Read previous posts in this series here.
The Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour rolled into Atlanta yesterday. We made three major stops.
First, we visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change on Auburn Avenue, just east of downtown. We saw King’s birth home, his tomb (where he lays with Coretta Scott King), the original Ebenezer Baptist Church (where King was baptized and served as co-pastor with his father), and the various exhibits in the King Center’s Freedom Hall. (In Freedom Hall we got to see, among other things, King’s doctoral robe, the contents of his closet and dresser following his death, and the contents of the suitcase he carried when he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968).
During our visit to the Ebenezer Baptist Church we sat in the sanctuary and listened to King’s famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. King preached this sermon in Memphis on the day before he was assassinated. What makes this sermon so powerful today is the fact that King mentions the possibility of his untimely death:
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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!
When I first read this sermon in graduate school as part of a course on the Civil Rights Movement, I started calling it the “If I Had Sneezed” speech. On September 20, 1958, a mentally ill women named Izola Curry attempted to kill King at a Harlem book signing. She stabbed him in the chest with a letter-opener. King referenced the stabbing in this speech. Here is a taste:
It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply,
“Dear Dr. King,
I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.”
And she said,
“While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”
And I want to say tonight — I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.
If I had sneezed — If I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.
I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.
The sneezing story and the references to some of the greatest moments of his career take on an additional layer of meaning when we know what happened to King the day after he delivered this speech
After our visit to the MLK Center we jumped on the bus for a short ride to The Varsity, Atlanta’s famous fast-food restaurant. (I highly recommend two hot dogs, onion rings, and a frosty orange!). We later learned The Varsity has its own story of segregation and race, but I will have to save that for another post.
We ended the day at Georgia State University where we heard a lecture from historian Glen Eskew, author of the award-winning But For Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle. Eskew covered a lot of ground, but focused mainly on the role that the New Deal played in bringing a degree of wage equality, consumer choice, and economic security to many Blacks in the South. These expanding opportunities for Blacks made the American South more “dynamic” and ultimately led them to pursue civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Eskew also talked about Coretta Scott King’s efforts to preserve her husband’s legacy through the King Center and the difficulty in sustaining museums related to the Civil Rights Movement.
As Eskew finished his lecture, Juanita Jones Abernathy walked into the lecture hall. This was a real treat. Juanita and her husband Ralph Abernathy were leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-1956. (Ralph was the pastor of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church). There is so much to say about Juanita Abernathy’s remarks that I have decided to save them for a post that I will publish later today. Stay tuned.
Today we are in Albany, Georgia. More to come. In the meantime, here are a few more pics: