supremes, Diahann Carroll, Eartha Kitt, Wilt Chamberlain—flew into the airport by the dozen. Every hotel was packed; many of the visitors camped out on gymnasium floors and slept in church pews. The Kennedys rented a floor of the Hyatt, and Sidney Poitier held court in the atrium of the Marriott. City buses transported mourners without charging for tickets.
King’s funeral drew every candidate in the 1968 presidential race, from Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey to Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon. A chartered plane flew senators from Washington. More than 20 ambassadors attended. Those who did not make it into the sanctuary joined the throngs outside the church. Robert Woodruff, the former president of Coca-Cola, quietly underwrote a sizable portion of the expenses.
It had never been more important to be, and be seen as, a supporter of the civil rights cause, even as fear and political blowback boiled beneath the surface. Atlanta remained mostly calm, but it was on high alert. After King’s assassination, riots broke out in more than 100 cities, and 57,000 National Guard troops were dispatched around the country, the largest military deployment since the Civil War. Flames and protests raged just blocks from the White House. Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen ordered liquor stores and bars closed while dozens of businesses boarded their windows and bolted their doors; some hired armed guards. Police in the city worked double shifts.
King’s political foes didn’t take the day off, either. On the day of the funeral, segregationist Governor Lester Maddox sequestered himself in the state Capitol building, surrounded by guards ordered to shoot any mourners that trespassed on the Capitol grounds. Maddox had refused to allow King’s body to lie in the Georgia Capitol and protested flags being lowered to half-staff. The only Georgia politicians to attend the funeral were former Governor Carl Sanders and Attorney General Arthur Bolton.
Lewis’ funeral, too, will be sure to put broader political tensions on full display. We can expect a number of high-profile politicians from both parties, but especially Democrats. Of course, not everyone will be attending in person. Travel restrictions will reduce the number of politicians and personalities who attend, and many have already attended the ceremony in Washington, D.C. Many tributes will be recorded on video, and the ceremony will be livestreamed. While it’s likely mourners will line nearby Auburn Avenue and Wheat Street as they did for King’s service, it’s also likely that the numbers will be restricted by Covid precautions.
Locally, Governor Brian Kemp, a white man, is suing Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Black woman, over Atlanta’s Covid-19 mask mandate. Both of them are scheduled to attend Lewis’ funeral. In Georgia, deaths from Covid-19 disproportionately affect Black residents, who represent 31 percent of the state’s population but 47 percent of its Covid fatalities. One of the factors that contributes to this disparity is lack of health care in the state, where Medicaid expansion has been rejected by the GOP and where unemployment is in double digits. The economic fallout of the virus is unlikely to affect white and Black people in state equally; even before the pandemic decimated the economy, Black Georgians lived in poverty at more than double the rate of white Georgians.
This year there is a particular political friction at the church itself. The church’s current senior pastor, Rev. Raphael Warnock, is running for the Senate seat held by Kemp appointee Kelly Loeffler, who could also be at the funeral. Warnock delivered the eulogy at the June 23 funeral held at Ebenezer for Rayshard Brooks, the man killed by police near an Atlanta Wendy’s. Loeffler has doubled down on statements condemning the Black Lives Matter movement as “based on Marxist principles” and a “threat” to the country.
The heated politics of the moment likely won’t be remembered in the history of Lewis’ funeral—but they could play a role in how Lewis’ work will be seen and carried out after his death.
Immediately after King’s funeral, it appeared that violence of his assassination and the emotional scenes from the funeral attended by his widow and four children prompted policy change. On April 10, 1968, the day after King was laid to rest in South-View, Congress was spurred to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Open Housing Law. The law forbade discrimination by multi-unit housing landlords and included other provisions preventing racial discrimination in voter registration, serving on juries and access to public facilities. (For all the accolades to King and his legacy in the hometown newspapers in the week after his death, every member of the Georgia delegation voted against the law.) It was similar to the public outcry over Bloody Sunday in Selma just a few years earlier, which gave lawmakers impetus to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
But over time, King’s funeral became the first step in Americans building a myth around King that obscured his more radical and controversial work. When King was celebrated in Atlanta—in what was then the largest public funeral for a nonpresident in history—the civil rights leader quickly became cemented in public opinion as a martyr, “canonized” in the view of academics and historians. From the choice to transport King’s coffin from Ebenezer to the campus of Morehouse College by mule wagon, to overalls worn by many in his inner circle—evocative of the work King and the SCLC were doing on the Poor People’s Campaign—choices about the funeral’s optics were made with television screens and newspaper front pages in mind. Through the imagery of the funeral, King was becoming something he never was in life: Noncontroversial; mainstream.
In the aftermath of King’s assassination, media coverage quickly referred to his crusade for racial equality and hearkened back to his “Dream” speech. The reality is that King was, at the time, more actively protesting the Vietnam War and crusading for causes of economic justice, chapters in his life that often are glossed over. He was far more radical than the beatific image children learn about in school and corporate ad campaigns pay homage to.
But it was only the funeral that made King’s legacy look noncontroversial and apolitical in the long run. In Washington, steady efforts have chipped away at the voting rights Lewis, King and thousands of others fought for. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, effectively gutting it.
And then there is the unfinished business of policing and civil rights. One of Lewis’ last public appearances was a visit to the Black Lives Matter street mural in Washington. He battled pancreatic cancer as protests took place across the country against police brutality and systemic racism. “My heart breaks for these men and women, their families, and the country that let them down—again,” he said in a May statement. “Just as people of all faiths and no faiths, and all backgrounds, creeds, and colors banded together decades ago to fight for equality and justice in a peaceful, orderly, nonviolent fashion, we must do so again.”
On the morning of King’s funeral, John Lewis walked up Wheat Street toward Ebenezer Baptist. He knew the service would be crowded—historic Ebenezer held only 750 people—without enough room to house all the politicians and celebrities who had descended on Atlanta, let alone the family, congregants and friends of his mentor. So he gave up his ticket and joined the tens of thousands of people crowded into the street and listening as the service was broadcast on speakers.
It was there that he heard his mentor’s voice, in the recorded sermon of King’s “Drum Major Instinct,” that was played at the service. “If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get someone to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long,” King said. “I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others.”
Later, Lewis joined the mourners walking behind King’s coffin toward Morehouse College, where further tributes would be paid. The man who had led others in marches and would lead them for decades afterward was walking by himself, indistinguishable from the rest of the crowd.