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A Trip to the Mountaintop: Following in the Footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Georgia's Civil Rights Trail

By , July 1st, 2018

It’s April 4, 2018, 50 years to the day when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The weather is appropriately gloomy as folks start to gather outside of his tomb in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, just a block away from the house he grew up in.

The clouds have blanketed the sky, a few drops of rain splatter on the pavement, hinting at a looming storm that never comes. But it distinctly smells like a rainstorm is on its way, especially as the wind picks up, giving a bit of chill to the atmosphere on this otherwise temperate April morning.

I join some other guests in the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historial Park across the street from his tomb and Ebenezer Baptist Church where both King, Jr. and his father preached. Inside, a series of video exhibits are playing surrounded by curved walls full of information pertaining to the video playing and the respective time period. I wander into the nearest one, following the sound of Dr. King’s voice.

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Less than a day later from that prophetic speech,  Dr. King was assassinated at his hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.

With a heavy lump in my throat, so began my trip along Georgia’s Civil Rights Trail, a portion of the all-encompassing Civil Rights Trail across 14 states and the District of Columbia.

TL;DR — 16 PLACES TO VISIT IN GEORGIA ON THE CIVIL RIGHTS TRAIL

 

Atlanta

Macon

Albany

Dublin

Savannah

Pin Point

Midway

Atlanta — Too Busy To Hate

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Nobody in Georgia, especially Civil Rights activists, will deny that the scourge of segregation and racial discrimination plagued Atlanta. But it remains a point of pride that relative to the rest of Georgia and the Deep South, Atlanta served as an example of how local leaders and the business community could band together and move the city collectively forward. “Too busy to hate” was the motto of the city that quickly became the heart of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Paschal’s

Dine at a Civil Rights institution

A nice slogan aside, of course there was hate. Where there wasn’t outright hate, black folks certainly weren’t welcome or made to feel comfortable in everything from restaurants to entertainment venues. That’s where James and Robert Paschal came in.

The Paschal brothers worked nearly their entire lives, starting in their early teens as a shoeshine boy and a busboy respectively. In 1947, they opened a luncheonette serving sandwiches and sodas. They didn’t have a stove, so all the hot food had to be made at Robert’s home and brought in by taxi. Once they decided to start serving dinner, they went to work on a secret fried chicken recipe that remains a local favorite.

All the while, the brothers were still busy expanding their business. In December of 1960, they opened La Carrousel Lounge hosting some of the most popular acts of the era, including Aretha Franklin and The Paul Mitchell Trio. An adjacent hotel followed about six years later, welcoming all races, but especially ensuring that African-American travelers had a safe place to spend the night.

Photos courtesy of Paschal’s

The decades went on and eventually, the brothers left the business only to return in 2002 to open a 21st-century iteration of Paschal’s on Northside Drive near the original location. The brothers have since passed on, but Mr. Marshall Slack, 79, knew and worked for them almost his entire life. He remains a staple of Paschal’s, shaking hands with familiar passersby and telling stories.

Slack, dressed in a gray suit with a purple button up and a red cloth coming out of his chest pocket, excitedly reflects on working for the Paschal brothers as a young man, starting as a nine-year-old boy, and what their businesses meant for the African-American community throughout the Civil Rights Movement. Not only did they give African-Americans a place to have dinner and listen to music in friendly company, but they also helped bring segregated groups together.

“White people didn’t have any kind of entertainment, so they started coming,” says Slack, referring to the big names who came to La Carrousel. “Eventually the governor started coming and people from all over Atlanta, too.”

He gushes about the Paschal’s Motor Hotel having “the most beautiful rooms you’d see in the state of Georgia,” and how they wouldn’t charge Dr. King for anything as long as he ate their fried chicken.

When it came time to do his part for the movement, Slack didn’t hesitate, following instructions from the Paschal’s themselves.

“They’d send me out to Alabama to bail Dr. King and others in the movement out of jail,” says Slack. “And we’d feed them and have them call their parents.”

Paschal’s is open seven days a week with their “Famous 1947 Fried Chicken” still on the menu.

