Onwards, on my trip through the South.
At the Georgia border, the welcome sign read “Georgia on My Mind,” and, of course, I immediately thought of Ray Charles and his version of the song, which is now Georgia’s national anthem.
Ray Charles came from Georgia, and so did Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom have become some of the most famous of Georgia’s citizens, deceased and contemporary, with their own places of pilgrimage, Albany and Atlanta. Two black legends of the old South…
In downtown Albany, next to Flint River, I visited Ray Charles Plaza and its statue of the music legend, born here in 1930. He sits at his piano and his songs and music flows out in the heat over the river and the city, as the entire statue slowly spins round and round…”What’d I Say. “
Albany, a town of 75 000 people of whom over two thirds today are black, was once dominated by large cotton plantations with its black slaves. The city’s old museum, once built with the help of Andrew Carnegie’s money, was closed to blacks until the 1964 civil rights law. In the early 1960s, the Albany Movement became an important part of the civil rights struggle. Martin Luther King came here from Atlanta with his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but was met with fierce resistance from the white establishment.
Today, Albany has a black mayor, but downtown, despite attempts to revive the city center after new suburban malls took away most customers, feels sad and desolate. Not far from Ray Charles Plaza, a wretchedly poor black part of town can be found, with folks sitting on the porches of their “shotgun shacks”… here on America’s dark side.
A few hours north, in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1934, Ebenezer Baptist Church lies, where King was pastor until his death in 1968, and his grandfather and father before him. The church from 1922 on Auburn Avenue with Atlanta’s downtown in sight, has just reopened after an extensive renovation and is now a museum and part of Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site with a new, large and shining church, the Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and with the King’s and his wife Coretta Scott’s graves.
I have visited the Ebenezer church before, but it was long ago, on January 21, 1986, when the new Martin Luther King holiday was first celebrated. The church was overfull. Journalists crowded on the old balcony. Everyone seemed to have come to Atlanta on that sunny January day: Vice President George Bush, Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Andrew Young, and all the way from apartheid’s South Africa, Bishop Desmond Tutu. Rosa Parks sat in the front row. In Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, she refused to sit in the back of the bus. Her defiant act was the signal to the black residents’ year-long and successful bus boycott, a battle led by Martin Luther King.
Those who came to the Ebenezer church that day in 1986, laid a wreath at King’s tomb and filled the old church with paint peeling from its ceiling and walls, and where the choir sang so beautifully to hand clapping and stomping feet.
Many memories there in the old church… where everything is now repaired, shining clean, and newly painted, and where the tourists sit in the pews and listen attentively to recordings of King’s speeches from another time in America.