photo credit: National Park Service (http://www.nps.gov/malu/documents/king_center_freedom_hall.htm)
When I lived in northern Kentucky one thing I was constantly amazed with was the history that took place in the area. I remember thinking after I moved into my apartment on a bluff over the Ohio River--I wonder if any slaves ever crossed the river here.
As a resident of the area, especially late in my residency of Kenton County, I became increasingly more and more curious and began to seek answers to the area's history. I learned loads of things I'd always been curious about, but perhaps the most shocking thing of all that I learned from this experience is that I had a real interest in Black American history, namely the Underground Railroad, and within the past few days, I've had another breakthrough: I love studying Martin Luther King, Jr. as well.
Now, what's it matter? I'm white. I'm male. I'm Christian. I'm straight. I'm exactly what American society points out should be easiest. Heck, to add to my demographics, I'm even college-educated and employed. But the truth is, I'm not content to just enjoy this. I feel some great homage to things that came before me and struggles that people unlike
me faced. I just do. And, I'll add, I'm very glad that I do. I don't understand why I feel this relationship to this rather important volume of history, because I've rarely had to struggle for anything in my life.
Last weekend I had to go to Atlanta for work. I went down very early Saturday and my plans for the day fell through. It turned out to be the most serendipitous event I've experienced in a long time. I first dropped off a friend on the north side of town and then proceeded downtown to be a tourist for the day. I parked my car and set out downtown on foot, quite amazed by Atlanta. The last time I was there (besides passing through the airport as seemingly most flights do) was when I was about 14. The skyline seemed to scream wealth, power, and an in-yo'-face-American-dominance that I didn't realize existed in the city. My footsteps led me to a predominantly black district of the city where Underground Atlanta is. As I walked, I put on my gloves and buttoned up the top button of my coat. I watched fog come out of everyone's mouth. The street was filled with screaming pedestrians, families out and about, and in every window it seemed someone was getting their hair done. The urban beat of the city was penetrating me with a chill of exicitement. I took the steps down under the streets into the food court and ate Chinese in a line where a framed Coretta Scott King picture sat in rememberance on the glass case above the Lo Mein with cut, dying flowers around it. There was an employee who stood yelling for passer-bys to stop and try the special. His selling line was "we serve real chicken here, folks. No chunks, no kibbles-n-bits, nothing but the best chicken." As a reverse effect, this kind of disgusted me, but I was really hungry for Chinese so I stayed in the line. Aside from that, this guy spouted off political opinion as if he were a recording device playing back the real blowing lines he'd heard from the news. It was great to see such a public display of biting political criticism. It made me question, even if we are afraid that people around us will disagree with what we say, why are we still so afraid to say it? The food was great. I sat and felt the urban beat absorb me and ate my food alone at a table in a place where I was the minority for a change. Perhaps more than anything, that's what felt good sinking into my skin.
I visited the Coca-Cola Museum, which is an anecdote that doesn't belong in this post and then truly felt a power of the city when I walked into the CNN Plaza later that afternoon. But it was hours later, after I'd gotten back in my car that serendipity struck.
During the afternoon, the wind had picked up even more and a few snow flakes were flying around in the air. I got in my car, studied a map, and felt confident I knew how to get to my hostel (even though I was on business, I wanted the experience of staying in an American hostel--I ended up sharing a room that night with a Norweigan, an Argentinan, and a guy from New Zealand). I started down Auburn Avenue from downtown and thought I was heading the right way, but the further I went the more I doubted my navigation. I went below an underpass where there were rows of homeless people lying in the cold with their pile of stuff beside them. There must have been 100 homeless individuals here. As I emerged from the dark, I passed by a convenient mart with barred windows where police cars and an ambulance were parked in the street outside with their lights going--something had happened. I kept my eyes ahead of me and concentrated on street names, trying to re-picture the map of downtown in my head. I was behind a Caprice that was painted purple and had black tinted window and had hydraulics and spinners on its tires. As I drove up a small hill, I noticed a crowd of people on the sidewalk in an area that I only caught out of my peripheral, but imagined it to be a school. I drove on and the neighborhood suddenly improved by leaps and bounds and suddenly I was at an intersection with a National Park sign. Confused, I sat in the intersection and read the sign. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. BIRTHPLACE NEIGHBORHOOD
I parked the car, got out, feeling something very good about what had just happened. I had gotten lost and had ended up at a site I didn't know existed, but was exactly where I wanted to be. I walked down the street and looked at the homes, the places where MLK's boyhood friends lived, where the corner store was where he bought candy, and finally the house where he was born. I looked at a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. standing with his own children on a spot in front of his boyhood home where I had just stood myself staring up at the porch swing and the windows moments earlier. The wind stirred in my ears and I held my cheeks in my hands as I walked around.
I got in my car and drove down the street and this is where it really happened--the biggest surprise, where my getting lost really paid off. I realized that what I had caught a glimpse of earlier wasn't a school, but instead was The King Center. I parked my car down by Ebenezer Baptist Church, where MLK's father preached, and later MLK himself would get his start as both a reverend and an activist. I walked the street and realized that the crowd I'd seen earlier at The King Center was gathered there for a reason--Coretta Scott King had been entombed there days earlier only yards away from MLK himself. I walked up the steps in amazement at my lucky stumble. The wind suddenly howled and snow came flying in. The sky to the west cracked and downtown Atlanta, a mile or so away, suddenly lit up like a glittering sea at sunset. The moment held a spirit I will never forget. I stood at Mrs. King's gravesite first, staring off across it, across Auburn Ave at the flying snow. Then, I stepped over to the water that seperated me from MLK's island tomb. There were lots of others there, but I felt so alone. In all the wind, no voices carried to me; it seemed silent. I sat down on the water's edge and put the tips of my finger in the water and spent a long time. I stared across the blue water, across the tomb, across the trees and the flying snow, to the glittering city a mile off in the waning sunlight and felt I had discovered why the city had seemed so powerful to me.
Today, I laid on the sofa a week and a day later and watched a documentary on King's life. I watched black-and-white footage of marching from Selma to Montgomery, through Cicero, saw the stills of the moment after he was hit with a thrown brick. I watched video from his last birthday at Ebenezer Baptist Church, saw his influence in Washington, LA, Chicago, Memphis, Mississippi, and in Alabama. And knowing what was coming didn't make the moment any less poignant than when the documentary featured that last speech he made in Memphis, when he closed with the following:Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Chills ran up my body and tears came to my eyes this morning as I watched this. Though I felt I knew the words, have heard them altered and in sound bytes my entire life, this was the first time I had seen
with what spirit he delivered them with. As he closed with that very last sentence, he basically just fell back into a chair. People fell around him to shake his hand. The audience seemed positively electric.
In one month, work will take me south again--this time to Memphis. Having visited Memphis before, having seen Graceland, there are two sites I'm aching to see. I'll spend the day at the National Civil Rights Museum and I'll visit the Lorraine Motel. And maybe someday, the need for all of this history that doesn't belong to me will cease. But for whatever reason, right now, it's strong and real and feels like I need to own up to it--even if I am a white stereotype.