 

The King Center and Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park

Trace Dr. King’s life at his eternal resting place

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King was born in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood at 501 Auburn Avenue. You can still walk by the two-story, single-family home in all its refurbished glory thanks to the National Park Service which monitors the property and offers tours inside. When King was born in January 1929, the neighborhood was 95 percent African-American. Today? Eighty percent white with singles, young professionals, and families flocking back to the neighborhood, like in other corners of Atlanta, and drastically changing the demographics. Money is finally being put back into the impressive stock of traditionally African-American homes that line Auburn Avenue, but who stands to benefit remains to be seen.

Despite these ongoing issues of who gets to benefit from reinvestment in the city, King’s legacy remains firmly attached to this historic street. Not only because of the state’s first desegregated fire station just a block away from his childhood home, but namely thanks to the number of historic markers that are bundled together to tell Dr. King’s story.

There’s the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park on the north side of the street, offset by the Memorial Rose Garden and next to the modern day Ebenezer Baptist Church. The story comes full circle at The King Center, Dr. King’s eternal resting place with his tomb perched above ground in the middle of a pool alongside his wife, Coretta Scott King; those immortal words, “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty I’m Free at last,” etched under his name.

Civil Rights Tour Atlanta

MLK’s driver turned activist shares stories about the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

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From The King Center, Tom Houck rolls up in his shuttle bus to take a group of us on a Civil Rights Tour of Atlanta. Houck, a white man originally from Massachusetts, worked as a driver for the King family over nine months when he was 19 and instantaneously became involved with the Southern Leadership Conference.

Before starting the tour, Houck spots Dr. C.T. Vivian, a minister and close comrade of Dr. King throughout the Civil Rights Movement. Houck leans out of the bus and waves him over, asking him to share a few words with the tour group. Dr. Vivian, 93 in number only, springs onto the bus to share a few quick words on what his old friend meant to him and the importance of coming together 50 years after the assassination to both acknowledge how far we’ve come and how far we still have to climb.

Houck’s Civil Rights Tour feels familiar to anyone who’s done a bus tour, though the content is decidedly focused on Civil Rights. We skirt along quiet residential streets as Houck, standing in the aisle, points out houses and buildings left and right involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Sometimes he asks the driver to pull over to allow us to take in the sight from the window, like at the John Lewis Mural on Auburn Avenue.

Longer drives are filled with recorded interviews playing on bus television monitors, filmed exclusively for Houck’s tour. Among the familiar faces are Andrew Young, Julian Bond, and yes, Congressman John Lewis himself. When the video stops, Houck calls on his friend, Eartha Sims, a local gospel singer to belt out Freedom Songs, like “This Little Light Of Mine.”

We step out on occasion, most memorably at King’s final Atlanta residence at 234 Sunset Avenue. “The Kings lived very modestly,” says Houck, standing on the staircase outside the red brick home.

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Then it was off to South-View Cemetery, a place with a strong African-American heritage that Houck thought ought to be more prominent on any traveler’s itinerary — The Civil Rights Trail or otherwise. The cemetery’s director hops on the bus to point out a few notable graves before we stop at the King site. Dr. King was originally buried here himself alongside his parents.

Walking around the crypt, the director of the cemetery points out a few round indents. “These marks were left by bullets fired shortly after he was buried here.” The family opted not to cover it up as a reminder of what Dr. King was fighting against.

Sweet Auburn Curb Market

A hub of international cuisine grown out of segregation

The tour stops at the Sweet Auburn Curb Market where you can shop or sample a variety of international cuisine, like a Venezuelan chicken sausage arepa. Settling into the picnic-style seating, Gerald Boyd, a security guard, comes over to give an oral history of the Curb Market.

“After World War Two, white farmers kicked black farmers out to the curb,” he explains. “They had been a big ole happy family before then.”

Out on the curb, black farmers started selling for cheap, so shoppers would buy right off the curb and stopped going inside the market. “They turned a negative into a positive.”

Center for Civil and Human Rights

The place to be a part of the global dialogue

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Back in downtown Atlanta, a bell-ringing ceremony is about to take place at the Center for Civil and Humans Rights featuring museum staff, visitors, and members of the community. Thirty-nine famous quotes from Dr. King are passed out, one for each year of his life, to be read one-by-one starting at 7:05 p.m. — precisely 50 years after he was pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Participants gather in front of a mural featuring a raised hand in the center. Social justice protest slogans from around the world — Chile, South Africa, Myanmar — surround the open palm.

