Honoring Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. statue in Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama

The day we observe Martin Luther King Jr. day in California is a day for marching, a day for service, or a day for relaxing. Some people still have to work, but most have a 3 day weekend. In Alabama, where Reverend King began his ministry and his public service to the civil rights movement, they celebrate a day for King and a day for Robert E. Lee. Yes, sad isn’t it?

I took the time today to reread Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” from Why We Can’t Wait (1963). Like the Apostle Paul, Reverend King wrote from jail to his fellow clergy both a clear argument for why he joined the direct action in Birmingham, and he invited them to join them, as men of conscience, as men of faith, as citizens. Here are some sparklets from his letter:

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the inter-relatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live in the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

“We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.”

“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

May you find the inspiration for creative action and the courage to always do what is morally right.

Birmingham Civil Rights Destination

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We planned our trip so we could attend Sunday worship at 16th Street Baptist Church. Pastor Arthur Price Jr.’s sermon was “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.”

While Montgomery and Selma seem stuck in the past, Birmingham is positively forward facing with a robust economy. Birmingham experienced significant civil rights related strife in 1963, including the Children’s Crusade. The downtown is in the beginning of a renaissance and the Civil Rights scars appear to be healing. We started our Sunday at church.

 

img_5674After worship we sought sustenance in the form of brunch. One of the parishioners recommended a restaurant and we walked several blocks only to read the notice that it is permanently closed. The sign suggested we try Mr. Z’s Take Away. We went off in pursuit and ended up deciding to dine at Roots & Revelry, a newish restaurant in a bank redone as apartments and cafes. My chicken and waffles was divine. I’ve added a rule, besides trying pie whenever the opportunity presents, I am going to try fried chicken when in the South and it is on the menu.

My friend made the mistake of wearing fashionable shoes and we’d done a lot of walking already. We were determined to visit the Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park was just alongside both the church and Institute. Ingram Park has most of the stops along the Freedom Walk. There are multiple moving statues that tell the story of the Children’s Crusade. Even with the visual aids it was hard to imagine turning fire hoses and dogs on young children (until the recent tear gas at the border on women and children seeking asylum). Some things change and some things stay the same.

When we saw for ourselves the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church location at one corner of the park, we could better understand how it was used by the children as sanctuary and then how it became a target. This is the church that was bombed resulting in the death of four young girls.

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Memorial for four girls killed in church bombing. 

Sometimes when I am sitting towards the back of our big sanctuary in Sacramento, I think of how safe I think I am–how little I worry about someone with violent intent coming into our midst. This is a luxury of a mostly Scandinavian Lutheran congregation. With the Charleston shooting, and church burnings, and then more recently the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, I begin to understand what a violation it is to attack a “sanctuary”–a place where we go to worship God and fellowship, a place were strangers are made welcome. The events of 1963 are still relevant.

We did arrive in time to visit the Civil Rights Institute. It offers a comprehensive timeline of the Civil Rights movement. I wished this was our first stop instead of the last on our crawl. We spent quite a long time reading the exhibits and left just before the museum closed. The sidewalks were starting to roll up, so we made our way to the hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Greensboro SafeHouse Gem

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Greensboro, Alabama is practically unknown to people outside of this part of Alabama. When you tell someone you are going to Greensboro—even people in Birmingham—they assume North Carolina. Nonetheless, Greensboro is worth a visit for the SafeHouse Black History Museum.

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I had called ahead over a week in advance. It took a little phone tag before I was able to confirm meeting up at 10:00 a.m. The volunteers who help Theresa Burroughs maintain the museum are a mix of locals and people who grew up in Greensboro, had careers in larger cities and other parts of the US and are now retired close enough to drive to Greensboro and open up the museum for 3 women from California.

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The museum is a gem. The Rural Studio helped to design the exhibits and this house museum hits above its weight. There is a video where Theresa Burroughs tells her story as an young woman drawn to activism. She marched, was arrested, and organized her community. In the 1960s, Greensboro was the home to a sewing factory in the black side of town and many more people lived in the community. The downtown business district was bustling and boycotts of businesses by the African American community struck an economic below and created fear amongst the white residents. The exhibits and talking to the docents really brings the sense of what it was like in a small rural town during the civil rights movement. The main focus of the museum is one particularly fraught incident involving Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Klu Klux Klan. I won’t give anything away except to say it is worth making the side trip.

