Interview with William Rutherford

You told us a story at lunch about how you first heard of Dr. King's death, that you had been in Memphis and came to Atlanta. Can you tell us that? How did you first hear it?


Well, I, I first heard of Dr. King's death about two hours after having left him. So it was obviously not only shocking it was an unbelievable thought to me at the time and remained so for several days after his death. We had, ah, a weekly staff meeting on the subject of the Poor People's Campaign and other organizational matters, ah, wherever Dr. King happened to be. If Dr. King was in Atlanta, the staff meeting was held in Atlanta in his presence. I usually began the meeting, conducted most of the basic work. He came in and participated in those parts that concerned him or to, ah, make a statement or whatever he wanted to add to the agenda. We had had our staff meeting in Memphis at that time because he had gone to, that week, he had gone to Memphis in connection with the sanitation workers' strike. And after leaving him, Tom Offenberger, who is our, another one of the heroes of the movement, as far as I'm concerned, with Tom Offenberger who was our information chief and so on, ah, we returned to Atlanta by plane, 35 minute flight. Ah, we arrived in Atlanta Airport, took a taxi to SCLC office and it was a scene of total pandemonium as we arrived at the office on Auburn Avenue. People were screaming and fainting and literally rendering themselves, tearing their clothing and so on and so forth and, ah, we said, "What on earth is happening?" And, you know, some young woman screamed at us, "Doctor King has been shot. Doctor King has been shot." I said, "Well that's hardly possible. We just left him. Just left him." So, and went in the office and attempted to telephone to Memphis and of course I couldn't get through, ah, for hours. But then we had the radio on and we began hearing the, ah, radio broadcast that reported, not only that he had been shot, but that he'd actually died. Ah, that was the way we learned of his death, having left him. All of the senior staff was with him in Memphis, ah, either at the time of this death or very shortly before.