Today we headed from Birmingham to Montgomery without a solid plan. To do Montgomery well would take more time than we can devote to it, so we have to pick and choose. Everything looks worthwhile, so the picking and choosing was a bit random. Our first stop was at the Civil Rights Memorial, which is operated by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The first thing that caught our attention was the granite and water sculpture created to honor 40 martyrs of the period between the Brown v Board decision of 1954 and the assassination of MLK in 1968. Inside the small facility were the stories of each of these 40 martyrs. I was struck by the wide variety in their stories. Some walked knowingly into danger, facing the possibility of death with courage and conviction. Many others were simply gunned down for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some victims of the KKK were cases of mistaken identity. These 40 who are memorialized here are the ones we know about; there are surely more that we do not know about. Prior to this experience I knew, of course, that people lost their lives in the struggle for equality, but I had no idea that there were this many.
We then found ourselves at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. This was the first and last church where MLK served as the senior pastor. Called to this pastorate at age 24, he served here for about 5 years before he left to serve the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on a national level. Our tour here enabled us to stand in the basement where the first meetings and decisions were made to boycott the Montgomery bus system after the arrest of Rosa Parks. We were able to see MLK’s office in the church as well as the pulpit from which he preached.
This was a combined tour that included a visit to the parsonage (a few blocks away) where King and his young family lived while he served as pastor. This is where things really became meaningful. Our tour guide (for a private tour!) was a lovely woman, Ms. Foley, who had been a member of the Dexter Avenue congregation while King was pastor. She still worships at this church. She and her husband had both been teachers at the time. She explained that she had taught for 30 years and has been retired for 30 years, so I figure she is in her 80’s. Her explanations of the house, the furnishings, the events and the people were authentic and heartfelt as well as being first-hand. She herself had been one of the young moms that had come to meetings at the King home to receive fellowship and encouragement with Mrs. King.
When Ms Foley showed us the kitchen of the King home, she played for us a track from a CD of MLK’s selected speeches. In this speech, Dr. King spoke about a night in which he faced his own fears and weaknesses – in that very kitchen. He had been unable to sleep after answering the phone at midnight and receiving a death threat – giving him three days to get out of Montgomery. He spoke about his confrontation with the fact that religion needed to become real to him, personally. He told of how he cried out in prayer to God … and of how he heard the voice of Jesus tell him, “Stand up for righteousness; stand up for justice; stand up for truth… and I will be with you always!”
I can say without shame that my tears flowed freely as I stood in that kitchen listening to this testimony. Each day of this journey brings new revelations and new depths of emotions.