MLK historic site exhibit focuses on King's life, death

ATLANTA - ""Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.'

These words by Martin Luther King Jr. mark a plaque by the doorway to a special exhibit at the King Historic Site commemorating the 40th anniversary of his April 4, 1968, assassination.

The artifacts and photographs of ""From Memphis to Atlanta: The Drum Major Returns Home' chronicle the final days and hours before King's death to the funeral procession by thousands of mourners through his hometown five days later.

The display also emphasizes the continuing legacy of the late civil rights leader's mission for nonviolent social change, said Dean Rowley, a National Park Service ranger and curator of the exhibit.

The centerpiece is the wagon that was drawn by two mules as it carried King's casket from the funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached to a memorial service at Morehouse College, his alma mater, more than 4 miles away. Before going on display, the wagon had been stored at an antique shop.

""The purpose of the mule wagon was to show the importance of his dedication to the poor,' Rowley said.

This commitment to his Poor People's Campaign, Rowley said, took King to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. It was there that he was struck by an assassin's bullet at the Lorraine Motel.

Among the photographs adorning the gallery walls are those of striking garbage workers with picket signs; King, flanked by Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy on the Lorraine balcony on April 3; the historic image of the fallen King on the balcony the following day as his aides point to the source of gunfire; four lilies attached by a ribbon to a cross posted on the door of room 306, outside of which he was fatally wounded.

There are also photos of his widow, Coretta Scott King, and their children at the funeral; the tearstained faces of his father and mother; and another of Coretta Scott King and Harry Belafonte, tears welling in their eyes.

There are artifacts including the death certificate, burial permit and a bill totaling $3,475.89 from Hanley Bell St. Funeral Home.

There are also symbolic red carnations to represent the artificial flowers that King gave his wife about two weeks before his death. Until then, he regularly gave her fresh flowers, Rowley said.

""She thought later that he had a premonition,' he said.

King's words seem to have grown increasingly prophetic.

A statement from 1962, also enshrined outside the exhibit gallery, says of his work: ""It may get me crucified. I may even die. But I want it said even if I die in the struggle that "He died to make men free.'

Two months before his death, in a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, King remarked on how he would like to be remembered.

""Tell them I was a drum major for peace and a drum major for justice,' he said.

Those words lend themselves to the name of the special exhibit, which begins Friday and runs through Aug. 31, incorporating the Aug. 28 anniversary of his ""I Have a Dream' speech during the March on Washington in 1963.

Finally, there is a haunting statement from another of King's historic speeches, at Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis the night before he died.

""Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place,' King said. ""But I am not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will.

""I've looked over and seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that as a people we will get to the Promised Land.'

This aspect of King's life and legacy - ""doing God's will' - is particularly striking in the display at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site on Auburn Avenue across from the church where he preached.

Just outside the gallery are posted summations by family members, associates and others close to the civil rights movement. They include one by Elisabeth Omilani, the daughter of Hosea Williams and executive director of Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless.