The path to justice

The South: An unforgettable journey in the footsteps of slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

January 17, 1999|By Lawrence Toppman | Lawrence Toppman,Knight Ridder/Tribune

Where would Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. be today, if he hadn't stepped onto his balcony at the Lorraine Motel in the early evening of April 4, 1968?

Chairing a presidential campaign against racism? Delivering his 10,000th sermon at some huge Baptist church, comfortably settled in as its senior pastor? Would the fire of righteous outrage burn high, or would decades of racial division have damped his spirit?

We'll never know, because he did step out onto that Memphis balcony. A drifter in a rooming house across the street fired a rifle, ending King's life before he could prepare his Poor People's March on Washington. Like the man who inspired his nonviolent protests, Indian activist Mohandas Gandhi, King was murdered by a man who didn't share his dream of unity.

Three decades later, the fiery orator and controversial philosopher has become a face on a stamp and the name on a national holiday. You can visit civil rights memorials, see videos of soul-stirring speeches, stand in front of his marble tomb and hear the gentle flickering of its eternal flame.

But to know why King marched through bottles, taunts and rocks, to know why he went to jail as often as some of us go to the gym, you have to follow his footsteps.

I spent a week driving around Alabama to places where King made a difference. I stepped gingerly through the Birmingham park where police dogs had bitten black protesters, some of them children. I saw the Selma bridge where state troopers had clubbed peaceful marchers.

I stood outside King's Montgomery church and looked up the hill to the Alabama Capitol, where Gov. George Wallace vowed "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" I ended by driving to Atlanta, where I walked through King's boyhood home and the once-prosperous neighborhood of Sweet Auburn.

Black-and-white newscasts I'd watched as a child, hardly realizing that parts of the United States were becoming police states, came sharply into focus. I set out in admiration; I came back in awe.

A full King pilgrimage would include Memphis, Tenn., where a civil rights memorial has been erected despite his tenuous connection to the city. (He'd flown there to help sanitation workers organize.)

It would go as far afield as Chicago, where his march against housing discrimination drew the most hate-filled response he ever encountered. It would take in Albany, Ga., where white moderates defused protests without giving in, handing King a rare setback.

But folks with limited time and limited budgets (like mine) should stick to four key cities. Here's what to see and do there.

Birmingham

The city once called "Bombingham" has come to grips gracefully with its scarred past. Start in Kelly Ingram Park at Sixth Avenue and 16th Street North. Pigeons waddle on the swath of green where the commissioner of public safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, turned fire hoses and German shepherds on black protesters in May 1963.

"Ministers Kneeling in Prayer," a statue by Raymond Kaskey, shows three solemn men, one looking up to heaven. Behind them, four broken pillars represent girls murdered Sept. 15, 1963, by a bomb at 16th Street Baptist Church.

Like all black churches, that square, red-brick building was the center of dignified activism before the civil rights movement had a name. To reach it, circle through the park past sculptures of snarling police dogs, two children waiting to enter a jail cell, a cop in sunglasses shoving a black teen who is struggling to keep his balance.

Why bomb this church? Because 1,000 youths had been arrested there during a May 2 protest, hauled off in school buses and paddy wagons to fill jails and clog courts. Because people who faced Connor's dogs and hoses came out of that church. Because King had blacked the eye of white Birmingham, his test-case city for segregation, with a successful march on Washington on Aug. 28, delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech.

If you tour the humbly handsome sanctuary, note the stained-glass window donated by the people of Wales, in which a black, Christlike figure in agony pushes away oppression with one hand and asks for (divine?) forgiveness with the other. The real memorial is downstairs, where a small lobby commemorates the four dead girls and other church history. As you wander through, remember the Sunday-school lesson on the day of the bomb: "A love that forgives."

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, at 520 16th St. N., uses jukeboxes, classrooms, bus seats, even a replica of King's cell in the Birmingham jail to summon up the city's history over the last century.

We see the rise of the black middle and upper class before and during the Jim Crow era, when it established a thriving community with its own colleges and baseball team (the Birmingham Black Barons, who discovered Willie Mays).

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