The Secret History of Dr. Martin Luther King’s funeral in Atlanta

Over five decades have passed since those traumatic days in Atlanta, which few people in world know about. I don’t feel or look that old . . . yet, here I am . . . a witness to events that have been erased from the history books.

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

Excerpt from the book, The Lord of Cumberland (2008) by Richard L. Thornton

Tidewater mark of the Vietnam War

In late January of 1968, Viet Nam exploded with the Tet Offensive. We had been told for two years by the Johnson Administration that America was winning the war, and then on the evening TV news in the motel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee on our fraternity’s annual ski weekend, we saw Viet Cong soldiers firing from positions INSIDE the United States Embassy in Saigon. The Viet Cong was decimated as a result of the Tet Offensive, but Johnson’s credibility was destroyed with a sizable percentage of citizens suddenly becoming opponents of the war.  

My date for the weekend was Barbara Wisdom from Wesleyan College in Macon. I had met her at a social prior to the startup of classes in September, but was dependent on hitching a ride with my fraternity Big Brother, Clark Smith, to visit Barbara in Macon.  Her father was U.S. Army Colonel Wylie B. Wisdom, attached to I Corps in Vietnam.  I Corps was bearing the brunt of the Viet Cong attacks.  Barbara starred at the scenes on television with a haunted, blank look on her face . . . She was pretty much a zombie the rest of the weekend.  

Barbara seemed only mildly interested in me. Being a dumb 18 year old, overwhelmed with classwork, but still terribly interested in girls, it never dawned on me until decades later that she undoubtedly had many friends from her time at Baker High School, near Fort Benning, GA, in Vietnam. She had grown up in Fort Benning. Many of her neighbors and sons of her neighbors were over there. Maybe her boyfriend was over there. Stupid me never thought about the probability that she might be more concerned about their welfare than romancing a Tech guy, who she had met the previous September and only dated a few times.

I never knowingly saw Barbara again . . . but years later,  at the same time, she and I were suddenly single again and moved to Roswell, GA.  We probably passed by each other more than once, not knowing that we were seeing a familiar face from a traumatic past. Ironically, Barbara now lives near my sister in the northern suburbs of Houston, Texas.

The number and scale of protests grew steadily. One of my favorite Navy officers, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for a horrific battle on the Mekong River in Vietnam, told us at the end of a class on guerilla warfare that “the United States Navy was the finest military organization in the world, but we should do whatever was possible to avoid duty in Vietnam.  We would be wasting our lives for nothing . . . a big lie made up by politicians in Washington.”  The entire class was stunned. Most sat in our desks for awhile after the class ended . . . trying to comprehend what we had just heard.

President Johnson eventually announced that he would not seek re-election. Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, most noticeably, the Rev. Martin Luther King, began speaking out against the Vietnam War, because a disproportionate percentage of low income African-American boys were being sent by the draft there and being killed there. FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, publicly called Dr. King a Communist traitor. Rightwing spokesmen in many sections of the country demanded that he be arrested as a traitor . . . others said he should be deported to Africa!

The murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

America would never be the same after April 8, 1968. That is the day that Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, TN. The very first newsmen to reach the scene talked with witnesses, who reported seeing Army soldiers in combat uniforms, carrying large rifles with scopes. Those reports were hushed up after the first day.  

The Navy officer instructors in Georgia Tech’s NROTC Battalion were convinced that rogue generals in the US. Army with the collaboration of J. Edgar Hoover,  had ordered the murder of Dr. King.  You see,  back then there was a huge difference in the political attitudes between U. S. Navy and Army officers.  

The next day the national news carried vague reports of “some” demonstrations around the country, but we were led to believe that the nation was in a state of passive mourning. Then, parents of fraternity brothers at my Lambda Chi Alpha house from other areas of the country began calling their sons to see if they were okay. “We see Washington burning! We see Detroit burning! We see the Watts Area in Los Angeles is burning! St. Louis and Kansas City are burning!” Yet neither national nor local new commentators said anything. No longer would we ever completely trust the national news media.

Downtown Atlanta Freeway near the Georgia Tech campus in 1969

The funeral in Atlanta

The situation heated up locally when plans for King’s funeral in Atlanta were announced. Most universities in the nation and in Georgia, announced that they would be closed. Georgia Tech stated that it would run classes as usual on that day . . . a very stupid move.

