A visit to King's Atlanta - where `the dream' began
If you spend much time at the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change here in Atlanta, you'll hear people talking about ``the dream'' a lot. It's as if the dream of brotherhood that Dr. King referred to in his famous speech was something solid and three-dimensional, with very specific characteristics, like a statue. Paradoxically, many of the most significant places in the world don't look all that interesting, and this is one of them. The stops on the Martin Luther King Trail - his birthplace, the center, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church - are attractive enough, but still, this is the sort of place where you bring the interest along with you. Dr. King was not a man who left many physical objects behind him. ``The dream'' is about as solid as it gets.
So if you haven't thought about Dr. King for a while, and would like to, a good time to visit his hometown of Atlanta is around Martin Luther King Day (this year, Jan. 19), when the intangibles are more or less laid out for you.
I went to see the Martin Luther King Trail last year, the first time the United States celebrated Dr. King's birthday as a nationwide holiday. ``In all the major black cities it was always a city holiday,'' said Deana Balfour, who was showing me around.
The Martin Luther King Center is a handsome brick building enclosing a central courtyard, which features a reflecting pool that flows down several levels. It is a very peaceful design.
``Don't you feel a certain serenity here?'' asked Ms. Balfour. At the bottom of the pool is Dr. King's tomb, with the high point of his speech, ``Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last,'' carved on it.
The courtyard was overflowing with school groups, tiny black children all quiet and solemn: girls in lavender and pink parkas and frilly Sunday school dresses; boys in suits, everybody looking bright and polished.
The center has a bookstore, with books written by and about Dr. King. There's also a tiny museum. I liked the small display of Dr. King's life in pictures. It started off with peaceful family shots - graduation, wedding, everybody-smile-and-look-at-the-camera. Then the photos got more active and cluttered. They showed world leaders, people being arrested, people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, a leaping, snarling police dog.
Balfour and I wandered over to Dr. King's birthplace, where he lived until the age of 12. The National Park Service runs the home now. It's a beige clapboard house with white trim. Inside are small rooms with white gauze curtains, now-faded striped flowered wallpaper, dark woodwork, and flowered linoleum floors. There's a wooden icebox in the kitchen and an upright piano in the parlor.
Across the street are a few old shacks, which show what this part of town, called Sweet Auburn, used to look like.
We headed for Balfour's little red sports car. ``This is a yuppie and a `buppie' [black urban professional] town,'' she says. ``Everybody's interested in cars and clothes.''
``For a black person, this is the place to be,'' she continued. ``Atlanta is really the black Mecca. All the black leaders came from here. Most of the leadership comes from the black church, because that is the core of the black family.''
Out on the street we passed 30 people in jogging clothes who had just made a symbolic run from Selma. (In 1965, a march in Selma for the right to vote, which was brutally dispersed by police, helped inspire the passing of the Voters Rights Act of 1965.) The runners looked tired.
Balfour pointed out buildings and other points of interest: Atlanta Life, one of the first black-owned insurance companies; the Atlanta Daily World, the country's oldest daily black newspaper; and several churches. She concluded, ``This is a church-going town. That is the authenticity of Atlanta.''
After a ``soul food'' lunch of collard greens and smothered chicken (``Ellen, you're going to be black today'' said Balfour, laughing) at Pascal's, an Atlanta institution, we headed back to the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where a special meeting was being held in honor of Dr. King's real birthday.
The church is a small and simple structure. The walls are white and there are stained-glass windows in greens and blues and wooden pews. Behind the pulpit where Dr. King preached is a white cross with electric lights behind it. (Dr. King's mother used to play the organ here; she was shot during a service in 1974.) The church was brilliantly lit for the TV cameras, on hand for the special meeting.
The main speaker was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who made an impassioned speech, a sermon really, pleading for a celebration of Dr. King's birthday that would be appropriate to the man. ``How would King want us to pay tribute?'' he asked. Then Rev. Mr. Jackson went on to describe being with Dr. King on the last birthday before his murder, in the basement of the church, planning the Poor People's campaign. ``That's how he celebrated his own birthday.''
He also objected to the portrayal of Dr. King as a ``non-threatening dreamer.'' calling the efforts to promote ``a weak and anemic memory'' of Dr. King ``the strategy of evil.
``The so-called `I have a dream' speech was not a speech about dreams and dreaming. It was a speech describing nightmare conditions. ... Dr. King was not assassinated for dreaming. Jesus was not crucified for the Sermon on the Mount. He led the people to question the legitimacy of the Pharisees....''
People in the audience called out encouragements: ``Take your time!'' and ``Yes, sir!'' A child cried in the back. The setting sun made the west stained-glass windows green and red, while the east windows turned a deep blue.
``There is nothing more powerful in the world than to be morally right,'' said Mr. Jackson. ``To hear Dr. King, you have to hear with your spiritual ear. ... To have moral authority, the gap between your words and your actions must close.'' He pointed out the irony of Dr. King's being honored by the government that ``didn't respect him in life.''
And when he had finished speaking, the crowd leaped to its feet and clapped and clapped.