(Wrote this in 2009 and re-reads mean I might want to re-write it…but Happy MLK Day.)
In late January, I visited the city of Atlanta, Georgia on a business trip. Since we just celebrated the election of America’s first black president and what would have been Martin Luther King’s 80th birthday, it seemed appropriate to head over to the neighborhood where King grew up, which is now a national historic sight. King’s house is the third most popular National Historic Sight in the Nation, which suggests that his legacy and his message still resonate with the American people, 40 years after his assassination.
From the airport, I took the train from the airport to the KING MEMORIAL stop, then walked a few blocks to the neighborhood. Outside the station, I asked a guy for directions and he directed me via the shortest route, but then he hesitated and suggested another route—I might want to walk up a few blocks and then take a left. I insisted I’d just do what he said, take the quickest route. The other folks on the street with me looked decidedly under-employed, and I understood then why the man outside the station had thought I might prefer another walking route.
I might have been in any other urban city hollowed out by the development of the highway system and the allure of suburban neighborhoods. There were a lot of empty lots and garbage, and a lot of urban core gone shabby, but in the distance the glassy high-rises that support this city of 519,000 reminded me of how we measure progress in this era.
This evidence of neglect and poverty was the reason that the man who’d given me directions paused and suggested a longer route, because he wanted to spare me, a white girl in a white puffy coat, the experience of walking in an area where I’d be a minority. To be honest, I’d understood his hesitation then, most people have lost touch with the experience of walking on the streets, but I also felt the way I’ve felt since giving up my car 8 months ago—America is a place we see on foot, and so much is overlooked driving 65 miles an hour. A few months back, I’d let my sister and a hotel concierge convince me that it was too dangerous to visit Walt Whitman’s house, in another urban city—Camden, New Jersey—and I wasn’t about to let a slightly shady neighborhood prevent my appreciation of an American legacy again.
A block from the Ebenezer Baptist Church I saw a window empty of everything but a nice Obama PROGRESS poster in the window, and I knew I must be nearing my destination. I had intended to maybe see some other things in town, like the puppet museum and the museum of paper history, but I ended up spending the better part of 3 hours in the neighborhood where King grew up.
I watched a film on the history of the civil rights movement in the theater at the Visitor’s Center with some Japanese tourists. Then I walked around the exhibits in the center, which included audio and video and letters written to MLK’s children after his assassination. The wooden mule-pulled cart that had transported King’s body across the city of Atlanta was on display in a side room where they showed video of Americans visiting the Lorraine Motel.
At the house where MLK grew up, I learned that King’s grandparents had purchased the home for $3500 in 1909. These facts seemed delightfully quaint in the midst of this nation’s mortgage crisis. Later that evening I dined with a relative who was once acting Vice President of a Mortgage Firm in Atlanta who confessed that she wasn’t always certain she’d have a job next month.
The King birth home—located at 501 Auburn Avenue—was the home Martin grew up in until the age of 12. Before eating dinner, he & his siblings had to recite bible verses from memory. There, we were shown the room where King’ mother gave birth to Martin, we learned that monopoly was his favorite board game, and that as a child his siblings called him “ML.” Perhaps my favorite part of home was the historical re-imaginings in the children’s bedrooms—the children’s favorite toys—jacks, monopoly, roller skates, lay around the rooms as though abandoned moments before. I imagine, given the strict but loving nature of MLK’s childhood, that not cleaning up your room, as these rooms were shown, would be grounds for more bible verse recitation. I also liked seeing the sleeping porch, located on the front of the house, where the children would sleep on hot summer evenings in the era before air conditioning.
Dr. King graduated from high school in 1944, at the age of 15. In the summer between college and his enrollment at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he moved to Simsbury, Connecticut to work in the tobacco fields. At the time, there was a severe labor shortage in the industry, and the farm (Cullman Brothers) was recruiting Black Southern college students to work the fields. Connecticut appealed to students, who could enjoy the benefits of a society in which the color of their skin didn’t matter, if only briefly. At the museum, they seemed to suggest that King’s time in Connecticut made him aware of the power of the ministry, which was he eventually studied in college. King acted as a spiritual advisor to his fellow farm workers that summer, and found that despite his intention to blaze his own path (rather than becoming a minister, as his father and grandfather had) he did feel a called to the ministry.
On Saturdays, students would head to Hartford to see live shows, shop, and dine. At the time, Hartford was a bustling metropolis of somewhere between 166,000-177,000 people. The late 1950s & 1960s would begin an era of suburban flight, just the kind that makes Atlanta’s core only home to half a million people, while its surrounding suburbs are home to over 5 million. Today, greater Hartford supports a population of 1,188,841, but the city center itself is home to only 124,512. The gifts of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System are our sprawling bedroom communities.
MLK wrote home to his mother in June 1944, “Yesterday we didn’s work so we went to Hardford we really had a nice time there. I never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere but we …ate in one of the finest restaurant in Hardford. And we went to the largest shows there. It is really a large city.”
During this era, black travelers on the train from the South had to sit behind curtains in the dining cars. Once they reached Washington, DC, the trains were no longer segregated and they could sit wherever they liked. In his autobiography King wrote: “After that summer in Connecticut, it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation. It was hard to understand why I could ride wherever I pleased on the train from New York to Washington and then had to change to a Jim Crow car at the nation’s capital in order to continue the trip to Atlanta.”
I travelled to Atlanta knowing none of this, and inspired to visit King’s home by the energy that the election of Barack Obama had brought to my country. I wanted to move my understanding of King’s legacy from a place informed by platitudes and white folks proclaiming that now, we are truly “Living the Dream,” to a place that was more nuanced, and more informed.
