Text and Indicated Photos: José Manuel Serrano Esparza
April 9, 1968. Five days after the assassination of the civil rights activist and Nobel Peace Laureate Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Martin Luther King during a meeting of the Democratic Party in Miami in 1965, three years before his death, photographed with a Leica M2 camera coupled to a 8 elements in 6 groups Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 First Version SAWOM.
© Lisl Steiner
one of the most important men of Twentieth Century, as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis (Tennessee), the coffin with his body is now inside the Ebenezer Baptist Church of Atlanta (Georgia), the same in which both King and his father had served as senior pastors.
It´s 10:15 h in the morning and all of his family (his wife Coretta Scott King, his children Yolanda Denise King, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott King, Bernice Albertine King, his mother Alberta Christine Williams King, his father Martin Luther King Sr, his brother A. D. Williams King, Mahalia Jackson, and Coretta´s parents who had arrived from Alabama) and closest aides and friends (Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Bernard Lee, Hosea Williams, Thomas Kilgore, Fred Shuttlesworth, James Bevel, James Orange, Samuel Billy Kyles, B. Clarence Mayfeld and many more) are about to arrive at the church for the first funeral service for Martin Luther King scheduled at 10:30 h inside the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
A lot of relevant dignitaries, politicians, heads and ambassadors of worldwide states and personalities of culture and sport sphere who have travelled to Atlanta to attend to Martin Luther King´s funeral are also about to arrive: Senators Robert and Edward Kennedy, Vice President Hubert Humphrie, Jacqueline Kennedy, Sammy Davis Jr, Paul Newman, Richard Nixon, Marlon Brando, Hailie Selassie, Dizzie Gillespie, Governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller, Wilt Chamberlain, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Michigan Governor George Romney, Floyd Patterson, Jim Brown, Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale, Sydney Poitier, Senator Eugene McCarthy, Bill Cosby, Ossie Davis, Diana Ross, Massachusets Senator Edward Brooke, Eartha Kitt, Rabbi Harold Gordon, Ralph Bunche, James Baldwin, and many others.
The photojournalist Lisl Steiner, working for Keystone Press Agency, is covering the events with other acclaimed photojournalists like Bob Adelman (Magnum), Erich Hartmann (Magnum), Cornell Capa (Magnum), Constantin Manos (Magnum), Moneta Sleet (Ebony Magazine), J.P. Laffont (Sygma), Don Hogan Charles (New York Times), Flip Schulke (Life), Charles Tasnadi (AP), Mel Finkelstein (New York Daily News) etc.
Lisl is working with two cameras:
a medium format Rolleiflex 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ 2.8f K7F Type 1 (made between 1960 and 1981) featuring a lower Zeiss Planar 80 mm f/2.8 taking lens with Deckel Synchro-Compur MXV 60 sec to 1/500 sec plus B central shutter and an upper Heidosmat 80 mm f/2.8 viewing lens) and
Leica M2 rangefinder camera given away to Lisl Steiner by the American photojournalist Nat Fein in early sixties and with which she made vast majority of the pictures of her the reportage on Martin Luther King Funeral in Atlanta (Georgia) on April 9, 1968.
a Leica M2 with Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 SAWOM and a Super Angulon-M 21 mm f/3.4.
This first programmed funeral service for Martin Luther King is going to be officiated by his best friend Ralph David Abernathy inside the Ebenezer Baptist Church (whose limited capacity is 1,300) that within a few minutes will be utterly packed with many of the country's political leaders, as well as a number of labor leaders, foreign dignitaries, entertainment and sports figures and leaders from numerous religious faiths.
And after this first funeral service, everybody will take part in a massive three-mile procession through Auburn Avenue, led by Martin Luther King´s casket loaded on a simple wooden farm wagon drawn by two mules, that will start its march near the church and will go to the Campus of Morehouse College (the one in which King had studied and graduated with a Bachelor Degree in Sociology in 1948, being only 19 years old), where the second funeral service for Martin Luther King is due to be held at 14:00 h in the afternoon, and the procession will subsequently go to the Atlanta South-View Cemetery (founded by former slaves in 1866) for his interment.
