You forget you’re in the South when you’re in Atlanta. Until you end up in an Uber on the back roads leading from the city to one of the new suburban enclaves. Then you hold your breath as your otherwise friendly driver complains about the cost of housing as you go from one sprawling, newly built house masquerading as a mansion to another.
As you backseat drive, willing yourself to safety, you notice the splotches of pink to deep purple skin working their way up your driver’s leathery neck.
My driver is a redneck, a term that I only found out was literal a few months ago when I watched a documentary interview with east coast lawyers Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop. These legal pioneers won the Loving vs. Virginia case in 1967. They were as uncomfortable in Caroline County, Virginia–where the Lovings sued their state for the right to reside as an interracial married couple–as I am in Atlanta in this moment, 50-plus years later.
My driver continues to complain about “his” disappearing city as he tools me from the home of one successful Black professional living large to another. Atlanta is a city that boasts exponential growth: According to the city’s official website metropolitan Atlanta has grown by 40 percent in the last decade—from 2.9 to 4 million.
I am not big on stats but I can see the changes in real time 2018 from my last visit in 2009: An old friend who is meeting me at the ubiquitous Cheesecake Factory in Buckhead is a half an hour late. Her brother passes on lunch; he knows it will take him the full afternoon to get to us from downtown Atlanta and back. (I will take the advice of the hotel staff and take the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) train to the humongous Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to catch my JetBlue back to the Big Apple.)
I am determined to do what I have not been able to do on other visits to Atlanta: be a tourist. After a lush buffet breakfast at my hotel, the J.W. Marriott Buckhead, I trot off to the concierge for travel brochures. The staffers at the Marriott are friendly: They compliment me on my African attire, banter about the weather and offer me travel tips. They are transplants from all over the nation and the globe. They are proud of their adopted city.
I decide to skip the organized tours and do my own thing, again using Uber. First stop: the birth home of Martin Luther King, Jr. My Uber driver for this leg of my Atlanta adventure is a harried 30-something sister raising a young daughter on her own. Like many Atlantans she is a transplant, an economic refugee from Chicago. She tells me that house hunting was a challenge for her; each time she found a place she liked a zealous renter with deeper pockets would co-opt her. She worries that working around the clock to make ends meet leaves little mother and daughter time. She worries about getting home to take the child to a birthday party. She worries about keeping her promises. She is so worried—and so new to Atlanta—that she drops me seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
I find myself abandoned in a dodgy part of downtown Atlanta, on the wrong end of Auburn Avenue, where most of the King sites run on or around. Two junkies, one male one female, peer at me from the steps of a shabby wooden house, their skinny white legs covered with sores. Their haggardness makes it difficult to guess their ages. Walking south (briskly), I find myself by the Southern Leadership Christian Conference (SCLC). It is a Saturday and the offices are lit but seemingly empty.
A few yards down I nearly miss a modest blue and white sign that reads Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr., co-pastored with his father from 1960 to 1968, when he was assassinated. I have just a few hours to see the sites on my list, so I press on. The church, the gravesite and the birth home are all part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, some of the most visited real estate in Atlanta.
I make my way to the Visitors Center, where I find out that tickets for tours to the house are sold out for the day. This is not a pilgrimage for the impulsive traveler. I make my way to the tombs of Dr. and Mrs. King. I dodge large, chatty groups of visitors in royal blue family reunion tee shirts, waddling in overstuffed capris, heaving themselves on canes and being pushed in wheelchairs by amiable preteens. I leap out of the way as yet another family reunion group’s luxury bus almost runs me over and its human contents spill out onto the pavement.
Coretta Scott King’s remains have been interred with her husband’s. I did not know this. I am happy that her place in history has been acknowledged. She was not just the keeper of the flame after her husband died: she lit the flame of his civil rights activism. The large family groups visiting the tombs split off into smaller clusters, taking photos and looking a little more solemn than before; their voices murmurs, their words carried into the wind of this perfect blue-sky day. They are respectful of where they are.
