On a recent trip to Atlanta, a friend and I took a pilgrimage to that holiest of American shrines, The Ebenezer Baptist Church. We got off the subway and walked through the Auburn neighborhood where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up and played as a child. We had to ask directions and everyone was more than pleased to show us the way. The neighborhood had seen better days but several of its old red brick factories were being renovated and a badly designed 1960’s high rise apartment project was empty, apparently waiting for the wrecking ball. Then we turned the corner and there it was – the blue sign above the entrance to the church. I wanted to see that sign all my life. To me it is a symbol of what the Founding Fathers intended the struggle for freedom to be in America. The Civil Rights Activists in the twentieth century put Democracy to its greatest test. Rosa Parks, Fanny Lou Hamer, and Martin Luther King Jr. belong in the history book illustrations right next to Madison and Jefferson.
This original chapel is being repaired and cleaned up as a national historic site (services are held in the new Ebenezer complex across the street). The renovated outside gleams, but inside, scaffolding is erected to repair decades old cracks and falling plaster. The tin ceiling is being replaced. Martin Jr. honed his skills at Ebenezer, and tapes of his sermons are played from huge speakers on each side of the chapel. We sat in our pew enrapt, listening to King cajole the congregation: “The other day I was reading in this here Roget’s Thesaurus – you know that book that has all the synonyms and antonyms – and I looked up the word black.” He goes on to enumerate the negative uses of the word: “Morose, evil, dismal, depressed and – what’s this? – Negro, African, colored, swarthy. When the stock market bottoms out it’s called a black day. If you got a member of your family who goes awry, he’s called the black sheep.” You hear the laughter in the background as King uses humor to disarm the congregation and make a point. You hear his fingers emphatically tapping the dais in stereo; his words bathe your ears like poetry: “Poverty is a lonely island of despair in a vast ocean of material wealth”. You imagine, with your eyes closed, that you are in the church that day and the cracks and fallen ceiling tiles disappear. His voice slides up and down the register like a violin. If nothing else, he was America’s greatest speaker. We sit there for an hour mesmerized, unable to get enough of his voice and message. I look back to the scaffolding on the balcony and two very rural looking white men – tin ceiling specialists imported from South Georgia – lovingly replace tiles. At the entrance I see a docent staring bemusedly at these four white people – two in the pews, two up on scaffolding – and her face says “We’ve still got a long way to go, but we have come a long way”.
When we finally get up to leave, that docent greets us in the lobby. She is Miss Shirley Barnhart and grew up a few blocks away. She recounts tales of the neighborhood and shows us pictures. One is a newspaper clipping from the New York Times of her and her sister as young girls singing in the choir behind the coffin at Martin Luther King Jr’s. funeral at Ebenezer. Miss Shirley is probably known by many prominent people, but certainly, by legions of tourists who get to meet her if they are lucky to be there when she is. She emphasizes that Martin Jr. was only an assistant Pastor in this church and that it was his grandfather and father, the Reverends A.D. Williams and Martin Luther (Big Daddy) King Sr., who reigned supreme around here for eighty one years. She takes delight in knocking Martin Jr. down a few steps, as if to tell her listeners “He was not the only one in this movement, least of all his daddy and granddaddy”. Auburn Avenue was an early centerpiece of Negro capitalism and “Big Daddy” recruited insurance salesmen as members and had them collect church fees while collecting premiums. He blended religion with financial empowerment and increased his church membership while supplying low premium insurance. The two senior Reverends were stern but used equanimity to forge a congregation knowing in the ways of faith, not afraid to stand up for their rights. It shows in the face of Shirley. These are people who interpret the good book for what it says: practice good works and love mankind. Twisting Bible passages to point fingers and wield anger is the opposite of Christ’s message of tolerance and has no place at Ebenezer.
We roam the neighborhood stopping first at Martin Jr.’s coffin publicly displayed in the middle of the block. We see the house he grew up in and visit the learning center where we see pictures of Rosa Parks and Coretta King uncharacteristically “dressed up”, looking quite pretty in gowns, drinking in the spirit of a party. We need to find a post office and we go, naturally, back to Miss Shirley. We go back and find Shirley several times. We ask her where to eat. “Oh that would be Beautiful”, she said, “It’s right across the street”.
Not The Beautiful, or Beautiful Restaurant – just “Beautiful”.
“Miss Shirley loves Beautiful”, a young woman in the Church bookstore said, “She goes there just about everyday”. We cross the street and feast on catfish, collards, macaroni and cheese, cornbread, lima beans. It is only later I discover, in an Atlanta guidebook, that the food at Beautiful is low in fat. You would never know it. A week later, at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, we think we see a 1960s photo of a strategy meeting of Movement leaders, King among them, sitting at the very table where we sat.
The King Memorial Site is not a museum. It is a neighborhood. You get to meet people who worshiped with and knew Martin, and fought for your civil rights. When we leave the Auburn Avenue area and head back to the futuristic towers of downtown Atlanta, we feel we have walked out of the twentieth century.
Ebenezer Baptist Church is at 407 Auburn Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30312; (404) 688-5001; http://www.ebenezer.org