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Martin Luther King, Jr. and Paul Simon: Views From The Mountaintop

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Martin Luther King, Jr. and Paul Simon: Views From The Mountaintop

The sculpture is "Homage To King" by Xavier Medina-Campeny. It stands at John Lewis Freedom Parkway and Boulevard, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo courtesy of Jeff Cochran


At supper my dad told of a conversation he had with a client in Pennsylvania earlier in the day. It was April 9, 1968, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was laid to rest.

“I guess you people are wearing black armbands down there today,” Dad’s client snickered.

“No,” Dad responded, “but maybe we should.”

The sadness that so devastated those who admired, loved and depended on Dr. King wasn’t universally shared, even in Atlanta, Georgia, King’s hometown. While the city appeared an island of calm compared to other cities in the South during the civil rights years, there was much resentment felt toward King by many in Atlanta and its suburbs. King’s advocacy for those wishing to rise from the lower rungs stirred fear and hatred. Some parents were only too happy to share such animosities with their children. “My father really hates Martin Luther King,” an elementary school classmate said one day in the mid-60s, pointing to a magazine with King on the cover. People were not shy about spreading their venom. Their spite would grow worse if one had the temerity to calmly disagree with them. As long as Black people remained on the bottom, always subservient, then life for the hateful and misguided could move along unimpeded. At least that’s the way they acted.

In April ’68 Gary Granger was the evening deejay at WQXI-AM, Atlanta’s top rock and roll station which, despite its majority white audience, played a lot of soul music. Young Atlantans picked up on the music of Motown, Muscle Shoals and Memphis as well as the sounds from Liverpool and California. Granger says the man “who built WQXI,” Kent Burkhart, was particularly focused on Black music as well as on the city’s growing Black population. Burkhart was certain local white kids about Granger’s age would be dancing to Black music. And why not? The Beatles and the Rolling Stones had covered songs by Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and the Isley Brothers. The music stirred passions and compelled desires to hear even more. The playlists at WQXI-AM in mid-60s Atlanta allowed both ears and minds to open up. Quite naturally, also hitting the airwaves behind a WQXI mic was Martin Luther King, Jr.

As an aspiring deejay and radio producer not even out of his teens, Granger worked with King on the public affairs programs which aired Sunday mornings. At the Atlanta premier of Dr. Zhivago (’65), Granger, to his amazement, saw King standing alone near the popcorn machine. Rushing over to shake King’s hand and say hello, Gary said his girlfriend, Mae Mitchell, was in the theatre and he’d be right back with her for introductions. King said he’d love to meet her but by the time Gary and Mae returned to the lobby, King was surrounded by people. Seeing the couple waiting to get with him, King gave them a little sign. Granger said King “held his hand to his ear as if holding a phone, which meant that I should call him.”

On April 4, 1968, Granger was attending radio class for his 1st Class Radio License when the announcement of Dr. King’s death was made over the intercom. Immediately there was a standing ovation by the students, all but Granger, who thought of King the leader and visionary and of King, his friend. “I took my books, Granger remembers, “left and never returned.”

Maria Saporta can relate to the hurt and anger felt by Granger. She was twelve-years-old at the time and quite familiar with Dr. King’s work. Her parents were active in the Civil Rights movement and she considered Martin and Coretta King’s oldest child, Yolanda, to be her best friend. Maria and Yolanda both attended Spring Street Elementary School and would see each other away from school, often spending the night together at the King home.

In 2007, upon the death of Yolanda King, Saporta wrote in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about their friendship. On one memorable evening, Maria stayed behind in the kitchen after supper, talking with Dr. King as the great man dried the evening’s dishes. Yolanda chided Maria, reminding her she was supposed to be visiting her, not talking with Daddy. That was a great night for Maria Saporta. Despite her many accomplishments as a journalist, she remembers that evening as the highlight of her life. “I still tell my friends,” she said recently, “that my peak moment was at eleven-years-old.”

In her book, Burial For A King, Rebecca Burns provides a thorough and moving account of how Atlanta responded to King’s murder. Burns’ achievement with her book is in how she conveys the care, in ways large and small, that was taken to see that Atlanta, from the city government and beyond, provided King with the honor he so richly deserved. But not everyone in Atlanta, just as with Gary Granger’s classmates, mourned the loss of King. Burns writes of how the Saporta family, after hearing the news of the King assassination on the radio, decided to go out for dinner. The news had hit hard; the family was drained, with no energy for preparing a meal. As the Saportas walked out of their apartment, they saw a neighbor on the elevator whooping it up with friends.

