Former Associated Press journalist Kathryn Johnson was a groundbreaking civil rights reporter, the only journalist Coretta Scott King invited into her home the night of Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968. In a new memoir, Johnson recounts her private moments with the Kings, and adds firsthand insights to the historical record of the tumultuous era. Published by RosettaBooks with the AP, the memoir is called My Time with the Kings, subtitled "A Reporter's Recollections of Martin, Coretta and the Civil Rights Movement." The following chapter, 'On The Inside', is an excerpt from that book.
On the day of King’s funeral, April 9, 1968, I awoke at dawn to a pink sky, the rising sun burning off mist and splashing over azaleas and pink and white dogwood trees in full bloom.
The early spring beauty seemed a strange backdrop for the solemn tone of the day, the coming burial services and the havoc that we had been warned might occur in Atlanta. In the five days since King’s assassination, violence had shaken more than a dozen U.S. cities.
I’d left home to drive to the bureau to write a story about the expected arrival of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. I left instructions that my story was to be held until I could verify that she had actually visited the King home. A colleague drove me to their home so I wouldn’t have to deal with my car.
I needed to be inside the King house early, since the Secret Service would be extremely busy handling large crowds. Every day, Coretta had to inform the agents that I could be there. But on the morning of the funeral, with the entire world focused on the tragic and historic event, I thought asking her again to vouch for my presence would be graceless.
So I made myself part of the King household. I went into the kitchen, took off the jacket of my dark blue suit, tied on an apron I found hanging nearby and rummaged through the kitchen cabinets, pulling out several large frying pans. I began cooking bacon and eggs for the Kings’ four children and Coretta’s mother and father.
Earlier that morning, Coretta had risen to greet her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Obadiah Scott, who had driven from their farm in Marion County, Alabama. The couple brought with them a dressed pig, which they stored in a freezer, then sat down at the kitchen table.
They spoke very little while I cooked. Coretta’s father, a kindly faced, gray-haired man, suggested his toast was a bit overdone. It was. I was trying to hurry everyone through breakfast so I wouldn’t miss the arrival of Jackie Kennedy. I quickly retoasted some bread for Mr. Scott, with an eye always turned toward the living room.
Meanwhile, Bernice, the Kings’ bright-eyed 5-year-old, who was called Bunny, spilled orange juice on the skirt of her crisp white dress. I hastily washed the stained spot on the skirt and ironed it so she could be dressed in time.
Needless to say, as I was busy fixing breakfast, I was never questioned by the Secret Service and I even offered hot coffee to the agents guarding the back of the house.
A white volunteer secretary of Coretta’s was in a back room, King’s office, answering a constantly ringing phone. The guests, mostly women clad in black mourning clothes, sat quietly in a circle of chairs in the living room, while Coretta remained secluded.
The doorbell rang. Jackie Kennedy and her friend Rachel Mellon had arrived from Washington. While someone was telling Coretta that her famous guest— whom Coretta had personally invited—was there, I stood at the entrance to the dining room, still wearing an apron and holding a dish towel.
Mrs. Kennedy, glancing around the living room full of mourners, spotted me. Before greeting anyone, she made a beeline toward me and, to my great astonishment, shook my hand. I can only guess that since I was obviously clad for the kitchen, she assumed I was the Kings’ white maid.
By then, Coretta had come to greet her guests and the two widows clasped hands, Mrs. Kennedy whispering words of comfort. Both women, wearing similar black silk suits, moved slowly down the long hall to the bedroom, where they spent five minutes in private conversation.
Afterward, Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Mellon left for the church in a limousine. As soon as they were out the door, I picked up a phone to call the AP office. I wanted them to release my already written story since Mrs. Kennedy had made her condolence visit. Also, I needed to update the story briefly but found myself being watched intently by several guests who knew I was a reporter. I was concerned that a few resented my presence in the King home.
Since my conversation was within earshot of guests and I was enduring some hard stares, I said to the staffer who answered, “Hello, Mother, this is Kathryn. I just want to let you know that Mrs. Kennedy has been to the King home and is now leaving for the church.”
It was a signal, meaning: “Mrs. Kennedy has been here, put my already written story on the wires.” However, the staffer who answered had not been in the office when I had gone by at dawn.
“Lady, you have the wrong number,” he said, sending my heart into a fast beat for fear he was about to hang up on me.
Summoning up as much calm as I could muster, I said, “Noooo... this is Kathryn.”
“Oh, is this Kathryn?” he asked. “Are you trying to tell me something?”
Finally, my message got through and my story moved.
Coretta and her entourage took off for Ebenezer while I, family members and guests were driven in separate cars. We were soon slowed by the thousands of people jamming the streets surrounding the church.
Excerpt from "My Time with the Kings" by Kathryn Johnson, courtesy of The Associated Press and Rosetta Books (c) 2016