Saturday, April 4, 2009

April 4, 1968: Documenting the aftermath

The image has been imprinted on our minds and our memories: a man lies prostrate on a motel balcony, surrounding by a crowd pointing frantically at an unseen open window across the street. It is the graphic visual valedictory of a signature life, one that ended forty-one years ago today.

That James Louw photo of the moments after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. outside room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis at 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, has for generations been represented as the last photographic word on the man and his legacy, the documentary full stop on an event that changed America, an event that changed everything, and nothing, for black Americans.

Now, a group of previously unpublished photographs by Life photographer Henry Groskinsky has surfaced, photos that show the after-effects of a suddenly vanished life — the impact of that life of those he left behind.

Groskinsky, either the only photographer granted access to the crime scene or the only photographer with courage and imagination enough to go there after the event — captures the fearful emptiness of that moment in this country.

Groskinsky was witness to the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and others in the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the raw, poignant hours after the assassination, sitting in King’s room and presumably plotting strategy but visibly numb, somber, bereft of a next move.

In another image, Theatrice Bailey, brother of the owner of the Lorraine, sweeps blood off the balcony. Other photos show the motel itself, the grounds shot through with an eerie desolation.

Another shot is a painful vision of the what-might-have-been: King’s briefcase neatly packed; in plain view are a hairbrush, his pajamas and a can of depilatory shaving cream — the desultories of everyday life. Tucked away in a briefcase pocket is a copy of King’s book “Strength to Love.” All we see is the title, itself a fitting closing statement on the mission of a man.

Maybe the most agonizingly powerful photo is the image of William Campbell, a close friend of King, standing alone on the balcony. It is an image of a man whose visible pain mirrored that of the nation soon to be in agony.

The images deserve to be seen in their entirety.

There’s no apparent explanation why the photos were overlooked for publication before, but the long delay has only deepened their historical value, and their impact. Now, more than two generations after the dreamer was slain, we’re reminded of the essential-ness of Martin Luther King Jr., the ruthlessness of his exit, and the enduring power of a life well-lived, a life whose passing diminishes our own lives.
Image credits: © Henry Groskinsky/Time-Life Pictures.

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