Immediately, Tech began receiving bomb threats. Rioters on Techwood Drive tried to reach the Tech campus. Attempts were made by anarchists to break into the Navy NROTC Armory, which held about 800 M1 rifles, lots of ammunition, plus some grenades and machine guns in its arsenal.

The next day, we received letters in our campus mail boxes from the Naval ROTC Commandant. Since I was an S & E Contract Midshipmen, I also received a telegram from the Dept. of the Navy, telling me to stay near my residence, until further orders are received.

All 780 midshipmen were to remain on campus, and be prepared to go on active combat duty at short notice.  Actually,  many of the midshipmen could not be forced into combat duty, but I could.  Shortly after turning 18, I had signed an S & E contract, which said that I could be called into active combat duty anytime up to age 66.

Holy Toledo! They’re talking race war! What about our handful of Colored midshipmen? That would put them in a pickle of a situation. For that matter, the vast majority of our battalion were admirers of Dr. King and totally sympathized with those who were outraged at his murder.

Then . . . during the night, someone or a group of people threw two Molotov cocktails at our fraternity house, starting a fire in the dining room.  Later that night a group of armed WHITE assassins?, wearing black ski masks, broke through the first-floor door of the fraternity’s dormitory, but we had barricaded the stairs with chairs.  Then, apparently some sort of bomb was exploded at the Naval Armory next to Grant Field football stadium. 

I do not know why our Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity house (above) drew the brunt of violence on the Georgia Tech campus. It was sandwiched between numerous fraternity houses and its national organization had a “pro-civil rights” reputation.

Fortunately, an admiral in the Pentagon that night had second thoughts about the wisdom of putting midshipmen with no combat training into urban combat.  I had not fired a rifle since I was in the Boy Scouts!  Before sunrise, Active Duty Marines and also, some National Guardsmen showed up on the Tech campus to guard the buildings and key intersections from an expected attack. About 75 feet from our fraternity property, soldiers (I believe Marines) built a massive sand bag fortification around a triangular street island. BIG. MEAN-LOOKING 50 cal. machine guns pointed out from its firing holes in every direction.

One of my fraternity brothers, whose family owned a farm out from Atlanta took Gladys P. Jones, our housemother, plus the two Colored employees, who ran the kitchen, out to the farm for their own safety. Back then, the label Black and both N words were considered by us to be insulting to people of African descent. Yes, we were very frightened. It was like a nuclear bomb being thrust on us, without warning.

Georgia Tech’s administrators eventually had the good sense to cancel most classes on the day of the funeral – or I believe the term was “voluntary attendance” which meant that neither profs nor students showed up.

The eyes of the world were on Atlanta that day. What the world saw was a city in peaceful mourning. Very few people, even in the Atlanta Area, every knew what had happened and what had almost happened on the Georgia Tech Campus. It made many of us wonder if there were many other aspects of life in America today, that were being presented falsely by the Nixon Administration and the national media. What was the truth? What was really happening elsewhere?

My life was to change radically.  Exactly two years after Dr. King’s funeral, I was receiving personal instruction from a Marine Colonel and a Navy Lt. Commander, who had both won the Congressional Medal of Honor . . . in jungle survival, guerilla warfare, hand-to-hand combat and self-treatment of wounds . . . in preparation for a secret mission for Naval Intelligence, while I was on a fellowship in Mexico. Simultaneously, the Director of Georgia Tech’s Art Department was teaching me architectural, nature and micro (spy) photography.

That training not only helped me to obtain amazing photographs in Mesoamerica, while traveling alone in the mountains and jungle, but would later also insure our survival, when we three fraternity brothers would become shipwrecked by a hurricane on an uninhabited island, that contained no potable water. That uninhabited island was destined to become Cumberland Island National Park.

Rev. Andrew Young

The Rev. Andrew Young was standing beside Dr. King, when he was shot.  After the funeral and subsequent mourning period, as Dr. King’s personal assistant, he was out of a job. Andy was invited to become the Assistant Minister of our Wesleyan Foundation,  which was on the same block as Lambda Chi Alpha.  Wesleyan Foundation is what the Methodists call their campus churches. Ours had some dorm rooms too,

It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life to be able to sit casually on the couch beside or in front of the Rev. Young. We heard amazing stories about his experiences in the very heart of the Civil Rights Movement. Little did we know that this sincere minister of the Gospel was destined to become a Congressman,  ambassador to the United Nations and Mayor of Atlanta!

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