Wednesday, May 29, 2013

King's Road

by Larry Bleiberg
                From his birthplace in Atlanta to the, balcony where he died, follow the path of America’s civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and meet others who helped make history.
                Theresa Burroughs remembers the last time Martin Luther King Jr. came to town. It was March 21,1968, and the civil rights leader had preached at her church in Greensboro, Alabama. “He was a little man, but he had a booming voice,” Burroughs recalls. “When he spoke, you sat up and listened.”
                After the gathering, King was about to leave when someone rushed in with news: The Ku Klux Klan had torched two churches on highways leading out of town. Now they were looking for King.
                “The Klan was ready to ambush him,” Burroughs says.
                The beauty shop owner urged him not to leave and invited him to stay at her home. The Nobel Peace Prize winner agreed and spent an uneasy night, lying on a bed by the door of her shotgun-shack-style home.
                Two weeks later, King was gunned down in Memphis.
                Burroughs never forgot that night, and in 2002, she converted her home into the Safe House Black History Museum. “This,” she says, pointing to the floor where King had slept, “is holy ground.”
                While her story is unique, the experience of talking to someone who played a personal role in the civil rights movement is not. Since I moved to Alabama more than 20 years ago, I’ve discovered that civil rights history is recent history. Not simply relegated to books and grainy documentaries, the stories of the so-called foot soldiers of the civil rights movement can still be heard in person, unlike accounts from, say, the Alamo or Gettysburg. Many of these former foot soldiers volunteer at museums or participate in special events. I’ve had conversations with Freedom Riders and protesters, and I’ve even chatted with a woman who once babysat one of King’s infant daughters.
                Over the years, friends have asked me how best to experience sites associated with this pivotal era. I suggest following the movement itself. Trace the path of King, from his birthplace in Atlanta, through the battlegrounds of Alabama, to the museum marking his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. The 600-mile drive is best done over several days, allowing time to absorb the region’s beauty and haunting history at a leisurely pace.
                This year is an opportune time to visit. Birmingham will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the significant events of 1963, when violence in the city and a confrontation at the University of Alabama helped spark passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination.
                Some travelers new to the South may wonder if their presence at these sites might be resented. Hardly. The hospitality will charm you, and you may be surprised the first time you’re called “sir” or “ma’am.” Just remember to ask questions along the way. You never know whom you might meet.

Atlanta - The Beginnings

                The easiest and most logical place to start is King’s birthplace in Atlanta. Now a National Park District, this area preserves King’s upbringing in the then-segregated but self-sufficient Sweet Auburn neighborhood where his maternal grandfather, and later King Jr. himself, presided at the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
                Arrive early to reserve free tickets to tour King’s childhood home (pictured; tours are limited and fill up quickly) and peruse the poignant exhibits and short films in the visitors center. Be sure to stop by the adjacent King Center, a living monument where you also can pay your respects at his grave, FREE AT LAST, FREE AT LAST, the stone monument reads.

* Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, 450 Auburn Avenue NE. (404) 331-5190

Montgomery - Birthplace of a Movement

                From Atlanta, it’s an easy 150-mile drive to the Alabama capital where King — and more notably, a 42-year-old seamstress-turned-civil rights activist—made headlines in 1955 when she refused to surrender her bus seat. Montgomery was King’s first post, and after Rosa Parks’ arrest, the young reverend was thrust into the spotlight when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
                Put simply, it was a job no one else wanted, and as the struggle dragged on, King learned why. After a middle-of-the-night phone caller threatened his family, the reverend faced a moment of doubt.
                The Dexter Parsonage, the middle-class 1950s home where King lived from 1954 to 1960, is now preserved as a museum. Other activist pastors, who presided over the nearby Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, also resided there. Tour guide Shirley Cherry, a former schoolteacher who herself dealt with the difficulties of segregation, captivates visitors as she stands near a Formica kitchen table in the parsonage and recounts the events that took place there.
                King couldn’t sleep after the threatening call, she says, so he made a cup of coffee and sat at the table to drink it. Did he have the will, he asked himself, to lead a long, violent struggle? “Lord, I’m losing my strength,” Cherry quotes King. That’s when he heard a voice urging him on.
                That Kitchen Table Experience on January 27,1956, inspired King to continue with the boycott, despite the threats against him and his young family and the bombing of his house a few days later. “What happened that night was a lesson for all of us," Cherry says. “It’s a lesson in commitment and obedience.”
                Montgomery’s other civil rights sites include a museum devoted to Rosa Parks and a smaller museum and gallery at the restored Greyhound station where attackers ambushed the Freedom Riders who were challenging segregation laws.

