Friday, March 28, 2014


I grew up in a small town and went to a small high school. Although we had a smattering of Mexicon students, there really wasn't much diversity. In my three years of high school, there was only one African-American student, and he was from a local boys' ranch.

However, then I married and moved to California and got a job teaching at an inner-city community college. I've mentioned before how we buy Christmas tree ornaments as we travel as mementos of different places and different cultures. Well, the year I started teaching, I bought an African-American angel ornament. It's a little embarrassing to admit that, but to me it represented a shift in attitude and a new appreciation for a culture I had previously had little exposure to.  About one-third to one-half of my students were African-American, and I read their stories for thirteen years until I moved to a college closer to home that draws from a much more upscale population.

I've always wondered if that was the right move. It saves me a lot of time and gas, but I loved teaching at that inner-city college. I loved those stories of hardship and defeat and struggle and grit. Most of my students were not just the first person in their family to go to college, but they were the first to graduate from high school. I developed a respect for what it means to beat the odds.

Traveling in the South and visiting Civil Rights sites is a similar, if not even more intense, educational experience. On our recent trip to Atlanta, we spent several hours at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, a complex that includes a museum, a Walk of Fame, some significant statues, the MLK birthplace, the tombs of Martin and his wife Coretta, and an important Southern Baptist church.

Knowing that this is a popular destination for school groups, we got an early start. Our first visit was to the founder of King's nonviolence movement: Mahatma Gandhi.

Just in case you are reading this on a phone and can't read the words above, this plaque at the base of the statue is titled Tributes to the Mahatma, and the first quote is from Albert Einstein: "Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth." The second quote is from U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall: "Mahatma Gandhi was the spokesman for the conscience of all mankind."
Another plaque contains these words from Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Gandhi was inevitable. If humanity is to progress, Gandhi was inescapable. He lived, thought and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore him at our own risk."

Powerful words.

Gandhi's statue is looking out over the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame. It reminds me of the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the hand and foot prints at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, except those sites honor men and women for pretending to be someone they aren't in a movie or for performing in some other way, and the Civil Rights Walk of Fame honors people who have changed the world.  Just a small difference.

There are over 75 panels with names and footprints, including people like Ted Turner, Harry Belafonte, Tom Joyner, Hank Aaron, Thurgood Marshall, LBJ, Jimmy Carter, Medgar Evers, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Lena Horne, Sidney Poitier, Joe Lewis, Maxine Waters, Dr. Benjamin Hooks, Stevie Wonder, and Tony Bennett. The list includes Americans and non-Americans, men and women, black and white

See a complete listing here.

We walked next past this wonderful mural that stretched the length of a long building and depicted many significant events in the life of Dr. King:

. . . turned left at the end, crossed the street, walked a block to this museum store, and lined up for a tour

. . . of the two story Queen Anne-style house next door built in 1895 at 501 Auburn Avenue. It was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, birthplace and the home where he spent his first twelve years:

It's strange to think he was just three years younger than my mother and my mother-in-law:

Yet again we were not allowed to take pictures, and I can't even find pictures of the interior on the Web. Someone explain that to me, please. Here's the best I could do, a picture of the back of the house, obviously modified for accessibility:

The King home was at the intersection of a poor neighborhood and an upper middle-class neighborhood. Looking across the street and down Auburn Avenue, we could see tiny "shotgun row houses," which are still occupied:

Turning the other direction, we could see much finer Victorian homes, also still occupied:

We made our way past the row houses to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change ("The King Center"), established in 1968 by Coretta to preserve her husband's legacy. The library and archives here have the world's largest collection of primary source materials on MLK and the Civil Rights Movement. We passed this sweet photo or Coretta and Martin on our way:

The center courtyard has a large reflecting pool:

This picture reminds me that we were in Atlanta on a record-setting cold day. I think the temperature peaked at about 25 degrees.

An Eternal Flame burns next to the reflecting pool:

In the center of the pool is Martin and Coretta's tomb:

We enjoyed watching this group of Atlanta school children taking in the sights. They had been part of our tour of MLK's birthplace, and were very friendly, well-mannered, and engaged:

We crossed the street to visit the Ebenezer Baptist Church located right next to the museum, but then we figured out that it is a new building, not the one there when MLK was alive. THAT Ebenezer Baptist Church was back across the street and on the corner. (Are you getting the idea that there is a lot to see here? There is!)  This is a beautiful building, and we would have liked to see inside, but it was locked.

Between the new and old churches is a ten-foot-tall bronze statue called Behold. An inscription on the statue identifies the scene as the infant Kizzy being baptized by her father Kunta Kinte, characters in Alex Haley's book Roots.

