By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
COOPER, Iowa, April 3, 2018 – My older brother Tom Offenburger’s three years as press secretary to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – 1966-’68, the last three years of King’s life – paralleled my years as a student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. And that enabled me to have some highly unusual experiences back then, especially for a college kid.
Of course, I’m replaying them in my mind this week as we observe the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.
Actually I’ve spent the past three months thinking about them. Mark McCrackin, one of my best friends at Vanderbilt, died in mid-January in Vermont after fighting cancer. A few weeks later, his former wife Nanci McCrackin, who went to Vandy with us, was helping go through Mark’s files. One document – deep in his computer – was an essay he wrote 10 years ago, on the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination. It tells of the hurried trip Mark and I made to Memphis the late afternoon King was shot, and how we spent a sleepless night hanging out with my brother’s civil rights colleagues at the Lorraine Motel.
It reads like he was writing it for publication, but as far as we’ve been able to determine, it never was, until now. With Nanci McCrackin’s permission, we have just published Mark’s story here on Offenburger.com, and you can read it by clicking here.
There are four other points I’d like to make, as we pause this year to honor King’s legacy.
1. REAL FEAR THAT AMERICA WAS BLOWING UP. In the first days after King’s death, there were riots, gun battles and fires in more than 100 cities across the U.S. From the Lorraine Motel in Memphis late on April 4 and early on April 5, we could see buildings burning. Ditto in Nashville the next several nights, when we could see fires raging in the north part of the city from our Vanderbilt dorms. The National Guard and regular U.S. military units were on duty in the city streets, halting nearly all nighttime traffic as strict curfews were enforced. It was the first time in my life – and actually the only time other than during the terrorist attacks on Sept.11, 2001 – that I found myself wondering if my nation was ending. I will say that as young and frightened as I was, it didn’t stop me from joining other reporters and photographers from our Vanderbilt Hustler student newspaper staff in reporting the huge story blowing up around us. We sent student journalists to Memphis twice, Atlanta for the King funeral, to the other colleges in Nashville, and to all the important marches, protests, forums and services that were happening locally and regionally. It was probably the best on-the-job training of my career.
2. THE KING TEAM WAS SO YOUNG. It still astonishes me, when I think about it, that King was 39 years old when he was killed. In 1963 at age 34, he was Time Magazine’s man-of-the-year. In 1964 at 35, he won a Nobel Peace Prize – the youngest person ever to do so. He had already changed not only the South, but also our whole nation and world. And he was gunned down at 39! Oh, what might have been! As Mark McCrackin and I looked around those motel rooms on that April night in 1968, there was Rev. Ralph Abernathy, instantly named King’s successor as leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who was 42. Hosea Williams was 42. Rev. Andrew Young was 36. James Bevel was 35. Rev. Jesse Jackson was 27. Back in Atlanta, there was Tom Offenburger, who was then 34.
3. CORETTA SCOTT KING WAS AN AMERICAN SHE-RO. Speaking of the ages of people. When her husband was assassinated, Coretta Scott King was 40. The couple had four children – Yolanda, then 12, Martin III, then 10, Dexter, then 7, and Bernice, then 4. Can you imagine? The job Coretta King did as a single parent, raising her four young children in some of the brightest spotlights imaginable, was phenomenal. All four young Kings wound up being leaders in their chosen fields.
It was a happy group of Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff members who welcomed their boss Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. back to Atlanta in 1967, after he’d served a short jail sentence in Birmingham, Alabama, for some earlier protest. That’s Tom Offenburger on the left.
4.TOM OFFENBURGER WAS CERTAINLY A HERO TO ME. Tom was the first of three Offenburger brothers to serve as sports editor of our hometown newspaper, then The Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, when we were in high school. He graduated from Shenandoah High in 1952, went on to the University of Iowa, where he led the College Democrats chapter, Delta Upsilon fraternity and spent a couple summers back home writing for a new start-up, The Iowan Magazine, owned by the Archie family of Shenandoah. After graduating from the university in 1956, Tom went to New York City to seek a journalism job. He landed on the staff of the magazine U.S. News & World Report. He worked in the NYC headquarters of the magazine for several years, and then was assigned to the Washington Bureau, where he covered Congress. In the early 1960s, he was re-assigned to Chicago where he opened the one-person Midwest Bureau for U.S.News & World Report. In 1966, the Chicago neighborhood of Cicero was in racial turmoil. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was invited to come speak in Cicero, and one of the reporters covering him was Tom Offenburger. He asked King a few questions, and must have impressed somebody. A day or two later, Tom received a call from Junius Griffin, who was then serving as King’s press secretary. Griffin said he was leaving the King staff soon, and wondered if Tom would be interested in the position. He said yes. Tom went from a very comfortable salary and benefits with U.S. News & World Report to a subsistence salary and few benefits with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Why? “I have seen one too many ghettos,” Tom once told me. For three years, he worked very closely with King and his staff, often the only white person in the room. After King’s death, Tom served as press secretary to Abernathy, then worked with Coretta King while she was building the King Center in Atlanta, then became press secretary to his longtime buddy Andy Young during Young’s years as a member of the U.S. House, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and then Mayor of Atlanta. Tom, who never married, died in 1986 at the age of 52 after heart surgery to repair a heart valve and damaged aorta. When Rev. Young did the eulogy at Tom’s funeral at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Shenandoah, he credited Tom with having been “a great interpreter” for the civil rights movement in its pursuit of equality and justice. Young said that Tom “understood how to tell our story” to the people of America, how to explain it to good people “in places like Shenandoah, Iowa. He believed that when people in places like this understood what we were trying to do, and why, they would support us.”
During my student years at Vanderbilt, I was 800 miles from our Iowa hometown, and about 225 miles away from my brother in Atlanta. Thus, on some of the shorter school holidays – like Thanksgiving and Easter – I hitchhiked (really) to Atlanta and stayed with Tom.
I remember attending the Kings’ Ebenezer Baptist Church, hearing Rev. Martin Jr. preach, while his father Rev. Martin Sr. sat behind him on a big altar chair, patting his own knee and kind of rocking with the rhythm of the sermon, several times saying in a low reassuring voice, “Make it plain, son, make it plain.”
One Thanksgiving when I was visiting, several people on the SCLC staff were invited for dinner at the King home, with dessert that evening at the Young home. Tom took me along. In the mid-afternoon, full of too much good food, a bunch of us went outside to play with the King kids on a nearby playground. I recall it included a basketball court. A free throw contest broke out. Yes, I watched Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shoot free throws. Two-handed scoop shot, with a reverse spin on the ball. He wasn’t very good. “I was more of a swimmer,” he explained.
See, I told you that my brother’s position enabled me to have some highly unusual experiences back then, especially for a college kid.
And one of those experiences was having my heart broken on the night of April 4, 1968.
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