In the basement of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., my young friend Jayden and I stood mesmerized by a sprawling mural that chronicles the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade for racial equality from Montgomery to Memphis. It was painted in 1980 by John W. Feagin, now 88 years old, one of the few church members alive during those six years (1954-1960) when King was pastor.
I was pleased that Jayden seemed genuinely moved by the colorful mural and engrossed in our tour. The stuff of textbooks was coming to life for this biracial (she identifies as black) teenager, and that’s what I had hoped for when I brought her here from the Midwest.
Recently, while having a conversation about news stories centered on race relations, she said she had personally never experienced racial discrimination.
At first, I felt a sense of pride about how far we have come as a nation, but then I wondered how much Jayden really knew about the African-Americans who had suffered humiliation and physical abuse during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s to create a better America for her generation.
I hoped that Martin Luther King Jr. Day wasn’t just time off from school and that Rosa Parks wasn’t simply a woman she had to learn about to pass a test.
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I decided a visit to Montgomery was in order.
The simple, red brick church where King started his career seemed like the perfect place to kick off our tour of the city’s civil rights attractions.
Located less than a block from the State Capitol where Jefferson Davis took his oath as president of the Confederacy, the church was literally and figuratively in the shadow of justice until a young, unknown pastor’s vision changed not only the South, but the world.
We stepped into King’s church office, which remains much as it was during his time.
Jayden couldn’t resist running her hand over the wooden desk where he organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott to protest segregated seating on city buses and wrote speeches that spurred thousands to action.
Vintage photographs of King with his family are displayed, and volumes that shaped his thinking remain on the shelves.
A pulpit tucked away in a corner of the basement is the same one King placed his notes on in 1965 when he delivered his riveting “How Long? Not Long” speech at the State Capitol following the triumphant Selma-to-Montgomery March that eventually led to equal voting rights for African-Americans in the South.
When King accepted the position as pastor, he probably thought his main duty would be delivering memorable Sunday sermons, but a series of events that started with the arrest of Rosa Parks when she flouted segregation laws on a city bus thrust him into the national spotlight. Soon, he wasn’t just a pastor, but the charismatic leader of the civil rights movement with a powerful message that nonviolent protest was the best weapon against social injustice
In the sanctuary, I admired the stained-glass windows and wondered what it must have been like to sit in a pew as one of the world’s most compelling orators spoke of equality, justice, forgiveness and reconciliation.
DEXTER PARSONAGE MUSEUM
The adjacent clapboard parsonage is an ordinary house that was home to an extraordinary man.
The kitchen looks like many others of that time, but the simple kitchen table was King’s Gethsemane. It’s where he experienced a life-changing moment, an epiphany that kept the civil rights leader strong in the face of fear.
Late one night in January 1956, with the bus boycott in full swing, King received a chilling phone call threatening not only him, but his young family. King was president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, an organization of black leaders that led the boycott.
He had been fielding intimidating phone calls for weeks, but this particularly vicious one shook him to the core. His spirit was broken. He wanted out.
At the kitchen table, King bowed his head and prayed for courage.
Years later, he said he heard an inner voice clearly saying, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.”
The sense of foreboding that had been troubling his soul was replaced with a feeling of tremendous inner strength.
He would need every ounce of it.
A bomb went off on the porch a few days later.
King wasn’t home at the time, but his family was. Miraculously, they were unharmed.
ROSA PARKS MUSEUM AT TROY UNIVERSITY
On the street in front of the Rosa Parks Museum, Jayden and I stood on the very spot where Parks was arrested on Dec. 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger, the famous act of civil disobedience that led to the 382-day bus boycott.
Parks’ story is widely known, but the museum, which has six main areas and a children’s wing, brings to life this historic moment through a powerful, multimedia re-enactment that captures the mood of the bus passengers that day and the zeitgeist of the Jim Crow era.
In addition to Parks’ experience, visitors hear the accounts of unsung heroes, ordinary people who participated in the boycott but didn’t get their names in the history books.
Carpools were organized by the black community to provide transportation to boycotters. On exhibit is a fully restored 1955 Chevy Bel Air station wagon representative of the “rolling church buses” used in the effort.
A highlight is the Victory Room, an exhibit that has a likeness of King and other civil rights leaders proudly riding at the front of the bus after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation illegal.
As for Jayden, she commented that riding the city bus at home was uneventful, and she was suddenly grateful for that.
IF YOU GO
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. 454 Dexter Ave., Montgomery, Ala. 334-263-3970, dexterkingmemorial.org
Dexter Parsonage Museum. 309 S. Jackson St., Montgomery, Ala. 334-261-3270, dexterkingmemorial.org
Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University. 252 Montgomery St., Montgomery, Ala. 1-800-414-5756, troy.edu/rosaparks
Where to stay:
The Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa. 201 Tallapoosa St., Montgomery, Ala. 334-481-5000, marriott.com/mgmbr
Where to eat:
Vintage Year. 405 Cloverdale Road, Montgomery, Ala. 334-819-7215, vymgm.com