Before his assassination, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were beginning plans for a Poor People’s Campaign to confront poverty by encouraging the poor to take up residence on the mall in Washington—a place where they could not be ignored. At the same time, King’s interest in the trappings of his success—money, a nice house, material things—were waning. His death left his wife & children with a great legacy, but no riches. In the time since his death, King’s image and his words have been tightly controlled by of his wife Coretta and his family. Their methods for preserving his legacy were sometimes criticized for being overzealous, including a time in 1996 when the King estate sued CBS for using long excerpts of his “I Have a Dream” speech. Sometime after this, they reversed course in resisting commercialization of King’s name, image, and copyright and began selling cds of King’s speeches, among other things.
At the two gift shops I visited at the Historical Sight and at the King Center there were a lot of badly designed posters and t-shirts collections. It was possible to buy a commemorative MLK bust manufactured in China. This is America, I kept thinking, celebrating the legacy of an American Civil Rights leader by purchasing goods manufactured in China. I did end up purchasing some cds—among them, King’s speech “Why I oppose the war in Vietnam” which would posthumously win him a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording. It was also interesting to contrast this tight control over King’s image and speeches with that of Barack Obama.
On a recent trip to New York’s garment district it was possible to purchase at least 100 different clothing variations on the theme of president Obama. The control of Obama’s image—or the lack of control—helped to spawn a kind of handmade success that is unique to this era, and I think is informed by the knowledge that when people feel a sense of ownership or investment in their leaders, when they can knit gloves with his name on them or buy original art posters made by Obama supporters to invest in the campaign, his success feels like their success as well. There were no King t-shirts in evidence in any of the gift shops that I would deem awesome or artful enough to wear home. There were no objects for sale imbued with the kind of personalized spirit that made “Mommas for Obama” possible.
In the time since King’s death the gap between rich and poor in this nation has continued to expand. A 1996 Census Bureau report found that the wealthiest fifth of the population’s income increased 44% from 1968-1994 (growing from $73,754 to $105,945), while the income of the poorest fifth of the population grew only 8%, from $7,202 to $7,762.
If the problems of poverty were ignored in the late 1960s, when King wanted to bring them to the national consciousness by encouraging the poor to set up a squatter’s village on the National Mall, the wreckage of our financial system is evidence that ignoring poverty continues to have far-reaching consequences. Our nation’s mortgage crisis was fueled by the idea that homeownership should be available to everyone, regardless of whether or not the mortgage terms would be kind to the homeowner, when interest rates re-adjusted. I can’t imagine the fiscal conservatives of the King Household on Auburn Ave—who rented out one of their bedrooms to college students to help cover the mortgage payments—could fathom the depth of our current mess. The wreckage of this era of laissez fair regulation sits in our neighborhoods, being sold by banks for less than the loans due on them.
And I can’t help thinking that Martin Luther King’s tremendous power as a leader and thinker—if it had not been snuffed out in suspicious circumstances in 1968—could certainly have expanded the levels of freedom, justice, and equality in our time. Martin Luther King’s legacy has been softened for public consumption, he isn’t remembered as a radical, but he spoke out against the war in Vietnam long before it became politically expedient to do so, and began to focus his attention on issues of social justice that transcended race.
I was thinking about all of these things—the nearly 2 million people gathered on the national mall to see the election of America’s first black president, the wreckage of the mortgage crisis, the highway system as a shaper and emptying force of America’s cities, when I flew home to Windsor Locks, which is 15 miles from the farm in Simsbury that shaped King in the summer of 1944.
I was thinking also about the folks from Springfield who I met at the museum, and who I joked with about how tiny MLK was. They couldn’t believe that he fit into his little suits, and I mentioned that in the video I’d seen at the visitor’s center, Coretta Scott King talks about how the first time she saw him in Boston, she was struck by how tiny he was, and how he looked like a little boy. She said that feeling dissipated soon after she spoke with him. So often, we forget that our heroes are humans, sometimes tiny, sometimes big-eared, who face the same obstacles that we do in life. The exhibit at the King Center displayed his Nobel Prize and his cufflink collection.
I was thinking as well of King’s Nobel Prize Speech, which speaks to the power of the people who make movements possible, but who often don’t appear in the history books for their countless immeasurable contributions. The speech made me think of many recent events, the election of Barack Obama, the people on the flight that landed in the Hudson River, and the countless freedom fighters, civil rights activists, and nameless thousands who have laid the groundwork that brought us to this place in history—a place that is no less untenable as any other time in history, but a place where we once again have faith that progress towards justice is possible.
In his speech, King said:
“Today I come to Oslo as a trustee, inspired and with renewed dedication to humanity. I accept this prize on behalf of all men who love peace and brotherhood. I say I come as a trustee, for in the depths of my heart I am aware that this prize is much more than an honor to me personally.
Every time I take a flight I am always mindful of the man people who make a successful journey possible — the known pilots and the unknown ground crew.
So you honor the dedicated pilots of our struggle who have sat at the controls as the freedom movement soared into orbit. You honor, once again, Chief (Albert) Luthuli of South Africa, whose struggles with and for his people, are still met with the most brutal expression of man’s inhumanity to man.
You honor the ground crew without whose labor and sacrifices the jet flights to freedom could never have left the earth.
Most of these people will never make the headlines and their names will not appear in Who’s Who. Yet when years have rolled past and when the blazing light of truth is focused on this marvelous age in which we live — men and women will know and children will be taught that we have a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization — because these humble children of God were willing to suffer for righteousness’ sake.”