Approximately 150,000 people (a very high figure for the time) are waiting outside the church and across the 3 miles of the scheduled itinerary, wishing to accompany one of the most important men of XX Century during the procession.
The heat is sweltering and it´s very difficult to move in any direction.
Lisl Steiner´s eyes were witnesses of Martin Luther King´s funeral, one of the most significant events in the History of Photojournalism.
Lisl is now located standing near the main door of the Ebenezer Baptist Church and has already seen that Don Hogan Charles (photojournalist of New York Times) and Erich Hartmann (Magnum) have managed to get places near the church main door on elevated positions from which to take pictures.
The previous day she has also taken some photographs from high spots, specially with her Leica M2 and Super Angulon-M 21 mm f/3.4 of the long queues of people waiting to get inside the church to see Martin Luther King in his coffin.
But conditions now on April 9, 1968, with midday approaching, have become increasingly worse to make photographs: the nearby area to the main door of the church is absolutely overcrowded with thousands of mourners, since everybody pines for seeing Coretta Scott King, King´s children and his comrades aides of the SCLC, and to cap it all, there are some people raising Super 8 mm and 16 mm movie cameras over their heads, trying to record King´s relatives, aides and famous personalities entering the church.
In a context like this, having a press accreditation doesn´t guarantee to be able to get near the famous persons to take pictures whatsoever, since the areas around them are jam-packed, and at the same time, the fear to a new racist attack renders to approach as much as possible to the subjects (the short distances in which Lisl likes to work, always trying to be at the right place at the right moment as the key factor to capture representative moments) exceedingly difficult, because the security men are specially active and often ward off any kind of approximation or inadvertently cross in the photojournalists shooting trajectories while doing their protective tasks.
Therefore, the stress is maximum and Lisl realizes she must take a quick decision: either getting a fixed position on an elevated point or among the huddled people, striving after getting pictures the best she can.
It´s virtually impossible to move in any direction, but she takes the riskiest choice: she will mingle among the crowd, fighting to move at every moment and making a way for herself, taking pictures from different spots and angles.
Suddenly, she sees in the distance Robert Kennedy with his wife Ethel arriving at the Ebenezer Baptist Church for the first funeral service. Both of them are heavily escorted by SCLC members and some private security men. Many people are approaching them, which slows down their march, so Lisl advances with strenuous effort towards them, making her way through the throng, until she is almost at point blank range.
Only one of the SCLC escorting members separates her from Robert Kennedy. It´s a delicate moment, because everybody is exceedingly nervous, specially the men tackling security missions. Lisl decides not to use her Leica raising the camera to her eyes, but her medium format Rolleiflex and
© Lisl Steiner
shoots from her chest, looking through the waist level finder and getting the picture, with Robert Kennedy in the center of the frame and Ethel, behind him, on the right.
But now Lisl is more enclosed among a sea of mourners. She can´t move. There are thousands of people around her and not even an inch of ground is unoccupied, so it´s impossible for her to have visual references of King´s friends or personalities who are arriving now, with only fifteen minutes remaining for the beginning of the mass in remembrance of MLK.
She needs to advance any way to get an acceptable watching point.
Enhanced by the cramming people, the heat is increasingly stifling. She sweats very much and gets fidgety: the risk of not being able to get through the cluster of mourners is apparent.
But she is stubborn. Meter by meter, she manages to advance, striving after reaching a location from which to identify personalities to get them pictures, and after fighting very much, she attains it.
Now, she is watching Jacqueline Kennedy, who is walking being escorted by two policemen and some private security members wearing sunglasses behind her.
By dint of courage and resolve, Lisl approaches progressively to them, once more opening a way for herself through the multitude.
She´s now only a few meters from Jacqueline Kennedy, but the policemen and security members don´t allow anybody to approach.
Lisl realizes she must act very fast and above all discreetly. She will only have a shot chance.