Hooray for Small Towns!

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downtown Marion, AL

Driving through Alabama, I came to a renewed appreciation of small towns. So many of the town squares and courthouses reminded me of some of my favorite Iowa small towns. People who live in small towns are often underestimated or overlooked. The history of the civil rights movement has deep roots in rural places.

The March from Selma to Montgomery has its roots in Marion, Alabama. Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot in Marion by a state trooper during a peaceful protest for voter rights on February 18, 1965. This prompted the first attempt at a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Reverend Hosea Williams and John Lewis stepped from the pulpit of Brown Chapel Church and led 600 marchers six blocks to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where the Sheriff and mounted deputies met them with nightsticks and tear gas. Known as “Bloody Sunday” it sparked the expanded civil rights movement in Alabama.

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Marion, AL courthouse

We drove to Marion, Alabama on beautiful country roads. Marion, the college city, is only 28 miles away and is the county seat for Perry County. As a Californian, it is odd to have so many small counties, each with their own courthouse on a square, although it is charming architecturally. We were visiting my friend Dr. John Dorsey in Greensboro, Alabama. We needed an accessible accommodation, so we reserved rooms at the Sleep Inn in Marion. Greensboro is so small the only sleep options are bed and breakfasts and AirBnB.

Marion is also the home of the Marion Military Institute and Judson College, so it is nicknamed, “College City.” The Marion Military Institute has been preparing young men for college and military service for over 165 years. Judson College was originally a “ladies college” or finishing school and has evolved into a liberal arts college. The town of Marion is a classic southern county seat with a courthouse in the middle of a gracious town square. Marion can also claim Coretta Scott King as one of their own.

 

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Awesome coffeehouse The Stable

It was a home game for Alabama so Greensboro had many people driving through from Mobile and stopping at the Pie Lab. My friend Dr. John Dorsey arrived in Greensboro 13 years ago and the downtown was almost empty. He came to serve as a psychiatrist in a rural community and try some ideas about affordable homes with supportive services in a lower cost area. Project Horseshoe Farm has grown and the 15 fellows that are living and working in the community, along with the Rural Studio students created an economic spark and now there is a gym, The Stable coffeehouse, Pie Lab, several retail shops, and more.

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Headquarters of Rural Studio

Hale County, just 10 miles down the road from Greensboro, is the home of Auburn University’s School of Architecture Rural Studio. The students are required to design, fundraise, and build their final project. Many of their projects are in Hale County or in Greensboro. It is world-renowned and a terrific resource in the Black Belt of Alabama.

 

Retracing the March in Selma

Selma is essential for any civil rights crawl.

Everything in Alabama is close-by. This is the beauty of planning a civil rights crawl. You can cram your day chock full of learning and eating with barely any time wasted in the car. It also means that you may try to do too much in one day. We found ourselves in this predicament as we drove from Montgomery to Tuskegee then back towards Selma then on to Marion with stops along the way. We did not have time to carefully follow the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historical Trail. We also arrived in Selma after the National Voting Rights Museum closed.

IMG_5505We were able to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and imagine what it must have been like to reach the peak of the bridge, high above the Alabama River, and face a sea of mounted police and police cars with blue lights flashing. I was energized by a group of high school students who started their walk with us but quickly outstripped us. We’d see them again at Brown Chapel. We also spoke with some fellow travelers—a group of friends from Texas and New York–who met up in Alabama. They recommended we also see the Old Live Oak Cemetery.

