Jackie Collins of Sun City Hilton Head flew on the plane that brought Martin Luther King Jr.’s body home from Memphis.
“It helped make me who I am,” he said last week of the day the world stood still 50 years ago this spring.
Collins was an 18-year-old freshman at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
King was also a “Morehouse Man,” and his outdoor funeral would be held on the campus not far from his simple home.
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“I was part of a group asked by representatives of the family to go to Memphis with the family to get Dr. King’s body,” Collins said.
He does not know how he was selected. Right place at the right time, he guesses.
King was shot while standing outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, shortly after 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 4, 1968. He was there pushing for a living wage for city sanitation workers.
Coretta Scott King went to the Atlanta airport that night to get to her husband’s side. But when Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen confirmed to her that King had died, she went back home to be with her four children, ages 12 to 5.
The next morning, she went to bring back her husband’s body. King’s sister and other family members went, as well as a number of supporters, including the Morehouse students.
They flew on an American Airlines Electra turboprop, chartered for the trip by U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, according to “Burial For a King” by Rebecca Burns. A LIFE magazine story says it was provided by the federal government.
“Mostly stunned” is how Collins describes the mood on the plane.
He recalled that “while we were there, we took part in a march with Mrs. King past the motel where Dr. King was killed. We accompanied the hearse to the airport, then boarded the plane.”
While Collins was in Memphis, Morehouse students joined students from five other historically black colleges in the same area of Atlanta to march for peace, a sharp contrast to the violence erupting across America.
“When the chartered plane carrying Martin Luther King’s body landed (back in Atlanta), the mayor, the Rev. Sam Williams and the King children went on board,” Burns wrote.
“Mrs. King wanted her children to view the body in the relative privacy of the plane before they faced crowds outside.”
Over the next few days, 250,000 people would flock to Atlanta.
They say more than 60,000 people viewed King’s body as it layin state for two days at Spelman College. They could see his face through a clear plastic covering on the coffin.
Collins would be in a throng estimated at 100,000 people that walked behind a mule-drawn wagon bearing King’s casket following his indoor funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 9. They walked 4 miles in the heat to a cramped outdoor service at Morehouse. The Morehouse Glee Club sang hymns, and Morehouse students from the Black Action Committee served water and aided mourners.
Burns reported that 1,000 Morehouse students served as marshals, as busloads of celebrities and more than 50 members of Congress joined the mass of mourners.
Mahalia Jackson sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” The eulogy was delivered by Morehouse president emeritus Benjamin Mays, one of the constellation of stars principal W.K. Alston brought to Beaufort to inspire students in the segregated Robert Smalls High School.
Collins, who had met King once and shook his hand, said the entire experience “helped shape who I am.”
Who he is includes the vision of King, he said: an America where race doesn’t matter and all people are treated equally.
He thinks this weekend’s national celebration of King’s birth is important to keep alive the lessons he’s seen in life.
Collins was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1950.
“It was called the most segregated city in America,” he said.
“We were very restricted in what we could do. Everything was segregated. The schools were not equal.”
His father was a laborer at a coal processing plant. His mother was a housewife. Neither finished high school.
“My family and I were part of the struggle for equal rights in Birmingham,” he said.
They were members of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and knew full well what their child was doing the day he got into trouble.
At 13, Collins was arrested while participating in a civil rights march.
“I was taken into an interrogation room, where I was asked some questions by some detectives,” he said. “They left the room and told me to stay there. The room had a window and I saw the detectives talking to a black janitor. The janitor came over and opened the door and told me to get out of there.
“Remember, the jails were full.”
Collins’ parents saw education as a way out for their two boys, and both got college degrees.
Collins said teachers at segregated Booker T. Washington High School encouraged him to go to Morehouse, and he felt lucky to be accepted.
He majored in math, then earned a master’s degree in industrial management from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He also attended the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University, and became a certified public accountant.
He worked 28 years with the Southern Company, a super-regional energy company based in Atlanta.
He retired as vice president of the Southern Company and Southern Company Services, which provided marketing, strategic planning, technological, financial, engineering and other services to its subsidiaries. Before moving a decade ago to Sun City, where he likes to play golf and his wife, Carolin, plays tennis and participates in theater, he led all aspects of Southern Company’s internal auditing, reporting to the chairman, president and CEO.
Looking back, he says, “My parents saw a need for change. Living in those circumstances was stressful. It was demeaning. And they wanted a better life for their children. They did what they could afford to do to help us.”
Both of his parents died in their mid-60s. But they lived to see progress.
Reflecting on the plane ride home with Martin Luther King’s body, Collins said it helped make him who he is.
“I’m a person who has a lot of confidence,” he said. “I have a lot of empathy for people who are downtrodden. I always tried to strive to be better than, I guess, I could have been. I’ve always tried to achieve.”