She´s at the moment at a distance of approximately two meters from Jackie, and analyses the context: the security men behind Jacqueline are greatly concealed by the bodies of the two uniformed policemen protecting her, Jacqueline looks deep in thought and nervous, with her tongue half outside her lips, the woman behind her is looking at her right, a white priest wearing white collar is also walking absent-minded, the uniformed policeman on the left has got an instant of distraction while keeping tabs on Jackie, and the policeman on the right has momentarily his both eyes closed because of the fatigue, stress and sweat.
© Lisl Steiner
It´s now when Lisl presses the release button of the Compur between lens leaf shutter of her medium format 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ Rolleiflex and gets the picture, amazingly capturing them all utterly unaware, to such an extent that none of them are looking at the camera.
© Lisl Steiner
A few seconds later she manages to photograph Mahalia Jackson, who has just arrived at the funeral. She is being escorted by one of the security members and is surrounded by some photographers and a great multitude overcrowding the place.
Once again, she is enclosed within the great crowd massed outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church of Atlanta (Georgia). She can´t move and everybody craves specially for seeing Martin Luther King´s most significant aides through years, belonging to the SCLC.
Lisl is now at a distance of around one hundred meters from the main door of Ebenezer Baptist Church and knows that the most important images for her assignment are the ones of Martin Luther King´s prominent aides and great friends: Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, James Farmer, Jesse Jackson, Bernard Lee, James Orange, B. Clarence Mayfield, Thomas Kilgore, Fred Shuttleworth and others.
Expectation is reaching a climax and Ralph Abernathy, who must officiate the mass, hasn´t arrived yet.
A few more minutes go by. The heat is unbearable and from time to time there are some unavoidable moments of hassle among the persons near the church, because everybody wants to watch events.
Suddenly, Lisl sees in the distance Ralph David Abernathy (King´s best friend and his successor), James Farmer - principal founder of the Congress for Racial Equality who played a towering role in the civil rights movement as a direct action leader- who goes by Abernathy, on his left, in the usual place of Andrew Young, King´s second chief deputy and another prominent member of the Civil Rights Movement, who for security reasons is going apart escorted by a policeman), Thomas Kilgore ( an important man of the SCLC in the South and on both coasts, key organizer of the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom to Washington in 1957 and the Civil Rights March on Washington of 1963, who is walking by Abernathy, on his right), B. Clarence Mayfield (Civil Rights Leader in Savannah during late fifties and sixties, who joined King´s SCLC and became a great friend of his), Fred Shuttleworth (one of the founders of the SCLC with Abernathy, Bayard Rustin and MLK, and the key man of the human rights movement in Alabama during late fifties and sixties) and other men of Martin Luther King´s inner circle walking towards the Ebenezer Church.
Bright-line frames (each one seen separately in the viewfinder, since the frames are modified automatically on changing the lenses or using the preview lever) of the Leica M2, the rangefinder camera used by Lisl Steiner to get the pictures of Martin Luther King´s great friends and aides during the funeral of the human rights leader on April 9, 1968 in Atlanta (Georgia). Taking advantage of the new specific bright-line for 35 mm lenses (a missing feature in the Leica M3) using her 8 elements in 6 groups Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 SAWOM objective (a symmetrical Double-Gauss designed by Walter Mandler in the factory Ernst Leitz Canada of Midland, Ontario), she was able to capture highly defining moments of the day from a very short distance, in an exceedingly discreet and silent way, photographing with remarkable quickness.
© Leica Camera AG
Once again, she is bound to change her position and veer, trying to reach Abernathy´s group before they´re too close to the main door of the church, where it would be nearly impossible to get pictures, since it is fully packed.
Advancing with great difficulties through the crowd, her march is inevitably rather plodding and she is afraid that perhaps she won´t be able to arrive in time to make photographs of Abernathy and his entourage made up by others King´s great friends and aides of the SCLC.
Once more, Lisl has to take decisions. She notices that hundreds of volunteer members of the SCLC and some policemen have set up a security path through which King´s woman and children, rest of relatives, his most significant aides and the famous guests will walk up to the church.
