Listening to Ray Charles and Dr. John this morning as I worked out on the cross-trainer, I found myself eager to get back to writing more about our trip. The first afternoon with the group I was not really with it. I forgot to bring my camera along to the places we visited. Plus it always takes me time to get settled in terms of being with people I don’t know and to remind myself to have few expectations of a journey such as this one. For me it is better to simply experience what is happening and then make meaning from it.
Our first afternoon together we boarded the bus and headed out to Auburn Avenue, once the center of the black community where businesses thrived and the small child, Martin Luther King Jr. was born. A section of Auburn Avenue is now the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, run by the National Park Service. Within the site is the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Heritage Sanctuary which celebrated its 125th anniversary this past weekend. We were unable to visit the church as it was in the last stages of a major restoration. It was here that Dr. King’s grandfather and Martin Luther King, Sr. (called Daddy King), served as pastors. Dr. King, Jr. became co-pastor with his father during the 1960s. It is where his mother was killed by a gunman in 1974.
In the same block is the King Center where an eternal flame burns near the tombs of Dr. and Mrs. King. A block or so away is Dr.King’s birth home, where he entered the world on January 15, 1929, and spent the first 12 years of his life.
Later we had dinner at Paschals, a black owned restaurant that was once a meeting place for civil rights activities. The food was good, especially the appetizers. We of course had fried chicken and collard greens. Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta and Diplomat to the United Nations was our guest speaker. He spoke of the civil rights movement and the work that still needs doing as we enter further into the global community. He no longer encourages young people to become attorneys. He feels that the economy is driving the world today and recommends the field of economics for those who about to enter college.
But it was Sunday morning at the New Ebenezer Baptist Church where the trip started to click for me. As we walked into the sanctuary an alto sax was warming up. I was lost … a goner. I love the alto sax and if you just play for me I will do almost anything for you!
But it was not just the saxophone that clicked for me. It was the warmth and joy of the black members who welcomed us. It was the interpreters signing for the deaf that seemed to be almost ballet. It was the sermon about being hijacked by God to bring troubled souls into a place where all can be mended. It was the fact that other white people were visiting from Germany and other corners of the world, just to be in a place where one can easily imagine that Martin Luther King is speaking to you and to remember the long road that he and so many others blazed for the world. It was the music, both choral and instrumental. It was the community of people who came together to worship a loving God who will not beat you up because you make mistakes. I am more Buddhist than anything else, but if I lived in Atlanta, I’d be there often to experience the joy and a community of beautiful people living their lives as they move forward.
After the service we boarded the bus for Albany, located in the southwestern corner of the state. The afternoon was sunny and I watched the greening Georgia landscape emerging from winter’s cold. It was in Albany, in the fall of 1961, that Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon, field secretaries for SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,) came to set up a base. They came because it seemed a be a fairly quiet community, moderate in racial attitudes, with blacks representing 40 percent of the population, home to Albany State College, a black institution, and surrounded by counties with a majority population of blacks, known as places of malicious intolerance.
A few weeks later nine students from the community arrived at the Continental Trailways bus station, attempting to sit down in the white waiting room. They did leave when asked to but on November 22, three high school student from the NAACP Youth Council returned to the bus station. They refused to leave the dining room and were arrested. Thus started a string of protests challenging segregation. After an integrated group from Atlanta arrived and were arrested, over four hundred high school students were arrested as they marched through the town. In December, Martin Luther King arrived at the invitation of a classmate from Morehouse College in Atlanta and that night he addressed a huge mass meeting at the Shiloh Baptist Church. Because the crowds were so large, he later spoke to another group at the Mount Zion Baptist Church just across the street. The night was filled with music and song, giving rise to the Freedom Singers, who toured the country with their songs encouraging everyone to overcome segregation.
That evening we were privileged to hear an astounding performance of some of the original freedom singers, led by Rutha Harris, in the Mount Zion Baptist Church, now part of the Albany Civil Rights Museum. They had driven from Montgomery just for our small group, picking up a speeding ticket on the way. I shiver at the thought of a car filled with black people, speeding through the night during the early days of the movement and can only imagine what their fate might have been.
My hunger for music sated, I crash into bed after checking in at our hotel. Next time: About The Bus.