When the ceremony is finished and the last bell rung, museum staff offer their thanks to the participants and everyone scatters off to view the exhibitions. “Check out the lunch counter,” suggests Kristie Raymer, VP of Marketing and Sales at the Center. “It’ll change your life.”

The lunch counter exhibit attempts to recreate what Civil Rights protestors experienced during sit-ins in the segregated South. You have a seat on a recreated luncheonette stool, put on some headphones, and the vitriol starts pouring out as soon as you place both hands on the table in front of you. The chair shakes to mimic racists pushing you. As soon as you lift your hands, it stops, and you give up your seat to the long line waiting behind you.

Besides helping new generations remember the past, the Center for Civil and Humans Rights is front and center on the civil rights issues of our day. Responding to the ongoing refugee crisis, they held a community discussion featuring speakers who came to the United States as refugees themselves to talk about how they’re trying to change the narrative of refugees in this country.

“It’s very important to us to be part of a global dialogue around rights,” says Raymer. “The museum sets the stage for us to be thought leaders in the space of Civil and Human Rights. By reflecting on the past we can become inspired and transform the future.”

Coming Up: In the fall, the Center for Civil and Human Rights will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with a 70-day celebration. “For 70 days we will elevate basic human rights and how we can become defenders in our everyday lives.”

 

Macon — Giving A Home To Black Audiences

Where African-American culture and history thrive

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An hour’s drive southeast of Atlanta sits Macon, Georgia on the Ocmulgee River. The name might sound familiar to music buffs who know it as the hometown of Otis Redding, Little Richard, and The Allman Brothers Band. From the 1920s through the Civil rights Movement, Macon’s Douglass Theatre hosted a number of these acts. It was essential to Charles Douglass, the son of a former slave and the theatre’s founder and namesake, to give black audiences an entertainment venue in the midst of the Jim Crow era. (Though the theatre closed its doors in 1972, it was renovated and reopened in 1997.)

Caddy-corner to the Douglass Theatre is the Tubman Museum with its mission to continue telling the story of the black experience in the United States. One of the more interesting exhibits is the art collection of Gregory Warmack, better known as Mr. Imagination — a folk artist who used materials from the neighborhood for his work.

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“He’d take things that people thought were useless or garbage and transform them into something beautiful,” says Jeff Bruce, Director of Exhibitions at the museum. “Wood, plaster, auto parts. If the restaurants knew he’d be there, they’d give him the bottle caps. He didn’t buy anything.”

 

Albany — “Do You Want To Be Free?”

Sing the songs of freedom at Mt. Zion First Baptist Church

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Further south off I-75 is Albany, Georgia where Freedom Singer Rutha Mae Harris is still singing at Mt. Zion First Baptist Church right next to the Albany Civil Rights Institute. She’s sitting on the stage in matching purple pants and jacket with a pink polka-dot shirt underneath. Her radiant smile holds as we walk down the aisle between pews and have a seat to hear her story.

It all started for Harris in her early 20s. Walking down the street one day, a member of the local student non-violent coordinating committee asked her if she “wanted to be free.” Harris contorts her face, mimicking the confusion from her younger days.

“What do you mean ‘do I want to be free?'” she reenacts.

Until then, Harris had been unaware of the injustices happening around here and across the Jim Crow South, noting that her father had sheltered her from the news. Once she discovered what had been going on right in her backyard, she determined to make a change in her life.

“I didn’t want nobody to fight for me,” she says. “I wanted to fight for myself.”

That’s when Harris became involved with the Freedom Singers, a Civil Rights-inspired student quartet that was borne out of Albany State College to fight Jim Crow segregation with Harris serving as a founding member. In total, she covered 46 of the 48 continental states singing about Civil Rights.  The scariest moment she experienced?

“Someone shot at us in our car in Alabama,” she recalls. But she and her fellow Freedom Singers continued onward.

