WILSON — In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, renowned photographer Burk Uzzle has pulled together an evocative exhibit of historic images documenting America's emotional tumult after King's violent death.
Uzzle culled the photos from 40 rolls of film he shot in Memphis and Atlanta in the wrenching days after the civil rights leader was assassinated more than four decades ago. The exhibit will run through Feb. 6 at the Arts Council of Wilson and will open at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham shortly after.
"This is not art," Uzzle is quick to say, but a record. The 20 photographs capture the raw grief of people who knew and loved King, the shock of those who believed in the hope and inevitability of his message, and the indifference of those who believed one nation could live as two races, together but apart.
Clues in the photos give away their time and place. But the emotions they reveal were shared across the country, including in the small town of Wilson, 50 miles east of Raleigh.
People felt like they knew King. He had been preaching for years. They had heard him on radio and television, and he had traveled several times to North Carolina, speaking in Raleigh, Durham, even in Rocky Mount.
He was supposed to come to Wilson on April 5, 1968. He had accepted an invitation by local black leaders to come and speak at Jackson Chapel First Missionary Baptist Church, and on the lawn of the library. There was to be a march.
"I was going to march," Cornell Jones recalled last week. Jones was 21 years old in 1968, working in a chicken-processing plant in Wilson. He was enthralled by King, wanted to be a part of what he was doing, wanted to walk down the street in broad daylight and say he was as good as anybody else.
People had been making preparations. King was supposed to come in on the train, and residents had planned to meet him at the station.
But King was called away to Memphis instead, where black garbage collectors had gone on strike because they weren't treated the same as their white counterparts.
He arrived there April 3, his plane delayed by a bomb threat, and delivered a speech in which he said that whatever happened to him next, God already had allowed him to go to the mountaintop.
"I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land," he said. "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land."
He was shot and killed just after 6 the next evening, standing on the balcony outside his room at Memphis' Lorraine Motel.
Burk Uzzle didn't hear about it right away. He was always on assignment in those days, a determined young photographer who got so engrossed in his work he often couldn't recall what city he was in.
Returning from an assignment, he flew into Washington National Airport. His wife, Cardy, met him there.
Martin Luther King Jr. has been killed, she told him. She handed him a bag of fresh film and a ticket to Memphis.
When he got there, he rented a car but didn't take time to rent a hotel room. He went to the newspaper office and slept on the darkroom floor. He knew the photographers would know where to go.
Early in the morning, they went to the funeral home where King lay in an open casket and shot pictures of friends and family who were let in to see the body.
Two of those photos are included in the collection Uzzle printed for the new exhibit, which he pulled together with the encouragement of Cynthia Whalen, visual arts director for the Arts Council of Wilson.
Some of the pictures were published in news magazines at the time. Others had never been printed, and it was difficult resurrecting them now. It took Uzzle five weeks to do the work in the darkroom at his home. The negatives were old; the feelings, fresh enough.
Uzzle has his favorites. He likes the two shots of mourners along the route traveled by the caisson carrying King's casket through Atlanta. One is of black men, in windbreakers, shorts and work pants, their scuffed shoes lined up along the curb. The other is of white men lined up along a different block, wearing sport coats, their slacks creased, their shoes shining.
"This is the story of segregation," he said.
At home in Wilson
Uzzle moved to Wilson a couple of years ago after living in New York for 30 years. Born in Raleigh, he says he finally stopped denying his Southern roots and decided to come home.
"I don't think I've ever been in a friendlier city," he says of Wilson, "and I've certainly never been in a prettier one."
He and the arts council, which had to beg for money to create a proper gallery for the photos in the former bank building it occupies, hope the exhibit will further King's work by bringing African-Americans into the building. The city's population is almost evenly divided: 47 percent white and 48 percent black. But Whalen says African-American patrons are rare.
Geraldine Taylor, who works at the Soul Food Grill, a restaurant in a corner of the bus station, confessed last week that she had never been in the arts council building herself, though she has lived in Wilson all of her 65 years.
She was there, in the living room of her home, when she heard of King's murder, and when riots broke out in cities across the country. She was there when armed National Guard troops came to enforce a curfew in her own town, chasing children off the streets those warm spring nights when they should have been out playing.
Taylor said she had read in the paper about the photo exhibit.
She was thinking she might go.
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