Many years ago, my good friend, Br. Andre Mathieu, CP (who is my oldest daughter’s godfather), and I visited the sites in Atlanta, GA related to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: his birthplace and childhood home on Auburn Ave., Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the King Center. I especially enjoyed visiting King’s childhood home and learning of his family life growing up. I recall that King and his two siblings were expected to memorize and recite a Bible verse each day at dinner, that they were required to read the local newspaper, and that the children on the block shared the same pair of roller skates, passing them from one child to another through the neighborhood. My favorite story was of King, as a young child, and his younger brother taking piano lessons. I don’t remember if it was the piano teacher or the lessons themselves the boys weren’t terribly fond of, but I do remember the docent relaying the story of how King and his brother sawed in half one of the legs to the piano bench, then placed the two pieces back together as if nothing was wrong. Sure enough, as soon as the teacher sat down, she tumbled to the floor! I couldn’t resist blurting out from the back of the small group gathered, “That must have been before his non-violent days!”
When we visited the King Center, it had not been fully developed. One of the rooms included a display of personal items King held in his possession on the day he was assassinated. I was surprised to find among them a small Miraculous Medal. It endeared me more to the man that he would keep this small token of my own faith tradition. No doubt someone had given it to him. But, he kept it, and that says something. When King was shot in Memphis, he was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, a Catholic hospital. It was there that a Catholic priest prayed over and blessed his remains.
When I first moved to Memphis in 1984, the Lorraine Motel was one of the first landmarks I visited. This was years before it was transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum. It was still active as a motel, in fact, and on the day of my visit, I simply entered the small lobby and asked if I could visit the room where King had stayed. I was handed a key and directed to the small room on the second floor, where the balcony turned at the corner. It was small, dark, with wood paneled walls covered with mementos and newspaper clippings of King’s life and of the Civil Rights Movement. Then, of course, I moved out to the balcony where King stood at the moment he was shot. I stool where he had stood. I could see across the way to the building from where James Earl Ray aimed. It was all very surreal. There was on the balcony a large plaque with the words from Genesis 37:19-20, “And they said to one another, Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him, … and we shall see what becomes of his dreams.”
If you’re interested in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, I highly recommend the book At the River I Stand: Memphis, the 1968 Strike, and Martin Luther King by Joan Turner Beifuss. Ms. Biefuss’ account of the sanitation strike, of King’s involvement, and of his assassination reads quickly in the driving style of the journalist she was. It’s available on amazon.com and it’s worth it. It includes a brief mention of Bill Ross, a labor leader in Memphis at the time who helped organize the strike and who was our landlord for a time when we lived in Memphis and a spiritual grandfather to our oldest daughter when she was just a wee bab.
I also recommend a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, made from the refurbished remains of the Lorraine Motel. It includes marvelous exhibits taking one from the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement on through the 1960s and 1970s into the modern era of the struggle for freedom and equality, in the United States and around the world.
As a fitting way to remember the man on this holiday, read or re-read King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. King wrote the letter in response to a group of clergy, white and black, who thought the timing and tactics of his Birmingham campaign were unwise and even extreme. King explained in reasoned, irenic but firm words that the waiting was over for the black community in America. History was moving forward.
“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.” Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., 16 April, 1963
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.