There´s the great fear of a new racist assassination attempt on King´s relatives, Abernathy or any other of King´s aides.
Lisl has been in this area for two days and nights, so she knows the place, and decides to wait standing on the nearest area of Auburn Avenue giving to the main door of Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Two big security men are just in front of Lisl at the moment, and they prevent anybody from approaching more.
Ralph David Abernathy and his entourage go on advancing. There´s a sepulchral silence and thousands of people are crying.
In very few seconds Lisl Steiner will have them around five meters in front of her.
Now, the two security members abandon a bit their positions and advance in the direction of Abernathy, Thomas Kilgore, James Farmer, B. Clarence Mayfield, Fred Shuttlesworth and the rest of SCLC men to protect them as much as possible from anybody trying to approach or any kind of attack with gun. Stress is very high. Both security members are with their hips towards King´s friends and paying uttermost attention to their flanks, so a momentaneous gap is generated between both of them.
The context is now also very delicate. Both security members are very nervious. Lisl realizes she will just have a one shot chance and will have to make things with utmost speed and discretion.
Therefore, she advances as much as she can to the limit (being very careful not to go beyond the two security men) and this time she won´t use her medium format 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ Rolleiflex, but her rangefinder Leica M2 ( a great and very versatile photojournalistic tool for the capture of this kind of image with its 0.72x magnification and framelines for 35, 50 or 90 mm lenses) with Summicron-M 35 mm f/2,
Finder eyepiece of Lisl Steiner´s Leica M2 featuring a 0.72x rangefinder calculated by Willi Keiner (and which also had some design concepts provided by Heinrich Schneider) optimized for the par excellence photojournalistic 35 mm wideangle lens, whose brightline frame appears permanently within the viewfinder as standard, with the convenience it means, unlike the somewhat clumsiness of the Summaron 35 mm f/3.5 and Summaron 35 mm f/2.8 with the Leica M3, which require a spectacles viewfinder attachment converting the field of view of the 50 mm bright-line VF frame for which the M3 is optimized into the correct field of view for the 35 mm field, enabling accurate framing.
© Leica Camera AG
Lisl Steiner´s Leica M2 combined rangefinder and viewfinder system: from left to right, window of the RF, striated illuminating window for finder frames (rendering an extremely even overall illumination, particularly outstanding for wideangle viewing) and window of the viewfinder. The 0.91x VF magnification of the Leica M3 was reduced to 0.72x in the Leica M2 to make the 35 mm viewfinder feasible.
© Leica Camera AG
the best possible binomial fostered by the optical computations of this camera RF calculated by Willi Klein, who managed to add a bright-line frame for 35 mm wideangle lenses which the Leica M3 lacked.
Concentration is maximum, since this is a defining moment, a concept Lisl has heard explain many times to the great Alfred Eisenstaedt, with whom she has worked inside United Nations building in New York for some years.
The small space around the 35 mm lens brightline frame of her Leica M2 enables Lisl to see what is happening immediately outside the boundaries of the image on the left and on the right, a key factor in this photograph, because the two security men might move at any moment and conceal Ralph David Abernathy, Thomas Kilgore, James Farmer, Fred Shuttleworth, B. Clarence Mayfield and the rest of King´s aides and friends, so she fastly presses the release button of the rubberized cloth shutter of her mirrorless rangefinder camera, which renders an exceedingly whispering low noise sound, virtually imperceptible and decisive to preserve the discretion.
© Lisl Steiner
Lisl Steiner has been successful taking them all (Thomas Kilgore, Ralph Abernathy and James Farmer in the middle of the picture, while Fred Shuttlesworth appears behind Abernathy´s left shoulder, and B. Clarence Mayfield behind the right area of James Farmer´s face) by surprise, to such an extent that none of the ten aides of Martin Luther King are looking at the photographer and they haven´t detected at all either the presence of Lisl or her Leica M2. And the same has happened with the two security members, fully unaware about what has just happened.
Needless to say that the absence of blackout of the image due to the lack of a tilting mirror (what enables the photographer to see the subjects at every moment) and the staggeringly short 11 milliseconds shutter lag of the Leica M2 has also been of invaluable help in terms of quickness shooting.
