When he trekked barefoot into town in 1915, a son of a black sharecropping family declaring he aimed to marry the preacher's daughter and find himself a pulpit, they laughed at Martin Luther King Sr.
Some wondered if the old preacher himself might have chuckled today, as millionaires and paupers, politicians and plain folks, Vice President George Bush and former president Jimmy Carter packed the Ebenezer Baptist Church to celebrate "Daddy" King, patriarch of the modern civil rights movement, then bury him on a hillside beneath sunny skies. He was 84 when he died on Sunday.
He once picked cotton, but wound up picking presidents. He helped sway the crucial black vote for John F. Kennedy in 1960 after the candidate helped free his son, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., from a six-month state prison term for a minor traffic violation.
And Jimmy Carter reminded mourners how Daddy King had rescued him with black voters in 1976 by calling a press conference after a gaffe about "ethnic purity."
"It was the highlight of the campaign when he grabbed my hand and said, 'This is my man,' " said the former president. "He repaired the damage I'd done to myself."
But he was more than just a power broker to his people. They called him "Daddy," as one admirer put it, "because he was a daddy to us all."
As the father of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., he was eulogized as a man who refused to hate anyone, even after losing his namesake to an assassin, another son in a mysterious swimming accident and his beloved wife of 44 years to a crazed gunman.
"America will sorely miss you," said Bush, visibly moved by the four-hour funeral. His words were brief, but packed with symbolism for blacks who wonder what the Reagan landslide with racially polarized voting will mean in the years ahead. Bush appeared to want to allay such fears.
"We must continue to make the American dream come true for all of us," he said. "We've got a lot of healing to do."
Bush later laid a wreath at the tomb of Martin Luther King Jr.
In Washington, President Reagan released portions of a letter sent to King's family. "The achievements of Dr. King and his family will live in the hearts not only of the American people, but of all those who hunger for freedom and equality anywhere in the world," the letter said. There were tears of joy and sadness, smiles of nostalgia and wails of "Amen" as the spirit moved the crowd and speakers took their turns at the pulpit towering over a burnished casket of cherry wood. Among them were his son's former foot soldiers: the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Mayor Andrew Young, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, the former SCLC chief.
Behind the family sat Georgia's two senators, Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican Mack Mattingly, and Georgia Gov. Joe Frank Harris along with Del. Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.), Washington Mayor Marion Barry, Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, ex-Office of Management and Budget director Bert Lance and Atlanta city councilman John Lewis, who marched beside King's son from Selma to Montgomery.
"God let him down easy in the sunset of life," Jackson said. "He woke up Sunday morning, went to church and came back home and ate with his family and then went to be with God."
One former white Atlanta mayor said Daddy King had changed his racial attitudes. "I listened and learned and changed," said Ivan Allen, mayor during an era of racial tension. "We came out of that close friends."
As Jimmy Carter said, King was "God's southern gentleman."
This is a city in mourning, but the mood is upbeat, if bittersweet. All night long into the small hours before the funeral, people moved down "Sweet" Auburn Avenue, a once-bustling two-lane of black commerce that has seen better days.
Police whistles and the aroma of barbecued pork filled the cold air, as mourners walked past pool halls and beauty shops, Willie's Tavern and the Auburn Rib Shack, and turned into the red brick church on the corner.
Daddy King, dressed in a white robe, his hands clutching an open Bible across his chest, lay in an open casket inside Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he had presided as pastor for 44 years. They came to pay their respects, black and white, from laborers in faded jeans and army jackets to wealthy women wearing mink.
"He was a good man," said Silvino Pullman, 30, an unemployed mechanic, leaning against a telephone pole. He glanced at bright klieg lights and TV vans. "He was doing the Lord's work. Can't nobody stop it."
"It's like a whole era is over," sighed Peggy Mayer, a church member. "You wonder what happens to us now."