* Civil Rights Memorial, Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Avenue; (334) 956-8200
* Dexter Parsonage Museum, 309 S. Jackson Street. (334) 261-3270
* Freedom Rides Museum, 210 S. Court Street. (334) 242-3935
* Richard Harris House (historic marker), 372 S. Jackson Street.
* Rosa Parks Library and Museum, 252 Montgomery Street. (334) 241-8615
* Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail Lowndes County Interpretive Center, 7002 US Route 80 West, White Hall. (334) 877-1983

Selma - A Bridge to History

                From Montgomery, drive along the 54-mile Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail (US Route 80), on which protesters marched over five long days.
                Stop at the halfway mark to explore the National Park Service visitors center and watch the 25-minute film explaining the historic march.
                 The march was prompted by the events of March 7,1965, that took place on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. There’s nothing glamorous about the arched span, but it’s as much an American symbol as the Statue of Liberty. On that day, now known as Bloody Sunday, hundreds of unarmed citizens marched across the bridge to protest the difficulty African Americans had when registering to vote. As TV cameras rolled, police gassed and beat protesters who tried to cross the bridge.
                 “I thought I was going to die," says Lynda Lowery, a Selma resident who was 14 at the time. “I have never felt that fear since.” Now she volunteers with the annual Jubilee in Selma that reenacts the march.
                When you walk across the bridge, pause at the top to ask yourself what you would have done if you saw the police waiting for you. Then visit Selma’s National Voting Rights Museum at the foot of the bridge, where you’ll find docents like Lowery as well as photos documenting that terrible day.
                From Selma, head north on Alabama State Route 14 to Marion. About 5 miles east of town is the grave of Jimmie Lee Jackson, tucked in a wooded area off the highway (get directions from the Perry County Chamber, as well as a mobile phone tour, at 334-526-3061 or A state trooper killed the 26-year-old in February 1965, which prompted one of the first attempts to march to Montgomery. That attempt ended in Bloody Sunday a month later. Then head northwest on the Coretta Scott King Highway, pausing at her childhood home 12 miles north of Marion, where she and King were married. It’s just a short drive on to Greensboro and the Safe House Museum.

* National Park Service Selma Interpretive Center, 2 Broad Street. (334) 872-0509
* National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, 6 US Route 80 East. (334) 418-0800;
* Safe House Black History Museum, corner of Davis Street and Martin Luther King Drive, Greensboro. (334) 624-2030

Tuscaloosa - Segregation Challenged

                From Greensboro, head north. College football fans may know Tuscaloosa for its national championship team, but it’s also the site of a pivotal event in civil rights history. On a sweltering June day in 1963, newly elected Governor George Wallace blocked a schoolhouse door as two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, tried to register at the University of Alabama. Earlier that year, in his inaugural speech, Wallace had famously declared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
                 The Malone-Hood Plaza now marks the spot, honoring the two students who proved the governor wrong.

* Malone-Hood Plaza, Autherine Lucy Clock Tower, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. (205) 348-6010.

Birmingham - The 1963 Campaign

                Birmingham made international news during the 1963 Children’s Crusade, when police dogs attacked schoolchildren and water cannons knocked peaceful marchers to the ground. In Kelly Ingram Park, statues of German shepherds lunging and children cowering for safety freeze those moments in time.
                 A few weeks before the confrontation, King was arrested during a protest and wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a defense of nonviolent protest. The bars of his cell are now housed in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the centerpiece of the six-block Civil Rights District. Another of the district’s landmarks is the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four girls were killed in a bombing.
                 I like the Institute for its frequent special programs and for its volunteers, many of whom are willing to share their experiences from the civil rights era. It’s here that I met retiree Catherine Burks-Brooks, a Freedom Rider who stood up to Birmingham’s notorious commissioner of public safety, “Bull” Connor. Connor had taken the college student and several others who had defied the city’s segregation laws from jail in the middle of the night, saying he planned to drive them back home to Nashville. But as soon as the car reached the Tennessee border, Connor kicked them out.
                 “Back then, we watched a lot of cowboy movies,” Burks-Brooks said. “I told him I would see him back in Birmingham by high noon.” It was actually 3 p.m. when she and her classmates made it back to continue the historic Freedom Ride.

* 16th Street Baptist Church, 1530 Sixth Avenue North. (205) 251-9402
* Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 520 16th Street North. (205) 328-9696
* Kelly Ingram Park, 16th Street North and Fifth Avenue North.

Memphis, Tennessee - A Fallen Leader

                Perhaps prompted by his close call just weeks earlier in Greensboro, King seemed to sense that his days were numbered.
                 The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the most comprehensive museum of its kind in the country, honors King and much more. It’s a no-holds barred examination of the march to freedom from its roots in slavery to the movement that swept the world.
                The museum encompasses the Lorraine Motel, preserved in its 1950s style. A line often forms by the room where King stayed and died. A decade ago, the museum was expanded to include the boarding house from which James Earl Ray fired at King. Working their way through exhibits, visitors are drawn to the sniper’s perch, wishing somehow history could be changed. Looking toward the motel balcony, the shot looks disturbingly easy.
                The scene marks the place where King’s journey came to an end. But the movement marched on. As we know today, the reverend’s words and convictions continued to reverberate, long after he resolved his doubts at a kitchen table, inspiring millions, and changing history.

 * National Civil Rights Museum, 450 Mulberry Street. (901) 521-9699
Birmingham-based journalist Larry Bleiberg runs

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