The year is 1956 and Martin Luther King Jr. had just experienced a bomb exploding in his home. Our journey through the Civil Rights Movement had begun in Atlanta, Georgia. The birthplace of a leader and the final resting place of a man who shaped a nation. The Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site had a mix sensation of hope and worry. Hope for a country that is working to fix the inequalities that plagued the nation for more than a century, but worry that the a century after the end of the civil war, such a problem still existed. It took loss of life, blood shed, and many many years of persecution for the civil rights movement to take hold and really shake the very core of the American south. Dr. King’s commitment to non-violent civil disobedience shocked the nation, as many blacks across the south were losing their lives.
As we entered the King Site in Atlanta, a statue rose high above us of Mohandas Gandhi, King’s guide for the non-violent movement. The importance of this figure was very clear and as we walked through the center, his importance became more and more clear. Dr. King’s response to his home being bombed in 1956 was not to retaliate with force but rather with marches and demonstrations legally recognized by the government and protected by the first amendment. Not long after the marches and protests began, the black community of the South was ready to see government action to protect their rights to vote, their right to assemble peacefully, and a desegregate south. However, the government officials of the south were not ready to see these rights enforced. Martin Luther King became the leader and a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement. Over a 12 year period Martin Luther King accomplished more for the rights of black southerners than had been accomplished over the century since the end of slavery and the civil war. The black South would have their voice heard through Martin Luther King and that voice was crying out for freedom, equality and justice for all.
In early April 1968 the civil rights movement lost their symbol when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. As we entered the Ebenezer Baptist Church across the street from the MLK Historic Site, Martin Luther King’s words were being played across the intercom,
“Yes, if you want to, say that I was a drum major. Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”1
– Martin Luther King Jr.
These were the words played at his own funeral. I had seen the video inside the historic site showing Martin Luther King’s funeral and I immediately recognized the church. The Ebenezer Baptist Church, located a short walk from King’s birthplace, was King’s place of worship, and had served as the King family’s place of worship for generations. This church was also the location of the funeral for Martin Luther King Jr. and the final resting place for the great leader. Experiencing his own Eulogy in King’s place of worship was incredibly moving and is something I will always remember. In that instance I was really able to feel what he meant to the civil rights movement. He wasn’t just a leader but a source of religious comfort, a source of constant understanding and so clearly an inspiration to black south. While people like Rosa Parks, Rev. Shuttlesworth, John Lewis and many others helped fuel a fire, Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and non-violent actions helped spark the fire that blazed through the South dismantling segregation, voter registration restrictions and many other civil injustices.