Very few minutes later, the first funeral service for Martin Luther King, officiated by Ralph Abernathy, begins inside the Ebenezer Baptist Church and will last for an hour.
Meanwhile, vast majority of the photojournalists covering the event wait outside, located in the surroundings of the main door of the church, because the coming out of Martin Luther King´s coffin taken handheld by some of his great friends and aides up to the wooden farm wagon drawn by two mules on which it will be laid, will be one of the most significant moments of the day.
At 11:40 h, vast majority of personalities attending King´s funeral have already gone out of the Ebenezer Baptist Church and have walked from the church main door to the beginning of the procession which will be led by the mules drawn rickety farm wagon with King´s coffin on it up to the Morehouse College.
Everywhere is overcrowded by thousands of mourners, while inside the church Martin Luther King´s most significant aides and some men of the Marcellous Thornton and Hanley Bell Street funeral firms are arranging King´s bier to begin taking it handheld out of the building towards Auburn Avenue.
At last, at around 11:45 h, Lisl sees in the distance the casket of Martin Luther King which is getting out of the church, being taken handheld by Jesse Jackson, James Orange, other also prominent leaders of the SCLC (all of them great friends of Martin Luther King) and some members of the Board of Deacons of the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
The atmosphere of the place and its surroundings becomes awesome and a total silence, even more apparent than before, reigns supreme around King´s coffin and the nearby areas overcrowded with people weeping tearfully.
Thousands and thousands of persons try to approach as much as possible to see the bier, so the policemen and security members of the SCLC become inevitably more strict in thwarting any attempt of getting closer.
Now, the area of Auburn Avenue beside the Ebenezer Baptist Church is wholly full of security members.
Kodak Tri-X Pan 400, the 35 mm film used by vast majority of photojournalist covering Martin Luther King´s Funeral on April 9, 1968 in Atlanta (Georgia). Its very high sensitivity for the time, wide exposure latitude enabling to tackle the most challenging lighting situations, outstanding acutance, unique grain structure attaining a great level of realism and dramatism matching each subject and versatility turned it into a top-notch all-around performer chosen by a lot of pros for action reportages.
Lisl Steiner is at the moment located standing near the main door of Ebenezer Baptist Church and has already seen that Don Hogan Charles (New York Times) and Erich Hartmann (Magnum) have managed to get places in the proximity of the church main door, on elevated positions from which to take pictures.
A sea of people fills every inch of the place and its surroundings, even more than during the previous hours, because the moment when Martin Luther King´s casket will go out of the church is approaching.
On the other hand, the persons who were by the main door one hour before with 16 mm and Super 8 mm movie cameras, are still fixed in their positions and will raise again their cinematographic equipment over their heads from the very moment King´s bier starts crossing the church door outwards to record the moment.
Lisl realizes that it will be impossible to capture King´s aides taking his coffin from the same spot she made the picture of Abernathy, Kilgore, James Farmer, B. Clarence Mayfield, Fred Shuttlesworth and others group roughly one hour ago while they walked towards the church, so she takes the most undaunted decision of the day to stay true to her photographing style: to walk backwards making a way for herself among the crowd, to get a new location approximately 25 meters behind, near the wooden farm wagon pulled by two mules which is already waiting with Hosea Williams (who will walk clad in overalls in front of King´s casket and the mules), Bernard Lee (King´s personal assistant and travelling companion through sixties, who will also walk in front of the very humble hearse) and Albert Turner (Alabama´s SCLC Director who will hold the animals´ reins) next to it.
James Orange and Jesse Jackson go on advancing, grabbing the front handles of Martin Luther King´s bier, while the rest of active pallbearers (Milton Cornelius, Jethro English, Arthur Henderson, Howard Dowdy, C.K.Steele, Fred Shuttleworth and Fred C. Bennette) go behind them grabbing the middle and back handles.
Once more, Lisl fights to her utmost to arrive in time at the place she has visually chosen, located at a short distance from the green wooden farm wagon drawn by two mules on which King´s casket will be put.
