The Independent Newsweekly
|Today's Take: NCR's daily Web column|
|Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news. It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.|
|June 20, 2003||
Vol. 1, No. 54
Meeting Martin's legacy, Martin's friends
Pat Morrison, NCR managing editor
Last month in Atlanta I was taking a taxi back to the hotel, wrapping up a half-day of sightseeing with friends after attending the Catholic Press Convention. Learning that I was in town for just a few days, the cab driver asked, "So have you seen all the good things in Atlanta?" I mentioned that our free time had been limited, and that if I had more time I would have loved to visit the sites associated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"If you'd like, I can take you right now," the driver offered. "It's right on our way -- I can just swing by the neighborhood and show you the main points." I was delighted, especially because the driver was a native of the city and black. I sensed he'd bring a special dimension to the tour. And I wasn't disappointed.
"Welcome to 'Sweet Auburn,' " he said as he pulled onto Auburn Avenue. "This is where Martin's work began, right here on this street." I noticed the affectionate familiarity; America's great civil rights leader was not a distant "Dr. King"; he was "Martin." My 50-something taxi driver-turned-docent was not only familiar with his subject; he revealed a personal passion for justice that was born of his own lived experience here during the terrifying yet heady days of the American Civil Rights Movement.
Auburn Avenue, formerly Wheat Street, had been a thriving mixed neighborhood in post-Civil War Atlanta. Here ex-slaves bought property and began businesses, built homes and churches and settled into a new life of freedom. Blacks and whites lived and worked side by side -- until a violent race riot in 1906 revived segregation.
Three years later the Rev. A.D. Williams purchased a two-story home for his family on now mostly black Auburn Avenue. The dynamic pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church was a vigorous proponent of black advancement. His son-in-law, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., became Ebenezer's next pastor. And it was his son, Williams' grandson, who came to be the symbol of the civil rights movement in America.
My driver pointed out the Prince Hall Masonic Building on the corner of Auburn and Hilliard. The former national headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, this had been the cradle of civil rights activities in Atlanta. Here, with King as its president, the SCLC planned civil rights strategies based on nonviolence. Two short blocks away was historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King had served as co-pastor. On the sidewalk before its open door, a group of well-dressed women stood talking. The church's signboard announced that Sunday's sermon and a youth event. This was no dusty monument; it was home to a living, thriving congregation.
Across the street was a large new church and an adjacent modern visitor center run by the National Park Service. Signs urged visitors to "Begin Your Visit Here," but most were across the street, milling around the King Center with its Freedom Hall and King's tomb. The center, founded by King's widow, Coretta Scott King, in 1968, is home to some of the slain civil rights leader's personal effects, and also honors other models of peaceful resistance like Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks. Next to the center, King's simple tomb rests in the center of a reflecting pool, attended by an eternal flame. Despite a good-sized crowd of visitors, the only sound one heard was a respectful silence.
After stopping for a few minutes, we drove on to the next block. Here was the King birth home, a tastefully refurbished "grand lady." On the porch a dozen or so young people listened to a guide. My eyes locked onto a magnificent burst of blue hydrangeas against the house. I wondered: Had Martin Luther King played around these huge snowballs of color as a child growing up here?
Like Spring in the South, civil rights in the United States had finally come to flower. It had been a difficult, brutal winter of oppression. But one man from "Sweet Auburn" taught us there could be spring, and nurtured it to reality.
Thanks to my cab driver (who when we began the tour turned off the meter) for a powerful meeting with this man and his legacy. My driver's name? "Just consider me a friend of Martin," he said.
Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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