I read the six principles of nonviolence, each contained on a plaque to the left of the tombs. I am the great-great-granddaughter of Jamaican maroons, runaway slaves who fought the British for more than 70 years, eventually signing treaties of grudging co-existence. Without guerrilla warfare, I would not be here writing this to you. But I recognize that nonviolence is best practiced in a context where the oppressed are outnumbered, the terrain is not tricky enough for guerrilla warfare and the scales of justice are not tipped in their favor.
I grudgingly admire its practitioners and salute them for the discipline they harnessed and the training they underwent. (The impression that civil rights activists were naturally meek was an unfortunate byproduct of how they were covered in the press, and in many ways is as hurtful as the image of the wide-eyed grinning servants in last century’s American movies.)
For those of you who are not familiar with what’s called the Kingian Principles of Nonviolence, here they are:
1. Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.
2. Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding.
3. Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people.
4. Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform people and societies.
5. Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.
6. Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.
These principles, if nothing else, are great conversation starters, offering much to debate and—ultimately—to live up to for those who can.
Still on foot, I make my way to the house where Martin Luther King was born. It is in a still-vibrant neighborhood for the living, so it is a little awkward that hordes of people, including me, are traipsing back and forth. I stand at the foot of the stairs leading to this tidy cream and chocolate wooden house. A father vising with his wife and daughter asks me to take a photo of them, and they pose stiffly at the entrance.
Other small groups mill around, and I wait a few minutes until the coast is almost clear to snap a remembrance. A large group of about two dozen teen boys gathers in a circle with two adults, one of whom appears to be a coach. He points to a white kid and a Black kid and tells them, “If anything went down back in the day, you couldn’t have each other’s backs. It ain’t perfect but it is much better than it was,” he tells them forcefully. “Always stick together no matter what.” I continue taking photos so that I can eavesdrop on this life lesson.
It is a roasty day of about 95 degrees, but I decide to press on. Next stop: The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, set on beautiful grounds off—appropriately—Freedom Parkway. I made it a point to visit the Bill Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, several years ago. I was impressed by the beauty of the architecture and the grandeur of its exhibits, including an actual presidential limo—and astonished that Clinton’s impeachment got just a throwaway paragraph.
Carter ‘s library, by contrast, is set on Zen-like grounds off the parkway. Trickling water in a pool soothes the soul. The building is plain, white and elegant. The exhibits look somewhat dated, as if they have not been replaced since in the 1980s. But they pay homage to Carter’s upbringing in a largely Black community in Archery, Georgia, his beloved Rosalynn, his navy career and the presidency.
Carter speaks candidly on a film about the Iranian hostage crisis. He smiles his toothy smile and talks about how he rebuffed his advisors, who had wanted him to launch a rescue mission that was likely to result in the death of the Americans. The advisors’ primary goal was to show American might. Carter’s primary goal was to bring the hostages home.
It is well known now that negotiations for the release of the hostages began during the close of Carter’s tenure but they were released at the beginning of Reagan’s. “The Great Communicator” took credit for a feat that he had not accomplished, just as he did with the reunification of Germany, which actually happened on President George H.W. Bush’s watch. (It was Bush’s contention that by celebrating the fall of the wall separating East from West Germany he would become a lightning rod for people like Vladimir Putin, who held on and are still holding on to the good old days of the Cold War.)
A Carter quote featured in the museum explains perhaps why both Carter and Bush were one-term presidents: “We’ve fought fire with fire, not thinking that fire is better quenched with water.”
Two sons of Georgia, both Nobel Peace prize winners, ultimately dominated my trip to Atlanta. One didn’t even make his 40th birthday, but is a national hero and the inspiration for myriad social justice movements across the globe. The other, still living, is 94, an advocate for free and fair elections worldwide, and a celebrated humanitarian. The causes both men dedicated themselves to that promote human decency and social justice have taken a hit recently, but we must admire their contributions, their sacrifices, and model ourselves in their image, when and where we can.
Two sons of Georgia, both Nobel Peace prize winners. Two sons of Georgia. One Black, one white.
I will leave you with these inspirational Biblical words from Coretta Scott King’s epitaph: “And now abide Faith, Hope, Love, These Three; but the greatest of these is Love.”–1 Cor. 13:13
Happy New Year, Affirming Community. May 2019 be everything you need it to be.