In days of old, when someone messed with a King, he was usually thrown in the dungeon without trial or jury. Justice was swift and mercy was rare.


That’s because, oftentimes, the King held things together. Loved or hated, he was a force to be reckoned with. He had power and powerful friends, and messing with him wasn’t advised. On that subject, little has changed through the centuries, as you’ll see in “Burial for a King” by Rebecca Burns.

Xernona Clayton was working on an unusual project the night that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot: she was trying to set up a meeting between King and Calvin Craig of the Ku Klux Klan. As King’s director of public relations, Clayton was used to hoaxes; when a waitress handed her a note that said Dr. King had been shot, she ignored it.

When she realized it was true, she hurried to Coretta Scott King’s side.

Robert Kennedy was told about the shooting shortly after it happened. He spoke briefly to a small crowd of supporters, mentioning his brother’s assassination (something he rarely discussed). When he finished talking, he went to his hotel and wept.

Media swooped in on Memphis’ Lorraine Motel on the evening that Dr. King was killed. News cameras captured J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI working the scene. They also captured the hotel’s housekeeper, as she tried to scrub bloodstains from the balcony.

There was violence in almost all major cities in the days after Dr. King was shot. Riots broke out and entire neighborhoods burned.

Thousands of people descended upon Atlanta for Dr. King’s funeral. They slept on church pews and park benches for a chance to squeeze near Ebenezer Baptist Church, barely allowing mourners to pass or the coffin to be placed on the wagon that bore it to the cemetery.

Over the last forty-some years, a lot has been written about Dr. King, his assassination, and his work. “Burial of a King” takes things beyond, in an almost minute-by-minute account of a weekend that witnesses will never forget.

She does through interviews, letters, personal accounts, and papers kept by mourners and others,  Burns allows readers to peek at the smaller moments that filled that historic time.

Anyone old enough to remember Dr. King’s assassination will appreciate this deep look at what happened surrounding that day. Anyone younger will enjoy the perspective given in this book. Either way, for readers interested in cultural history, “Burial for a King” could be the crown on your bookshelf.

(“Burial for a King: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Funeral and the Week That Transformed Atlanta and Rocked the Nation” by Rebecca Burns, Scribner $24, 256 pages, includes notes)

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