I stand where his shooter was, when the fatal bullet was let loose, and I’m momentarily transfixed; my breath is taken away, my heart beats faster. I hear his words of peace and understanding, and I’m deeply moved; I’m inspired. I shake the hand of 90-year-old Opal Lee, standing in her neatly laced walking shoes, in front of his childhood home, and I see hope and promise in her eyes; I want to share in that hope, to believe in that promise.
Today we reflect on, and celebrate, a lifetime of social, political and cultural contributions made by a man born in Atlanta, GA on Jan 15, 1929, and raised there with his extended family and a tight-knit community. We also mourn the death of this man, killed in Memphis, TN on April 4th 1968, when he was not yet finished with the work he’d set out to do. His cause has been taken up by others, who continue to fight for true equality, and a celebration of all people.
A walk down the street that Martin Luther King Jr. grew up on takes me past markers that point to his childhood home, where he lived with his siblings, parents and grandparents until he was 12, and which was regularly opened to members of the community. I tour Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he, his father and grandfather preached, and Fire Station No. 6, which appears as it did when King grew up nearby, and now houses an exhibit that chronicles the racial integration of the Atlanta fire department.
Run by the National Parks Service, and designated as a National Historic Landmark, these historic buildings have been transformed into educational centers, open to the public for tours. A visitor center teaches visitors about King and the Civil Rights Movement, while a reflecting pool leads to the burial place of King and his wife, Coretta Scott King. An eternal flame burns there, in remembrance.
“Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site traces the life of a remarkable man who helped to change the course of American history through nonviolent social protest that was the foundation for the successes of the modern Civil Rights Movement to provide African Americans their rightful place in American society.” (National Parks Service website)
A visit to this sight, and a quiet moment to reflect on its significance, is a memorable occasion. I have the pleasure of being in Atlanta, and on that street, on the same day as Opal Lee. At 90 years old, she has been an advocate for civil liberties for a lifetime, and is making here way along a route from Texas to Washington, D.C. She is walking there, one step after another, to implore President Obama to make Juneteenth a National Holiday. When I met her, it was her hope to make it there while Obama was still in office.
Georgia became the thirty-seventh state to recognize Juneteenth at the state level, in 2011.
“For over 40 years, Mrs. Lee, along with the help of many others, strives every year to keep and expand the celebration of our “Day of Freedom” June 19, 1865 when slaves in Texas found out they were free. Her vision for Juneteenth has grown from a single day community picnic at Sycamore Park to a multiday celebration in downtown Fort Worth” (“About Ms. Opal Lee” – on the Opal’s Walk website)
The Juneteenth celebration encourages us to reflect on the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as the challenges that the country face to educate the nation about the proclamation, and enforce adherence to all that it promised.
“And by virtue of the power and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are and henceforward shall be free; and that the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.” (President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863)
It was over 2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation when black slaves in Texas heard this news, learning about their freedom, and Ms. Opal is among those who don’t want this to be forgotten. Her walk to DC is to raise awareness, and Juneteenth Atlanta is the nonprofit 501(c)(3) community improvement organization that is self-funded, reliant on the generosity of donations. Slaves in Texas were the last to learn of their freedom, previously unaware of President Lincoln’s declaration, more than 2 years earlier.
It was a pleasure to meet Ms. Opal, hear her story, and show support for her cause.
These celebrations, and signs of progress, stand in stark contrast to the history surrounding Dr. King’s assassination, in Memphis, in 1968. This peace-keeper, and civil rights advocate, was shot down on the balcony of his Memphis motel, and the site has been transformed into a powerful monument – National Civil Rights Museum, at the Lorraine Motel.
Entrance into the museum takes visitors through an in-depth look at the history (and reality) of the slave trade, and the circumstances leading up to the segregation that Dr. King worked so diligently against. The first segment of the tour is guided, so that visitors can have questions answered, to set the stage for the world that Dr. King grew up in, socially and politically.
King’s hard work, peaceful protest, and motivating speeches are relived. It’s a celebration of small successes, against a social structure that was working against him. It’s a solemn environment, due to the severity of the subjects on display; the visitor feels like she is right there in the middle of it, through videos, testimonials, and the power of hearing the story right there, in the place where King’s life ended.
You walk along a dark tunnel, slowly realizing that you have made your way, underground, across the street. You ascend some stairs, read more about the days leading up to the assassination, then stand before windows that have a direct view of the balcony King was standing on when he was shot. It’s a tragic story, so you quietly watch the videos, listen to the audio recordings, and read the displays.
You’re deep in thought, reflecting on this powerful history, when you look up. Your gaze moves across the parking lot, and you recognize the view from all the photos you have seen, over the years. You can point to the door King came out of, just before he was shot. You take a deep breath, recognizing the historical significance, then realize that you really are standing in the building across the street, where the assassin fired the fatal shot.
There isn’t much to say. Everyone is quiet, standing in reverence.
The feeling lingers. . .
“On June 19, 1968, approximately fifty thousand people gathered on Solidarity Day at the Washington Mall to march in support of increasing federal commitment to President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and to listen to Coretta Scott King deliver an address that was originally to have been given by her husband.
By linking Solidarity Day to Juneteenth, Abernathy also joined the remembrance of slavery and emancipation with the struggles of their time: civil rights, economic injustice, and the loss of Martin Luther King, Jr. Inspired by the symbolism of these events, many civil rights workers who traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in the Poor People’s Campaign returned home and initiated regional Juneteenth celebrations in their own communities.” (http://www.juneteenthatl.com/about-juneteenth.html)
From his birthplace to the site of his assassination, you’ve taken a journey, from Atlanta to Memphis. The powerful historical significance of these places refuses to be buried beneath everything else these cities have to offer – the music and culture of these places, the richness of the food and drink, the late-night festivities on Beale St. Because of the powerful memorials that have been built, there is a quiet acknowledgement of how far we’ve come, and how much further we must go.
Join me on my next Adventure,
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site (Atlanta, Georgia): https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/cultural_diversity/Martin_Luther_King_National_Historic_Site.html
I HAVE A DREAM… MARTIN LUTHER KING – August 28, 1963: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UV1fs8lAbg
I Have Been to the Mountaintop (Inspirational Final Speech by Dr. Martin Luther King ): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08rlDmVhkSc
Interviews Surrounding Memphis Sanitation Strike: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6ZVf80wgbQ
I Am a Man: Photographs of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike & Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: https://www.amazon.com/Am-Man-Photographs-Memphis-Sanitation/dp/1891324004
Juneteenth Atlanta Parade & Music Festival: June 16 – 18, 2017 (Atlanta, GA): http://www.juneteenthatl.com/
Opal’s Walk to DC: http://www.opalswalk2dc.com/page/page/9026388.htm
National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, TN: http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/