MLK: Preparing a legacy
From the WMC-TV5 archives...
(WMC-TV) - Forty years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the memories are still painful for R.S. Lewis.
"Just tore me apart," he said. "Just like every other person, he was like an idol, and I just couldn't believe it."
Lewis met Dr. King for the first time just one day before the civil rights activist was assassinated. Lewis was stopped at a traffic light when a car pulled up next to him. Inside were Dr. King and his pastor.
"I was pulling up at a red light, and my pastor said, 'Robert, I want you to meet Dr. King,' and I said, 'Oh my gracious,' you know, and we met like that."
The next day, Dr. King's closest aids asked Lewis to prepare Dr. King's body for his funeral. The Memphis mortician found himself faced with the most difficult challenge of his career.
"The bullet had done so much damage to Martin's face, and the autopsy had caused a great deal of despair," the Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles said.
Lewis went to the hospital to pick up King's body, and was in the room when Andy Young called Coretta King to tell her what happened.
"She asked him, 'Do you think I should come," and he said, 'Yes,' and it wasn't too long before he had to call her back and tell her it wasn't any need of her coming."
Lewis felt incredibly honored to be entrusted with Dr. King's body. When word spread, hundreds of people showed up at Lewis Funeral home for what became the first viewing and memorial service for the civil rights legend.
Days later, when thousands attended King's funeral in Atlanta, Lewis was there, and received a personal thank you from the King family.
For 40 years, Lewis' story stayed between him and a few close people. Kyles believes Lewis passed up what could have been a fortune in book fees and recognition.
"That is powerful," Kyles said. "That is powerful, and he never boasted of it or bragged of it. He just did it cause it needed to be done."
Lewis is beginning to take comfort in the fact that his story is finally being told.
"I don't want his memory every to be forgotten, and any time it's brought, out I think people remember that here is a person who is responsible...for some of the things that we have done."
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