She is now sweating profusely, since the heat has reached its peak, emotions are running very high and everybody is restless, so she must be very careful not to turn anybody on edge while she endeavors to reach the location from which she will try to photograph the pallbearers taking Martin Luther King´s coffin.
Finally, after plenty of suffering and tension, she manages to reach by the skin of her teeth the spot she has chosen in advance.
But Martin Luther King´s casket is now very near, at a distance of around ten meters, with the very tall and sturdy James Orange holding part of its front handle with his left hand while Jesse Jackson is doing the same with his right hand.
The rest of pallbearers are behind them, barely visible because they´re mostly covered by the bodies of Orange, Jackson and a very tall security man of the SCLC who advances next to Jackson and whose mission is to prevent anybody from approaching to the pallbearers, a task shared by the younger security man visible behind James Orange´s right arm, who because of the great stress and heat has loosened both his tie and the top button of his shirt.
After very few seconds, Lisl is already very near them, almost at point blank range, and once more she is aware that only a shot will be possible.
Her attention is maximum and suddenly, there´s an instant in which Jesse Jackson has got his eyes oriented towards the other side of Auburn Avenue, with a lost gaze and highly distressed (he was with Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy and Hosea Williams on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, when King was slain by a bullet shot by a racist assassin* with a 30-06 Springfield rifle on April 4, 1968), the tall security man by him has got his eyes momentarily closed because of the tension and sweat, the even much taller and bulkier security man nearest Lisl and wearing a dark cap is looking at the coffin, a very sorrowful James Orange has got his head low, and the other younger security man (sweating very much and rather tired) has his left eye close for a little while and his right one about to close, and the two pall bearers behind James Orange are looking at the right.
Martin Luther King´s coffin being taken handheld by Jesse Jackson, James Orange and other pallbearers towards the wooden wagon drawn by two mules the day of King´s funeral
Now is the moment in which Lisl Steiner presses the release button of the rubberized cloth shutter of her 24 x 36 mm format rangefinder mirrorless Leica M2 camera connected to a Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 SAWOM and gets the picture, a great photojournalistic document oozing drama and a defining moment enhanced by the presence of a mourner on a wheelchair on far left of the image and a futher very upset young mourner (fourth from the left, who can be hardly glimpsed and clearly with his head down in affliction.
45 years later. May 25, 2013. Lobby of the Kaiserin Elisabeth Hotel in Vienna. Lisl Steiner by a 13" x 18 " copy of the picture she got of Martin Luther King´s coffin being taken by James Orange, Jesse Jackson and other Martin Luther King´s aides and great friends of the SCLC on April 9, 1968, the day of the funeral of the unforgettable leader of human rights, one of the greatest men in history.
Original New York Daily News from April 10, 1968 with cover photography showing the terrible scene of the interment of Martin Luther King in the South-View Cemetery of Atlanta (Georgia) at 17:19 h in the afternoon of the previous day. It has been preserved by Lisl Steiner for almost half a century. Ralph Abernathy (on far left of the image), is crying a river, while Hosea Williams, Fred Shuttleworth, Jesse Jackson, and other SCLC aides and friends of King begin burying his coffin. The very tall and burly James Orange (another of MLK´s great friends and aides) is standing behind Jesse Jackson, also weeping.
Note : Though the widespread statement is that Martin Luther King´s assassin was James Earl Ray, the most updated researches indicate that he might not have been the man who pulled the trigger of the 30-06 Springfield caliber rifle which slew him.
Even, Dexter King, the second son of the legendary civil right leader, had the chance of talking to James Earl Ray in prison in 1997, and both him and the rest of Martin Luther King´s family have expressed different times their conviction that James Earl Ray wasn´t the man who killed him.
On the other hand, deep studies carried out throughout decades till now by experts in gesture language, voice pitch, facial expressions and specific vocabulary used, have reached the unanimous conclusion that when this great man delivered his last speech in Memphis on April 3, 1968, he had a hunch that he would be assassinated very soon.
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