Sunday, April 27, 2014

MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA: THE KING PARSONAGE, THE DEXTER AVENUE BAPTIST CHURCH, AND THE SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER CIVIL RIGHTS MEMORIAL

A trio of very important civil rights-related buildings are within blocks of each other in downtown Montgomery.  The first is the parsonage where Martin Luther King Jr. and his family lived from 1954 to 1960. Martin and Coretta moved into this house in January 1954 after two months of marriage and when Martin was just 25 years old. They were living here two years later when the Civil Rights Movement got kick-started by Rosa Parks and the bus boycott in December 1955. As the well-known and very articulate local pastor of the Baptist church, King was naturally drawn into the fray.
Martin Luther King Parsonage, Montgomery, AL / Souvenir ChroniclesFrom the very beginning the work required great personal sacrifice. King was determined to follow a course of non-violent resistance, but the white community, including law enforcement, was not so inclined. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, it was common for him to receive as many as 40 death threats via phone and mail a day, and he knew he was putting his own life and the lives of his wife and baby daughter at risk. He had already spent time in the Montgomery Jail, and his will was beginning to falter.

According the David J. Garrow's Pulitzer prize winning biography Bearing the Cross (see review at the end of this prior post), one night after a particularly vicious day, ". . . he was about to retire when the phone rang and yet another caller warned him that if was going to leave Montgomery alive, he had better do so soon. King hung up and went to bed, but found himself unable to sleep. Restless and fearful, he went to the kitchen, made some coffee, and sat down at the table. 'I started thinking about many things,' he recalled eleven years later. He thought about the . . . many threats he was receiving. 'I was ready to give up. . . . With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.'"

King reviewed his life up to that point, which he considered to be very happy. He thought about his religious views, and how he had grown up in the church. He said, "The church meant something very real to me, but it was a kind of inherited religion and I had never felt an experience with God in the way that you must, and have it, if you're going to walk the lonely paths of this life."
Kitchen in the King Parsonage
Garrow continues, "But that night, unable to be at peace with himself, King feared he could take it no longer. It was the most important night of his life, the one he always would think back to in future years when the pressures again seemed to be too great." King thought about his baby daughter, and the fact that she could be taken from him. He thought of his wife Coretta, and the fact that she could be taken from him or he from her. King said, "And I got to the point that I couldn't take it any longer. I was weak. . . . And then I discovered that religion had become very real to me, and I had to know God for myself."  He bowed his head over his cup of coffee and prayed to know what he was doing was right, and for courage to see it through.

And then he had the answer that he would refer to over and over throughout the next twelve years of his life: "And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, 'Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.' . . . I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone."

Just four days later a bomb exploded on the parsonage porch. King's wife, his ten-week-old daughter Yolanda, and a member of his congregation were in the back of the house. No one was hurt, but it must have been a terrifying experience. King was speaking at a boycott meeting when he was told of the bombing. He hurried home to find several hundred angry black men gathered around his home, ready for revenge. Police arrived and were ineffective at calming the crowd, and the police commissioner asked King for help. King stood on his front porch and, drawing on the strength he had received in his kitchen earlier in the week, he assured the mob that everything was all right, that no one had been hurt, and that everyone should just go home. "We are not advocating violence," King said. "We want to love our enemies. I want you to love your enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them."  Truly amazing.

This is a message that King would share many more times during his ministry. Garrow refers to "the kitchen experience" and the powerful force it was in King's life at least a dozen times in his book. As I have read about the continued violence that King and other black Southerners faced, I have gained enormous respect for his commitment to non-violence. I think it would take a manifestation from heaven to be able to do what he did!

The second important civil rights building is the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where King served as pastor and where the Montgomery bus boycott was organized in December 1955.
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL / Souvenir Chronicles
ed in Established 1877, it was the second black Baptist church in Montgomery.

Tours conducted by a knowledgeable guide begin in the basement. There is a wonderful mural that covers an entire wall and shows the people and events of the Civil Rights Movement, but while we could take pictures of everything else, we were not allowed to take pictures of the mural. There are, however, a few pictures of small parts of it on the Internet:
Picture from here shows Governor George Wallace, King getting arrested, Rosa Parks, Martin and Coretta, and the Dexter Avenue church
I also liked this unusual lenticular painting that was hung in the basement. From the front it appears to be a painting of the church on a corrugated surface:
Viewed from one side, the exterior of the church is clearly seen, and from the other side, it's the interior.
 Compare the picture on the right with this photo of the interior:
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Interior, Montgomery, AL / Souvenir Chronicles
The church interior is simple and austere:
We asked our guide if integration had included the churches, and she said that this congregation (of which she was a member) has had one or maybe two white people attend over the years, but that for the most part the races choose to remain separate. I found that a little sad, but I guess segregation is a different issue when religious culture is involved.

Still, I wish things would warm up just a bit in the deep South:
 The third important civil rights building in Montgomery is the Southern Poverty Law Center Civil Rights Memorial.

Southern Poverty Law Center Civil Rights Memorial, Montgomery, AL / Souvenir Chronicles
The quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on the fountain reads, "Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is a non-profit law firm that takes on cases involving racism, discrimation, hate crimes, and other civil rights issues. Wikipedia says it is "noted for its legal victories against white supremacist groups; its legal representation for victims of hate groups; its classification of militias and extremist organizations; and its education programs that promote tolerance," this museum being part of the latter.

It was cold and rainy when we were there and the only photo I have of the fountain is the one above, which doesn't show the top, so I borrowed this one below from Wikipedia:
The names of the 40 men and women killed in the civil rights struggle between 1954 (the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation) and 1968 (Dr. King's death) are engraved on the top of the fountain, which can be touched by visitors.  It is beautiful.

The memorial was designed by Maya Lin, architect of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. She was 28 years old when she was asked to create this monument. She said, "I was searching for the right design. There was so much I didn't know, so many names I didn't recognize. On my first trip to Montgomery, I came across a quote from the prophet Amos that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used in his famous 'I Have a Dream' Speech: 'We are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness rolls down like a might stream.' Immediately I knew the memorial would be about water and that these words would connect the past with the future. Sitting on the plane, I sketched the memorial out on a napkin."


This poster explained why we had to go through security on our way into the museum:
Klansmen? In 1983? Unbelievable.

The museum has some very moving displays about civil rights of all kinds:
Many groups besides African-Americans are represented:
This man was murdered after 9-11 because "he looked like a terrorist." His murderer called him a "towel head."
And not just Americans are represented:
This museum does a wonderful job of confronting the ghosts of Montgomery's racist past, and it also makes a Westerner like me realize that stereotyping and discrimination are certainly not limited to the South.

2 comments:

  1. Those quotes are wonderful. I also like the Elie Wiesel quote "we must take sides" a few pictures up. Interesting time of history--and hard to believe we learn so little from it.

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  2. It was kind of a gray day in Montgomery - overcast, cloudy and rainy. And it just kind of fit the mood. Some places just seem to have a little cloud over them and Montgomery is one of them. A place of strong personalities, strong feelings. Yet F. Scott Fitzgerald and his house is not too far away, so there is another side to it.

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