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Local leaders reflect on the King assassination

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Forty years ago, on April 4, the world lost one of its most influential leaders of 20th Century. It was on that day, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.

Many of the Southern Crescent's political and community leaders lived through that day and many others have witnessed the dramatic changes that have taken place in America in the wake of King's death.

Several reflected on that era four decades ago, and how their lives were touched by King:

"It was a tough time ... everybody was stunned and outraged," said Congressman David Scott (D-Ga.), who had graduated from Florida A&M University and was finishing up his first year at the Wharton School of Finance in Philadelphia.

"I turned to some wall or something and just cried ... it was very emotional," he said. "Dr. King was such an inspiration to me, because I was part of the student movement at Florida A&M and that's where I met Dr. King."

In the 1960s, Scott was involved in student protests in Tallahassee, Fla., to integrate the city's restaurants, theaters, and public facilities. He said King inspired students around the country.

"As a young student, you were really alive ... because it was young people who led the movement," said Scott. He said King was able to help the country address segregation, but was cut down before he was able to address economic inequality -- a problem, he said, the country has yet to solve.

"He was finally moving into the real issue of disparity between the races, which is economic," said Scott, noting that King was in Memphis to support higher wages for black garbage workers. "If you are getting a fair share of the pie, everything else will manifest itself to you. He understood that and he was moving toward that. If he had lived, I feel we would be much farther down the road in the economic sector."

Clayton Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell was a 33-year-old detective for the Atlanta Police Department when King died. While patrolling near the corner of Peachtree Street and Buckhead Avenue, he got a call from his chief of detectives, Clinton Chafin.

"He ordered me to come back to the detective department immediately," said Bell. "When I came in, he said that he wanted me to take charge of a detail on the west side of the city because Martin Luther King had been shot dead."

Bell said many of the nation's cities were experiencing rioting and arson, and he was "part of the force to make sure that [King's] city did not burn." He said he and about 40 other black police officers helped maintain peace in Atlanta's black communities.

As a beat cop, Bell was assigned to protect Auburn Avenue. He met King several times because the office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was there. In King's death, however, Bell's relationship with the King family became more intimate.

"I became a part of the detail for the funeral procession," said Bell. "Thereafter, I had the responsibility of guarding the grave site at South View Cemetery, working 12 hours a night. I was promoted to sergeant after that and had the distinction of placing the body in the final resting place," at what is now the King Center on Auburn Avenue.

As a superior officer, Bell handled the death investigation of Alfred Daniel Williams King, King's brother. He died in a suspicious home drowning incident in 1969. He also handled the murder investigation of King's mother, Alberta Williams King. She was shot and killed in 1974, while sitting at the organ of the King family's church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

"While we were not personal friends, we had been around each other all our lives," said Bell. "He was a one-of-a-kind ... a patient man determined to do what he could for the least of these. I'm please to have lived in a time when he lived and got to know the man and his family, from his grandparents to his children."

Rev. Daniel Edwards, president of the Henry County NAACP, was only a six-year old boy living in Fort Wayne, Ind., during the time of King's assassination. However, he said the day was "the defining moment in my life."

"I remember it like it was yesterday," said Edwards. "There was a phone call and we were all called to go to my grandmother's house. All of the relatives were there and everybody was grieving.

"As a child, when you see your parents cry, you cry," Edwards continued. "That is a part of my life that I will never forget. That was the moment that I decided that I would do something," he said.

In 1980, Edwards entered the military, where he became the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) representative for Fort McPherson, and later served in the same capacity at a base in Nuremberg, Germany. His job was to ensure the equal treatment of soldiers serving the Army.

"Over that time, I developed a passion for justice, and that's what got me where I am now," said Edwards. As president of the Henry County NAACP, he said his organization has been able to successfully "build bridges and build relationships" between the races in Henry County.

"Racism is like a boil on the skin of America," said Edwards. "A boil has to be burst and exposed to the light." He said King taught him racism must be approached in the same way.

"You have to be willing to sit down at the table of discussion," he said. "You can't continue to put a Band-Aid on a wound and expect it to heal."

Rev. Charles W. Grant -- executive director of Clayton County Community Services and a long-time advocate of the Southside's poor -- turned 40 around the time King was shot. He was three years into starting what then was called the Clayton County Economic Opportunity Authority, Inc.

"We were a very young organization at the time," said Grant. "This was quite an opportunity then to get programs to combat some of the deficiencies that were in the county," he said.

Grant said his relationship with King as "peripheral," but added, people like King were instrumental in starting many of the public-assistance programs available through CCCS today. He said King's death provided the catalyst to bring segregation and its policies to an end -- somewhat peacefully -- in the Southern Crescent.

King's death, "not only shined a light [on the problems], but it gave people the desire to change what is wrong," said Grant. "It was the energy that drove it ... it energized the movement."