A couple of weeks ago, the news broke in Alberta that nine members of our provincial government contravened the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” advice they’d been giving us for months, and jetted off for Christmas beach vacations with their families. Our Premier, who initially declined to discipline them, only brought in sanctions against them when the public outcry got so loud, so angry, and so politically united that he had no other choice.
That same week, the news footage from Washington burst onto our screens. An embittered man-child President, pumping his black leather- gloved fist in the air, urging his supporters to march on the Capitol to force an overturn of the election results. An unmasked mob wearing racist T-shirts and waving Confederate flags swarming into the Capitol Building, posing for grinning selfies as they sat in the chairs of elected officials and put their feet up on their desks.
At week’s end, I turned away from every news source, turned on a jazz music radio program, and sought refuge in the photographs and memories of my visit a little over a year ago to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park in Atlanta, Georgia.
On an already-warm October morning, I played hookey from the educational conference I was attending and caught the Atlanta Street Car a couple of blocks away from my downtown hotel. It dropped me off in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood, known in the 1920s for its robust collection of Black-owned businesses, churches, schools and homes, and now as the community where Martin Luther King Jr. was born, grew up, and began his career as a preacher and civil rights activist.
On the advice of my guide book, I made a beeline for the visitor information centre as soon as I arrived, because I wanted to ensure a place for myself on one of the ranger-led tours of King’s family home. Only 15 people were allowed on each tour, and the free tickets disappeared quickly. Because of my solo visitor status, I was able to scoop up a single ticket for a tour an hour later, so I had just enough time to visit Ebenezer Baptist Church while I waited.
Following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, Dr. King began to preach at the church in 1960. There were very few people around the morning I visited, so I stood in the cool, dimly lit sanctuary, imagining King sitting at in one of the stately wooden chairs at the front, the white-robed choir behind him, then rising to deliver the sermon. I didn’t have to imagine his voice: a recording had captured its distinctive baritone cadence, as inspiring as when I first heard it as an adolescent.
I emerged from the church, squinting in the bright heat of late morning, and walked down the street to the house where King was born in 1929 and lived until he was 12. The park ranger guided us from room to room, telling stories of King’s growing up years (the Parks Service now offers virtual tours of the house, if you’re interested).
King lived a happy, busy, middle class life with his parents, two siblings and grandparents, taking piano lessons, reading, playing games, and listening to the radio. He also had plenty of opportunities to interact with visiting students, religious personnel, and community members as they rehearsed hymns and discussed issues of concern such as pay equity and voter registration. Every night at dinner, each of the King children was expected to recite a Bible verse, and to relate and offer opinions about a current affairs item. It wasn’t hard to see how young Martin was influenced in his eventual choice of careers and nudged towards his calling as a civil rights leader.
My next stop was Freedom Hall, where memorabilia from King’s life and the civil rights movement is displayed. In an intermingling of light and dark, I walked past King’s Nobel Peace Prize and artifacts from the day of his funeral, sobering reminders of the high price that civil rights leadership can demand.
Outside of Freedom Hall, I lingered on a bench under a shade grove that surrounded the final resting place of Martin and Coretta King. They are memorialized by an inscribed granite stone and an eternal flame, surrounded by cascading reflecting pools. I sat for a long time, absorbed in the peacefulness of the steadily burning flame, and the splash of water flowing from one pool to the next.
My final stop on the grounds reminded me that although the Kings are gone, their work continues. The Martin Luther King International World Peace Rose Garden is one of five such gardens world-wide dedicated to helping youth appreciate the value of peace. An important part of this initiative is an annual poetry contest in which students from around the world submit pieces about what peace means to them.
Postscript: As the U.S. heads into another week of potentially unsettling events, I’m taking some comfort in the words of Raphael Warnock, Georgia’s first black senator-elect and coincidentally, the current senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
On the night when his election was confirmed, Warnock appeared on screen with a copy of Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. “‘Weeping may endure for a night,’” the presumptive senator-elect said, quoting a popular psalm among Black churchgoers, “’but joy cometh in the morning.’”