The main museum of the MLK Historic Site complex is next to the new Ebenezer Baptist church, and for most people visiting this site, it is a good starting place, but because we were hoping to beat the crowds at the MLK birthplace, which has limited tickets, we had saved it for later:

We could have used a lot more time inside it than we had. It's full of artifacts and great displays about Jim Crow laws, demonstrations, and important events during the Civil Rights Era:

Visitors can join the marchers on a life-sized Freedom Road Exhibit honoring the everyday people who were the "foot soldiers" of the Civil Rights Movement:

I especially liked this "Seat for Social Justice," an art piece honoring Rosa Parks and others who participated in bus boycotts and sit-ins. According to information at the site: "The project brought together artists and community volunteers to transform bus seats from symbols of segregation to canvases of hope, demonstrating the tremendous power that comes from the unity of working together."

An excerpt from King's April 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was posted on the wall and took on new meaning in this setting:
We have waited more than 340 years for our constitutional land God-given rights . . . I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim . . . when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a denegrating sense of "nobodiness"; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

The March on Washington in 1963, where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, is given it's own room, and visitors can stand next to King at the pulpit as he gives his address:

All of these exhibits make this last one especially poignant. It is the simple wagon into which the casket holding King's body was placed for the funeral procession from Ebenezer Baptist Church to Morehouse College. It was drawn by "Belle" and "Ada," two mules. Over 200,000 people lined the streets and joined in the long walk.

Our final stop was the OLD Ebenezer Baptist Church where both Martin Jr. and his father were pastors, where his mother and grandmother directed the choir. Martin and his father were co-pastors here at the time of Martin's death, and "Daddy King" continued on as pastor until his retirement in 1975.

Compared to the other churches we have visited, Ebenezer Baptist is very, very simple. However, sometimes it is nice that the church doesn't overshadow the message.

I learned a few things here that I'd never heard before. MLK's younger brother, A. D. King, was named as the new co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church about five months after Martin's assassination. He had struggled with alcoholism and depression for many years, and ten months after his appointment he was found drowned in his own backyard swimming pool. His death was determined to be accidental. Then in June 1974, Alberta King, Martin's mother, was shot and killed while playing the organ in this church by a deranged African-American gunman from Ohio who had decided that all Christians were enemies of black people. The parallels to the compounded tragedies of the Kennedy family really struck me.


I began reading The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the plane to Atlanta, and the pace of the story seemed to perfectly fit the timing of our visits to MLK sites. I read passages out loud to Bob all week long as we toured various civil rights sites.

Technically, this is not a true autobiography as it was pulled together and published in 1998 long after King's death. The "editor," Clayborne Carson, is a history professor at Stanford University and the founding director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. He has studied MLK since he himself attended the March on Washington in 1963. Coretta selected him in 1985 to edit and publish her husband's papers, and this book is part of the outcome of that project.

Using King's own writings, Carson has pulled together this first-person account. It is scrupulously faithful to those writings, and if the book has any flaws, it is that it is one-sided, but then, all autobiographies are. I do think it is an excellent starting place for learning about this complex, passionate, courageous man and the changes that he helped bring to the world.

There are many more biographies, some favorable and some not, of King, and after reading the "autobiography," I wanted to read more. After returning home I picked up David J. Garrow's 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. At 800 pages, it is a little intimidating (although 167 of those pages are extensive notes and the index), but it is very well-written and readable. I did find the level of detail a little much at times and did some significant skimming.

There is some information about King's childhood and college years, but the book really begins in 1955 with Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her seat and the resulting bus boycott. This was the first time King, a new pastor in Montgomery, was pulled into a leadership position. He was just 26 years old. Nine years later he would win the Nobel Peace Prize, and four years after that he was assassinated. This book covers those thirteen years.

I found Garrow's discussion of the FBI's persecution of King especially interesting. Everywhere King went, his room was tapped, and the FBI gathered hundreds of hours of sound tapes that they threatened him with and occasionally used against him. J. Edgar Hoover really hated him. I was surprised to learn that King dealt with long periods of debilitating depression and was frequently hospitalized for exhaustion. He also received hundreds of death threats and always felt that his life would be cut short by assassination. His focus on non-violent protest in this context is all the more remarkable. Of course, there is also information about King's frequent sexual encounters and his rather poor treatment of his wife. The book definitely presents a more comprehensive view of King, warts and all, than the "autobiography," and it does tarnish his image for me. Still, it's a good reminder that in spite of their flaws, imperfect individuals can have a tremendous positive impact on the world.


  1. I think that many men in the public spotlight have opportunities and temptations thrown their way to the point that they feel the normal rules do not apply to them. However, I think we got some small sense of the vitriol and hate he experienced and what he was able to effect and change was amazing.

  2. What an interesting place to visit! I particularly like the "Walk of Fame" and the marchers of the Civil Rights Movement.

    The comparison of the King family to the tragedies of the Kennedy family is an interesting one--and it seems to, like the Kennedys', continue with both generations of both strong and troubled offspring.

    1. I meant to write "both families having strong and troubled offspring".