A Young Photographer’s Journey to MLK’s Funeral

EXCLUSIVE: On April 4, 1968, 22-year-old John Shearer began a four-day trek to Atlanta. Here, he talks with FOTO about pictures he made along the way.

By Carly Roye
Photographs by John Shearer

John Shearer photographed some of the most unsettling and momentous events of the 1960s and 1970s: the heartbreaking image of three-year-old JFK Jr. saluting his father’s casket (a picture Shearer took when he was just 17); the bloody uprising at Attica Prison in 1971; the Ali-Frazier “Fight of the Century”; and many others. And Shearer captured these epochal moments as a young, black professional photographer – a rarity at the time.

When he learned of King’s assassination, the 22-year-old Shearer was on assignment covering a killing by the KKK in Athens, Georgia, a two-hour drive from Atlanta, where King’s funeral would take place. Recalling that chilling, unforgettable moment, Shearer told FOTO, “I think everyone knew that King ran the risk of being killed. But it’s one of those things that you just can’t believe actually happened – even though you thought it might.”

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In the days immediately following King’s death, an estimated 60,000 people filed through Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King served as senior pastor, to view the slain leader’s body in an open casket and pay their respects. Crowds arrived by plane, train, car, and by foot. Like countless mourners from other towns, cities, and states, the young photographer had undertaken an unofficial march to Atlanta. In Shearer’s case, it was a four-day, 70-mile odyssey.

Along the way, he photographed throngs who felt compelled to honor King. But Shearer also remembers a number of people who were openly hostile toward the grieving crowds. Recalling one white woman who spit and threw a beer bottle at him, Shearer said, “She was very angry and, obviously, on the other side of our feelings for King.”

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White southerners weren’t the only ones who were angry. “There were certainly times when people sang ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and there were many times when they stood in a kind of quiet disbelief,” Shearer remembers. “You could see the anger as it built, and after the funeral, that anger spread all over the country.”

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Shearer was only the second black staff photographer hired at LIFE magazine: His mentor, the great Gordon Parks, was the first. He is known, in part, for the tone and atmosphere in his photos, playing heavily with shadows and contrast. Much of the mood in his pictures comes to life in the dark room, through a technique he learned from his teacher, the legendary Eugene Smith. “I really feel strongly that the dark room served as punctuation,” Shearer told FOTO. “One of the things that I did quite deliberately, certainly with the King pictures, was I overexposed and underdeveloped my film to create a negative that had more of the tenor that I was looking for, capturing the mood of the day. That was very important to me: to try and capture that great sadness and anger.”

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“You flashed back in your mind, about all the things King went through, particularly the later period when he and Malcolm [X] had a lot of disagreements about how things should be handled,” Shearer recalled. “Malcolm really wanted to take more of an activist approach, you know, stand your ground, don’t turn the other cheek, strike out. And [after King was assassinated] you kind of felt that you wanted to strike out against what had happened to him, too.”

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But amid the anger and sorrow, Shearer also witnessed profound moments of hope, like the quietly powerful photo he took of a young girl holding her big sister’s hand. “She told me how important it was to look wonderful for King’s spirit,” he said.

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When Shearer finally arrived at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the crowd was immense. “I was not surprised, certainly, but just amazed by the number of people there waiting, in a patient way, to walk through and stare at the body for a minute,” Shearer told FOTO. “I had been to Ebenezer Baptist Church many times in my life, but it was like looking at that church with new eyes and, certainly, raw feelings.”

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“I followed a group through [the church], really concentrating on just the grief that everybody felt that day,” Shearer remembers. “As a photographer, you wanted to be invisible. That’s the key. You want to just be there and capture people’s emotion. When you have lights and sound and people asking questions while you’re shooting, it just kind of destroys the mood.” (As seen above, Shearer caught the great boxer Floyd Patterson among those in the crowd outside of Ebenezer Baptist Church.)

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Inside the church, Shearer only had a few minutes to take this photo of a young woman standing next to King’s casket. “You can kind of see her just glancing down. It was incredibly quiet. You didn’t hear anything else. It was almost a deadly silence.”

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In this photograph, Shearer was 20 years old and working for Look magazine. Recalling his long career that includes 175 national photography awards and photographs of cultural luminaries like Muhammad Ali and B.B. King, Shearer can’t help but look at events unfolding today and make connections with his past subjects. “I look at the anger that so many young people feel today about the number of young men who have fallen, for no reason other than they are black, and it takes you back full circle to the time when, because you were black, you weren’t able to be served [in a restaurant], or you had to go in through the back door."

“Kennedy, King, Attica ― they ended up being events that people look back on as important, and I was lucky enough to have covered all of them. You never thought, ‘Gee, am I going to get hurt?’ You never thought about what might happen. You just cared about making the pictures.”

John Shearer’s latest project, “American Moments,” is a collection of 66 images that tell the story of a turbulent period in American history, starting with John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963 and ending with the Attica prison riot in 1971. Shearer’s work has been exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum, among others. Shearer lives in Katonah, New York, with his wife, Marianne.