With that, Harris went into a rendition of “Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me ‘Round,” an alteration on the spiritual “Rock In Jerusalem” with the verses changed to include the names of Civil Rights opponents, like Police Chief Laurie Pritchett and Bull Conner.

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Aint gonna let Chief Pritchett
Turn me ’round
Turn me ’round
Aint gonna let nobody
Turn me ’round
I’m gonna keep on walkin’
Keep on talkin’
Marchin into freedom land

She pauses and calls out to the crowd, asking them to shout out something that’s been bothering them. A woman from Oklahoma, as if on cue, sings out, “Ain’t gonna let no bigot, turn’ me ’round…”

(While Harris appreciates the spirit of her audiences, she has no problem putting a stop to the singing if she senses the rhythm or key is getting lost, at least beyond the handicap non-professional singers get.)

This is how she shares her story, through song and lessons at the church on the second Saturday of every month. Nearing the end of our time together, I recall Harris’ story at the beginning about the man who asked her as a young woman if she wanted to be free.

“Do you feel free now?” I ask.

“Almost,” she says after a reflective pause. “There’s still a lot to be done and we’re working to be one Albany.”

 

Dublin — “The Negro and the Constitution”

Relive Civil Rights history at First African Baptist Church

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Dublin’s roots in the Civil Rights Movement run deep. The Green Book-listed Dudley Motel was based here where Civil Rights leaders, King included, would frequently meet and strategize in the safety of friendly company. Some believe the march on Selma was planned here.

A recent discovery along the Civil Rights Trail in Georgia comes from the First African Baptist Church in Dublin, Georgia where local historian Scott Thompson found out that a 15-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his first public speech in April 1944 at the church — “The Negro and the Constitution.”

King had been in town for an oratory contest (he won, to the retrospective surprise of no one) and to visit relatives in town. On the bus ride home to Atlanta, he was forced to give up his seat to a white person and move to the back of the bus.

“It was the angriest he had ever been,” says Julie Driger, a Civil Rights activist who worked alongside King and marched with him in Washington D.C.

Driger recalls the struggle with a surprising dash of humor. Someone asks if anything serious ever happened to her during all the marches and protests she attended.

“If y’all can see the halo over my head,” she pauses, drawing one with her finger. “When I was in the front, they attacked the back. When I was in the back, they attacked the front.”

julie-s-driger-at-martin-luther-king-jr-monument-park-in-dublin-georgia

Building off the recognition of this recent historical discovery, the church is launching a live action play that will allow visitors to “step into the past and take on the role of Civil Rights leaders.” The play, One Day: Dublin’s Civil Rights Experience, comes complete with laminated scripts and a narrator guiding the story; beginning with the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till through the ensuing struggle for Civil Rights.

Across the street from the church is the recently-unveiled Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument Park with an impressive mural created by Georgia artist Corey Barksdale. The art depicts a little girl hoping for a better future shaped by Dr. King’s message of peace and non-violence. A voice box in front of the mural offers an audio tour with buttons corresponding to different stories, including Driger’s.

While observing the monument, I overhear an older gentleman from Dublin highlight the importance of the scene. “[King’s] journey to the mountaintop started here at First African Baptist Church.”

 

Savannah — The Most Integrated City South of the Mason Dixon Line

How urban renewal lead to “negro removal”

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Ms. Walker greets visitors to the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum dressed in a beautiful array of colors. Hot pink is the color of choice from the wool cap on her head to her jacket and dress underneath with black, brown, and yellow accents.

“This isn’t just a civil rights museum,” she says, setting up her emphasis. “This is the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum.”

Gilbert was a man of the pulpit and, says Walker, the father of the Civil Rights Movement in Savannah, serving as the president of the local NAACP chapter from 1942 to 1950. During his time, he secured recognition for over 40 chapters throughout Georgia. His work and legacy are reflected in a building that first stood as an African-American bank in 1914.

Despite the injustice of the time, a similar refrain is echoed in Savannah as throughout other stops on the Civil Rights trail — that things weren’t as bad here as elsewhere in the South. In Atlanta, you hear it’s the city too busy to hate. In Savannah, you hear that Dr. King called the city the most integrated south of the Mason Dixon line. But that doesn’t mean folks won’t talk about the injustices that happened here.