One 410-pound black professional wrestler named "Big Red" skipped a lucrative match in Mexico City against "Bruiser" Brodie to be here. But Big Red, a k a Jerry Reese, 34, said money "doesn't matter right now."
Deacon Jethroe English, 71, ushered them down the aisle, reminiscing how Daddy King performed his wedding ceremony 47 years back, urged him to buy a home, then went to bat for him at the bank. It was a common tale. King was aghast that the bank wanted 5 percent interest on a $3,500 mortgage in 1935, as English recalled it.
"That's robbin' 'em," shouted Daddy King. "Don't take everything they've got."
"We'll work with them," promised the unsettled banker.
"You just fix it so they can live," snorted Daddy King. The payment was dropped to about 4 percent, or $32 a month.
"He was just a practical, everyday preacher," said English. "He just helped you any way he could."
Said City Council President Marvin Arrington: "He was a lawyer for blacks before they had lawyers, a social worker before they had social workers."
It was midnight when Nina Balanik, a white travel agent, paused at the casket, plucked a fallen yellow carnation petal and sat down in tears. She had only met Daddy King in an optometrist's office a year ago, but she was moved.
"He had a look about him that said, 'I will not succumb to suffering,' " she sighed. "It made you feel faith in humanity, that no matter what happened to him, tomorrow would be a sunrise. Just from being around him for a few minutes, I felt that tomorrow there would be a sunrise for me.
"These people come along only once in a lifetime. After Mahatma Gandhi, there was Nehru. Now we have nobody."
It was the passing of an era for foot soldiers like beefy James Orange, 42. He was thrown in jail in Alabama and Mississippi for helping Martin Luther King Jr. organize nonviolent marches during the heyday of the civil rights movement.
Bitten by police dogs and blasted by fire hoses, he has 88 arrests to his name. And he wondered today, as he gazed down from the Ebenezer balcony, how things would be for his five children without a Daddy King in their corner.
"The '80s will be harder," he said. "Daddy King could just pick up the phone and call Sen.Strom Thurmond, or Mendel Rivers when he was alive, or Sam Nunn. But our children won't . . . have a Daddy King to call when they get in trouble."
Many thought it ironic that he died a few days after President Reagan won a landslide reelection victory with 65 percent of the white vote (74 percent of white males down South, according to ABC exit polling) and only 9 percent of all blacks. "Some of us see that as a sign to get our act in order," said Orange.
"Things aren't that much different today than 25 years ago," he went on. "The only difference is that there are no more signs that say 'Black Only' or 'White Only.' Now there is a caste system. I wish it could be like Dr. King said, not judge people by the color of their skin, but by their character."
King died Sunday of congestive heart failure after attending church and eating a fried chicken lunch. After the word got out, teachers trundled their grammar school children off to the auditorium at Morehouse University. He lay in state until his body was moved.
Some 2,000 people showed up for a Wednesday night memorial service there, and Mayor Young asked the crowd to say "amen" if they had ever asked King to solve personal problems. "Amen!" came a chorus.
He asked elected officials in the room to stand if they had ever visited Daddy King before running for office. About a dozen popped up, including former mayor Maynard Jackson. One black sheriff-elect said he was grateful Daddy King had not endorsed his opponent.
Black maids recalled sitting on the back of the bus before he took up their cause, years before his son was born, and black teachers were grateful for his lobbying officials to equalize their pay with whites.
A passionate Martin Luther King III said, "We are sad, but yet we have a lot to be thankful for. I can hear granddaddy talking . And that's why I'm happy, because I know that he's still in business. He's just moved upstairs."
"All those who asked him to try to get them a job, please stand," said Young, as more people stood up. Preachers stood who once asked advice on starting a church. Businessmen stood who had sought his counsel over money. And others stood for whom Daddy King had run interference with white judges and officials.
"Please stand and say 'Amen' and 'Thank God' for Daddy King," said Young. And they stood. And said "Amen."