”Martin Luther King has been shot!” the neighbor shouted to the Saportas. “We’re going out celebrating.”

Recently I asked Maria Saporta if the neighbor knew her family and the Kings were friends. She thought he didn’t and concluded,”I think his assumption was that everybody was feeling happy that night. And I think we were in such a state of disbelief that we did not respond. I know I never spoke to him again. I’m not sure if he ever figured it out.”

Laugh About It, Shout About It… As the Saportas walked away from their apartment building across from the Georgia Tech campus, car radios were blaring the news of the King assassination. Also likely heard up and down North Avenue were the sounds of “Mrs. Robinson” from Simon and Garfunkel’s album, Bookends, released just the day before. Simon and Garfunkel were the most popular American act in rock. They had it working: splendid vocals and resourceful production amplifying Paul Simon’s graceful music and observant lyrics. Kids at school bought Simon and Garfunkel records, as did our younger teachers, especially those supportive of Dr. King and the civil rights movement. There was one English teacher, perhaps just as bored as we were with past participles and such, who devoted class time to discuss “7 0’Clock News/Silent Night,” the last track on Simon and Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme album, released in fall ’66. The teacher explained how they gently sang the first verse of the Christmas carol twice, while in the background a simulated radio news report voiced over by disc jockey Charlie O’ Donnell is heard. The song fades as the newscast becomes louder with reports of America engaged in anything but peace, heavenly or otherwise. One of the reports concerns the efforts by Dr. King to lead an open housing march in Cicero, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Our teacher’s words hardly made for a polemic, but some of us understood where she was going with her comments, just as she hoped some of her thoughts would stick in our heads. But for most of the students, it was “Mrs. Robinson” that truly resonated. It was an effervescent and witty song, even with its recognition of despair and longing for simpler times when heroes such as Joe DiMaggio could enchant while pursuing a long fly in Yankee Stadium.

In a New York Times column published the day after DiMaggio’s death, Paul Simon wrote of meeting “The Yankee Clipper” a few years after the release of “Mrs. Robinson.” DiMaggio was bewildered over the lyrics Simon had fashioned.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you
What’s that you say Mrs Robinson
Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away

Upon first hearing the song, DiMaggio wondered if he could sue Simon. But in an Italian restaurant where DiMaggio was dining with friends, Simon walked over and introduced himself. Finally, a chance to discuss the song. Their conversation was cordial, according to Simon, even though DiMaggio had some questions.

“What I don’t understand,” he said, “is why you ask where I’ve gone. I just did a Mr. Coffee commercial, I’m a spokesman for the Bowery Savings Bank and I haven’t gone anywhere.”

I said that I didn’t mean the lines literally, that I thought of him as an American hero and that genuine heroes were in short supply. He accepted the explanation and thanked me. We shook hands and said good night.

Ironically enough, “Mrs Robinson” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on the first week of June ’68, the week that another hero, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated. Not even two full months after Martin Luther King, Jr was buried at South-View Cemetery in southeast Atlanta.

Train In The Distance… On his first solo album after finally splitting with Art Garfunkel, Simon delivered “Peace Like A River,” a song that all at once is weary, determined and beautiful. An evocative melody serves as a powerful setting for the quiet resolution conveyed by Simon.

You can beat us with wires
You can beat us with chains
You can run out your rules
But you know you can’t outrun the history train
I’ve seen a glorious day

On the evening of the last full day of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke from a Memphis pulpit of the glory he had seen. Even as he doubted he would live to experience the great days ahead, he knew they were coming. King said God had taken him to the mountaintop where he saw the history train pull into the station. He acknowledged his fears and his hopes to the nearly 2,000 people gathered at the Mason Temple:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that we as a people will get to the promised land. And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

King was in Memphis on behalf of striking sanitation workers; 1,300 Black sanitation workers treated by the city no better than the garbage they were hired to collect. While adding his support in Memphis, King had even more pressing things on his mind. There were doubts and struggles with the Poor People’s Campaign he had recently launched. There too was his opposition to the Vietnam War, which he termed “an unjustified, cynical and hopeless slaughter of poor people of color.” Yet the plight of the striking workers in Memphis weighed heavily on his heart. The sanitation workers were kept down not only by discrimination, but also low wages and dangerous working conditions. Applying his Road-to-Jericho philosophy inspired by Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, King felt called to help others even when it put him in harm’s way. Relating the parable to a Memphis audience, King said, “That’s the question for you tonight…. The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question.”