“West Bard Street was a hot and popping part of town when I was growing up,” says Walker. The street was home to predominantly black-owned businesses until urban renewal (or “negro removal,” as Walker calls it) changed the landscape. Jewish businesses, too, were lost for supporting the African-American community.

 

Pin Point — Take Me To The Water

Get a glimpse of life in Georgia’s Gullah/Geechee Community

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The Gullah/Geechee community of Pin Point, Georgia is just six miles outside of Savannah, but it feels like its hours away with its tall grasses, fresh sea air, and rural backdrop. The settlement on the Moon River was founded in 1896 by freed slaves who made their living off the land and sea.

Oyster canning became the business in town, which you can get a taste of at the Pin Point Heritage Museum housed in the former Varn and Sons Oyster Caning Factory in operation from 1926 to 1985. Hanif Haynes is a tour guide (or historical interpreter, as they say in Pin Point) who grew up in town. He details the brutal conditions that women worked in as we walk through the facility, frozen in time with placards walking guests through the process of how the women shucked shells harvested by the men.

On the lighter side, you get a sense of the good-hearted, tight-knit community. Everyone who grows up in Pin Point gets a nickname, sometimes from the Gullah language, English, or a slang-mashing of the two. There’s Pigeon, Pig, Eye, Boss Turkey, Wasp, Hemo, Peetro, and Bacon — because “he brought home the bacon.”

You learn this watching the short documentary Take Me To the Water at the start of the tour. The filmmakers embedded themselves into the community for over a month, giving viewers a unique insight into life in Pin Point. Supreme Court Justice Judge Clarence Thomas, a Pin Point local, is among the many voices you hear in the film praising the modest, fulfilling, and supportive environment that a kid like him had growing up on the banks of the Moon River.

When to go?: The Pin Point Heritage Museum is open three days a week to the public in addition to booked group programs and special events. More information at chsgeorgia.org.

 

Midway — We’ve Got Some Difficult Days Ahead

Learn about the Amistad slave revolt and see where Dr. King went to relax

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The Civil Rights Trail overlaps with the Baptist Trail in and around Midway, Georgia where 93-year-old Deborah Robinson, a retired school teacher, walks visitors through the modest Historic Dorchester Academy & Museum with a focus on the Amistad slave revolt and Civil Rights stories from around the region.

The academy itself was created in the years following the Civil War to educate freed slaves. Approximately 300 students were in attendance by 1917. Today, visitors can walk through the actively renovating academy, a designated National Landmark and member of the National Register of Historic Places, and see where King slept during his visits and held planning meetings. (This is where the 1963 march on Birmingham was planned.) Dr. King’s room is reportedly just as he left it after his last visit. When he wasn’t busy strategizing or rehearsing his speeches, he liked to play baseball and simply relax at Dorchester.

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Down the road, we stop for a short trek into the woods where black congregations would take their young members to be baptized in the river. Although white churches would let black Christians sit in the rafters, they wouldn’t let them get baptized in their baptismal fonts. The river today is shallow and muddy. It’s hard to imagine anyone making a religious conversion here and that’s not taking into account the crocodiles that we’re told live in the area.

And so standing on a wooden bridge elevated slightly above the marsh, looking out onto the river with a reflection of the trees covered in that picturesque Spanish Moss, our travels on the Georgia Civil Rights Trail come to an end. Unlike most trips, where the food or late nights out prove most memorable, what sticks with me weeks later is the great fortune the Civil Rights Trail gives travelers to hear these stories from the people, the activists, the fighters who lived them.

We’re already seeing how the loss of the last Holocaust survivors seems to be coinciding with an increase in anti-Semitism across the United States and Europe. Many of the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Trail are in their late 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. The unfortunate reality is that sooner rather than later, we’ll be relying solely on museums to hear their stories. The creation and promotion of this trail come at an important crossroads in American history, forcing every last one of us to reckon with the role we’re playing in the progress (or decline) of our society.

As Dr. King said, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead.”

 

All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.  Music courtesy of Denouncement, Kai Engel. Audio courtesy of Estate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The trip was provided by Georgia Tourism. More information about the Civil Rights Trail in Georgia can be found at www.exploregeorgia.org.