The Girl on the Balcony

Feb 2, 2018 4:00 PM ET
Blog

Millions have seen the image. Moments after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was fatally shot on April 4, 1968, photographer Joseph Louw captured the moment when those with Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel all pointed to an area across the street.

“In the moments following the shot, as King lay unconscious on the balcony, his comrades turned their attention to a sight in the distance: the assassin, getting away. They pointed their fingers in concert in the direction of his flight.”  Joseph Louw, speaking to Life Magazine the week after the assassination, as quoted in Time Magazine, April 2015.

On the balcony that day, standing with Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles and others who were part of Dr. King’s supporters, was a young woman with white bobby socks.  She was 18-year-old Mary Louise Hunt, a freshman at what was then called Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis).  She was one of the many college students taking part in the marches and protests to support striking Memphis sanitation workers.  She would later go on to work at FedEx.  We spoke with her sister, Memphis City Court Judge Earnestine Hunt Dorse, and a couple of her former co-workers to find out more.

Early Activism

Mary Louise Hunt was the second of five daughters.  Their mother was a homemaker and their father worked in construction. Earnestine was born two years after Mary.  Orange Mound was the Memphis neighborhood where the sisters were born and raised.   They were very active in their church, Mt. Pisgah CME.  Both Mary and Earnestine sang in the choir and their social lives centered around church activities.  Mary graduated from Melrose High School in 1967.

Both Mary and Earnestine were active with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which had a youth choir at the time.  “It was the young people, all high schoolers, early college.  We sang at every mass meeting. Mary and I marched in just about every protest. Since she was a couple of years older than me, she had to take me with her everywhere,” recalls Earnestine.

Mary’s organizational and clerical skills made her a key asset to the protest movement.

“That was her strong suit.  She was an excellent clerical support person. Back then we had mimeograph machines and she would do all the fliers and leaflets.  I was the ‘honeybun’ girl – I gave out honeybuns to the strikers.”

They regularly associated with people who would go on to be history-makers themselves – SCLC leaders James Orange and James Bevel, former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young and Kwanzaa creator Ron Karenga.

Mary, Earnestine and the rest of the youth choir sang at Mason Temple on the night of April 3rd, 1968.  They were in the choir stand right behind Dr. King as he delivered what was to be his final speech.

April 4th, 1968

Planning for the protests and marches usually took place at Clayborn Temple.  But on April 4th, 1968, organizers were at the Lorraine Motel.

“We were at the Lorraine eating at the restaurant and getting instructions for the next march.   Mary had to stay to handle some clerical work and I got a ride home.”

A few hours later Mary called home, distraught.

“Mary called me to tell me that Dr. King had been shot.  She was hysterical, saying the police were taking her downtown for interrogation.  She wanted us to know that much.  We didn’t see her until the next day.”

Earnestine says her sister was truly traumatized by the assassination.  “She never really talked much about it.  She didn’t understand why it happened.  The only times she ever really talked about what happened was when the Associated Press called trying to verify where Jesse Jackson was.  That went on for years.”

“One of the most vivid memories I have about the days after the assassination was the fact that the National Guard was out everywhere.  We were stuck where we were – couldn’t move as freely.  But Mary and I did see Dr. King’s body at the funeral home.  And most of the choir members went to Atlanta for the funeral.”

After the Assassination

Mary went on to be part of Resurrection City, a 3,000 person protest camp on the Washington Mall, organized by the SCLC and led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy in the wake of Dr. King’s death.  The campaign demanded economic and human rights for poor Americans.

“We felt it was the next thing we ought to do, to complete what Dr. King wanted to have done.”
In later years, Mary would quietly blaze a few trails of her own.

She became one of Pan Am Airlines’ first African-American flight attendants.  Later, she decided to change careers to join a “new airline company in town” – Federal Express.

“She was one of the first employees shortly after FedEx started.  She worked there for a few years, left, then came back in the 1980s.”

Her “take care of business” attitude and organizational skills are what some of her former FedEx co-workers remember about her.  She worked at FXTV (now known as FedEx Productions – the company’s in-house video production department).

“She used to always organize group lunches and gatherings,” says retired FedEx videographer/editor Ed Webb, who worked with Mary for eight years.

“She kept us all on track – made sure we were staying on schedule with our projects.”

Retired former co-worker Norm Abramson remembers Mary’s thoughtfulness.  “She was always someone who tried to help people whenever she could. She often brought baked goods or other dishes to work for me to take home to share with my wife.”

Mary bravely battled breast cancer for many years.  “At one point the cancer was in remission,” says Earnestine. “But it eventually came back.”

Mary’s personal account of witnessing one of the most pivotal moments in American history was never shared publicly.  At one point she finally agreed to tell her story at a public event hosted by a Memphis City Councilman in 1992.  But just days before that event took place, she became gravely ill. Earnestine recalls “she had a brain bleed that affected her mobility and her ability to talk.” She passed away a few days later, right before her 42nd birthday.  She was survived by her son who was then just 10 years old.

There’s no way to know how many people Mary influenced throughout her life.  But at least one person – Ed Webb – credits Mary’s encouragement for making him a better person.

“I had slacked off, stopped going to church.  She kept pushing me to go back and get involved.  And now, I’m an ordained minister. I thank Mary for that.”