We took their advice and drove to the cemetery. It is spooky with ancient Live Oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. We all thought of Savannah, Georgia and the cemetery in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil movie. The Selma cemetery is well cared for and interesting. Thanks to our friends we knew to walk deeper through the plots to an area dedicated to the remembering the Confederacy. There were confederate flags on many of the graves, memorials to Jefferson Davis and General Nathan Bedford Forrest. The area is maintained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Selma Chapter 53. It is also unsettling and helped us understand why Selma as a city has not been able to move on since the 1960s. It looks like it has been in a long state of decay since the Selma-to-Montgomery March. This is a community that has not made peace with its past.

IMG_5518The contrast of the large lawns and stately homes near the cemetery with the George Washington Carver apartment complex across the Brown Chapel AME Church is stark. We pulled up to the church as the high school students were leaving and Chantay spotted the church pastor. She spoke to him and enjoyed a tour of the sanctuary while Phyllis and I admired the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument. The pastor was very generous with his time and gave Chantay commemorative key chains to share with us.

We drove about 40 minutes through beautiful countryside to Marion, Alabama. The March really starts here. Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by a state trooper during a peaceful protest for voter rights on February 18, 1965. This prompted a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Reverend Hosea Williams and John Lewis stepped from the pulpit of Brown Chapel Church and led 600 marchers six blocks to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where the Sheriff and mounted deputies met them with nightsticks and tear gas. Known as “Bloody Sunday” it sparked the expanded civil rights movement in Alabama. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came from Atlanta and helped to plan the Minister’s March and then the Selma-to-Montgomery March.

Insight into a Young Dr. King

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We rushed to arrive at the Dexter Parsonage Museum where Dr. Martin and Coretta Scott King lived while he served as pastor of the church. This is where he was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association that organized the boycott and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The tours start on the hour and we knew the last tour would be at 3:00 p.m.

I was not sure what to expect when we entered the first house and into the gift shop where tickets are sold. Our lovely elderly tour guide, Mrs. Margeurite Foley, escorted us out to the front sidewalk and began sharing with us what it was like to live in the neighborhood in the 1950s. We saw where a bomb tore a hole in the porch (and fortunately no one was injured). Then we entered the living room and could easily imagine the family life and entertaining they might have done from their home. Some of the furniture is the same as Dr. King and his young family used.

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We realized when we got to the dining room that Mrs. Foley was a contemporary of the King family and knew him as her pastor. The quality of our questions and discussion changed and it was thrilling. I’ve visited famous people’s homes before—Frank Lloyd Wright for example—and none has moved me in the way this glimpse into the personal life of Martin Luther King Jr. did. Chantay was especially touched to see the photo of Ghandi on his desk in his study.

We drove around the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church on our way to the Parsonage. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his career as a minister and an activist at this church. The meeting to launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott was held in the basement of the church on December 2, 1955.

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church  454 Dexter Avenue (a block west of the State Capitol), Montgomery, AL 36104  www.dexterkingmemorial.org

Dexter Parsonage Museum  303 S. Jackson Street (south of Monroe Street), Montgomery, AL 36104

Tour schedule: On the top of the hour Tuesday through Friday: 10:00a.m., 11:00a.m., 1p.m., 2p.m., 3p.m. and Saturday 10a.m., 11a.m., 12p.m., 1p.m.

The website recommends you contact them and make a reservation for your tour and this made sense once we arrived and realized the tours are powered by volunteers.

Moved Deeply at Civil Rights Memorial

The memorial designed by Maya Lin was closed for refurbishing when we visited in October, 2018. Even without this part of the experience, our visit to the Southern Poverty Law Center‘s Civil Rights Memorial was deeply moving. As you move through the first part you are invited to learn about 40 people who gave their lives for civil rights. Their stories were deeply moving.

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There is a small theater where a film about the civil rights movement plays at regular intervals. Then you move through a hallway with a timeline that records more recent hate crimes and people who have given their lives for our freedom.

Another area features quotes from leaders that prompt contemplation and reflection. This would naturally lead to the memorial itself. I look forward to visiting at a time in the future when this water feature is restored.

Just a short walk away is the Freedom Riders Museum. It is one of the places we did not have time to visit. We regretted this when we were in Birmingham and learned more about the brave Freedom Riders riding Greyhound buses to desegregate bus service in the South.