50 years later, ‘Eyes on the Prize’ transcripts reveal King’s powerful friendships – by Prof. Vernon Mitchell, Curator of Popular American Arts

Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 50 years after his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee

“And all of a sudden I heard…what sounded like a firecracker. And I jumped naturally. And I turned and saw only his feet,” recalled the late Revered Ralph David Abernathy discussing the assassination of his dear friend and brother in activism, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.[1] Today marks fifty years since Dr. King was snatched from his family, his trusted friends, the African American community, and a nation still wrestling with the its original sin—the dehumanization of blackness.

Martin Luther King, Jr. with Ralph Abernathy (next to King on the right) during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955. Photographer unknown. Image from the Henry Hampton Collection.

This excerpt is from Rev. Abernathy’s second interview conducted for the Eyes On the Prize II documentary series by Henry Hampton’s Blackside Inc. All of the complete, original interviews from Eyes on the Prize are now overseen by the Washington University Libraries’ Film and Media Archive. This interview, as well as many others, offer rare, humanizing glances not just into the last moments of Dr. King’s life, as “Dr. King” but this interview, in particular, illuminates the humanity of King, those close to him, and other activists as well.

At a time when our nation, and indeed the world, pauses to remember the tragedy of King’s demise, and considering how far we are from actualizing the beloved community he so desperately wanted to create, it is important to be aware of such captivating and insightful materials. They are great for instruction, research, and just for personal knowledge. The unedited interviews from the first series of Eyes On the Prize, were preserved and then digitized in January of 2016 as part the Eyes on the Prize Digitization and Reassembly Project made possible by a National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) Grant.

The entire series is still one of the most dynamic grouping of Civil Rights activist interviews, but the unedited interviews illustrate another level of depth to the stories of these passionate, committed individuals and the movement they created and sustained.

Reflecting again back on Dr. King, Rev. Abernathy, in the second interview, is asked by the Blackside, Inc., interviewer how they spent that last day in Memphis. Rev. Abernathy chronicled their last conversations about the, interestingly enough, the last meal that he and Dr. King ordered at the Lorraine Motel.  Abernathy mentioned that they had not eaten breakfast and were hungry by the afternoon and decided to order food. There was a mistake in their orders—only one lunch was sent to the room. While Abernathy wanted to call down to have the order corrected immediately, King, according to Abernathy, was not that concerned, “Ralph, don’t worry the lady because we can eat from the same plate.”[1]

Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955. Photographer unknown. Image from the Henry Hampton Collection.

Later in the interview Abernathy speaks in poetic detail about his last moments with King after he is shot: “And I ran to him and took his head into my hands and began to pat his cheek and said, “Martin, this is Ralph. This is Ralph. This is Ralph. It will be all right. Everything is going to be all right. Everything is going to be all right, Martin.” And at that time he relaxed. His eyes softly closed. And he heard me. And he believed me, that it would be all right.”[2]

In Dr. King’s last public address, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” given April 3, 1968 at the Mason Temple, he took time to publicly acknowledge his brother in the work of liberation with humor and sincere appreciation, “Thank you very kindly, my friends. As I listened to Ralph Abernathy and his eloquent and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was talking about. [Laughter] It’s always good to have your closest friend and associate to say something good about you, and Ralph Abernathy is the best friend that I have in the world.”[3]

History can be ugly, uplifting and even beautiful at times. Moreover, it can be tragically poetic. There were many nuances to consider in the public and private aspects of historical figures like Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy. They were imperfect beings in what they considered a righteous struggle, but aside from their historical significance, as human beings, one of those nuanced layers illuminated by the Eyes interviews was one of friendship and respect.

Special Collections has a large amount of primary source material relating to Dr. King including original interviews with friends and colleagues, stock footage, and rare photographs in the Film & Media Archive. At the moment, the digitized interviews from Eyes on the Prize I are available via WU Libraries’ Digital Gateway. The transcripts for the interviews from  Eyes on the Prize II can be accessed here.  In addition, Dr. King  spoke at Washington University on December 4, 1957 as part of an assembly sponsored by the Religious Policy and Program Committee of WU held in Graham Chapel.

Researchers with digitization questions or requests for a particular interview should contact the Film & Media Archive for more information

Resources at WU Libraries’ Special Collections

For a starting place, see this list of resources and links on Dr. King below:

Interview with Ralph Abernathy – 1985 and 1988

Interview with Bayard Rustin

Interview with John Lewis – 1979 and 1985

Interview with Rachel West Nelson

Interview with Sheyann Webb

Interview with Andrew Young – 1985 and 1988

Interview with Rosa Parks

-Vernon Mitchell, Curator of Popular American Arts

[1] Ralph David Abernathy, Eyes On the Prize II, 1988. http://digital.wustl.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=eop;cc=eop;rgn=main;view=text;idno=abe5427.0819.003 Accessed 2 April 2018.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Martin Luther King, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Memphis, Tennessee, 3 April 1968. Accessed 2April 2018, http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/ive_been_to_the_mountaintop/.


About the author

Reference and Outreach Supervisor in Special Collections.