As King proclaimed the lesson of humanity on the Jericho Road, James Earl Ray, following and stalking King, was on his way to Memphis. Making his destination on April 3, Ray learned where King and his party were staying. The next day Ray checked into a room at a boarding house across from the Lorranie Hotel. Ray took his high-powered rifle, aimed and fired, exercising his hatred to take down the man who extolled dreams of peace and brotherhood.

That brutal moment in our nation’s history remains agonizing. It haunts us. In April 2011, forty-three years and one week after the assassination, Paul Simon released his So Beautiful or So What album. On the album’s intense title song, Simon recalls that painful late afternoon in 1968:

Four men on the balcony
Overlooking the parking lot
Pointing at a figure in the distance
Dr. King has just been shot
And the sirens’ long melody
Singing Savior Pass Me Not

Earlier in the song, Simon sings of telling his kids a bedtime story. A happy ending? “Maybe yeah or maybe not,” he explains.

You know life is what you make of it
So beautiful or so what

A cultivated and erudite man, King knew of the beauty that was God-given and that which graced works of arts and even common labor. There should be no “so what” as we go about our lives, no matter what position we fill. Before a group of Philadelphia junior high students, he spoke of a blueprint for life in which a deep belief in one’s own dignity was foremost.

If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: here lived a great sweeper who swept his job well.

… Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.

The humble approach conveyed by King was truly no surprise to those who knew him. The Nobel Prize winner was just as happy to share life’s lessons with middle-schoolers as he was to meet with presidents, theologians and other leaders. Late for an important meeting at his office in Atlanta, he’d stop to talk with the janitor. On a walk to lunch that should have taken five minutes or less, it might have been 30 minutes or more before King made it to the restaurant since so many people wished to speak with him. Writer and activist Michael Harrington said, “If you wanted to talk to him, he was going to take time to talk to you. That’s just the way he was, that was his nature.” Eleven year-old Maria Saporta, best friend of King’s oldest daughter, found that to be true, as did Gary Granger and Mae Mitchell, who joined Dr. King for a private meeting, the one he promised them. King had already embraced the spirit Paul Simon later conveyed: To make life so beautiful requires a lot of deeds, big and small.

I’ve Reason To Believe We All Will Be Received… Late June, 1979. Another hot week in Southwestern Tennessee with highs in the 90s. My boss, Marvin Segraves, and I, both holding regional titles with Peaches Records and Tapes, were on another road trip, this time checking on our Memphis location. It was a well-run and profitable store. No sweat, even with the heat and humidity. Visit the label guys and radio stations. Chat up the workers at the store. Check out the town. One of those days had gone particularly well. Lunch at Buntyn’s. Dinner at Rendezvous. In between, trips to Graceland, Beale Street and rides along the Mississippi. Marvin and I were driven around town by the Memphis Store Director, David Baker. One of the store’s managers joined us. On the way back to our hotel, the manager said, “I’ll show you where we got King.” Absolute silence… Ten-twenty seconds later Marvin spoke up. “Listen, you know Jeff and I don’t think that way, and neither does David. What you said makes me sick. Don’t talk like that around me again.” Enough said, for the moment at least. Who knows what thoughts the guy fostered in the years ahead?

On “Train In The Distance,” from his 1983 album, Hearts And Bones , Paul Simon discerned a world where such contempt is rare, even nonexistent.

The thought that life could be better
Is woven indelibly
Into our hearts
And our brains

That would be a world where brave people wouldn’t be taken down for doing right, for seeking the so beautiful. And it surely wouldn’t be a world where people thought of as friends sided with hatred. Those friends are in worse shape than any so what. They’re just so sad.

Author’s Note : Many thanks to Maria Saporta, Gary Granger and Bud Cochran for sharing their memories for this story. Recommended books on the subjects covered here include Burial For A King by Rebecca Burns, Going Down Jericho Road by Michael K. Honey, Bearing The Cross by David J. Garrow, King Came Preaching by Dr. Mervyn A. Warren, and Paul Simon, A Life by Marc Eliot. What Is Your Life’s Blueprint ? is from the estate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes’ Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta. He is currently the Advertising Director for Decaturish.com.

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