Saturday, March 22, 2014

Martin Luther King, Jr., Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and Montgomery

In January we flew into Atlanta, Georgia and spent some time at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, which included his birth home, burial site and Ebenezer Baptist Church where he was minister. We then drove to Montgomery, Alabama for an experience that added greatly to what we had previously learned about Dr. King. 
The Alabama Capital building in Montgomery.
First we visited the Alabama Capital building and the first Confederate White House which is now located across the street from the capital. 
First White House of the Confederacy: from the capital block.
The Alabama Capital from the First White House of the Confederacy.
From the main floor in the capital we followed a circular staircase up several floors and into the rotunda: a circular dome with paintings from Alabama's history and accents in pastel colors. 
The rotunda. Note portraits on the walls.
Next floor up in the rotunda. Painted murals on the walls.
Drafting the first Alabama constitution in Huntsville in 1819.
Antebellum life and the "golden period" from 1840 to 1860.
Inside the dome and a different angle on the historic paintings.
Stained glass in the top center of the dome.
We followed walls of pictures of politicians from the past. Hugh McVay, governor in 1837 stood out. His long white hair and stern demeanor gave me chills. The first impression I got as I looked at him was "Salem witch trials." Wrong part of the world and time frame, I know. Or perhaps Ichabod Crane. 
Then for me what was the face of Alabama from my youth, Governor George Wallace. I was surprised to learn that he was originally quite liberal and considered a friend of the blacks. In the 1958 democratic primary for governor, he was endorsed by the NAACP and his opponent was endorsed by the KKK. His opponent won and Wallace, a pragmatist, made a "Faustian bargain" and "sold his soul to the devil on race." He became a hard-line segregationist. Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as first president of the Confederate States on the steps of the Alabama Capital. In 1963, George Wallace, standing at the same spot during his inauguration as governor said, "I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." 
If a place could be tied to race, this seems as good a candidate as any. The heart of the Confederacy and the home of George Wallace.
Then my biggest surprise was to learn that Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where many of the seeds of civil rights were first sewn, was in eyesight, almost a stones throw, from the same front steps of the Alabama Capital where Jefferson Davis and George Wallace were both inaugurated. 

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
Back of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
Martin Luther King, Jr. and the black activists that planned and carried out many of the early civil rights protests were right under the nose of the capital, although I was surprised to learn that Dr. King's time in Montgomery pre-dated George Wallace's governorship. In fact, Dr. King could see the capital from his office window and our guide mentioned that he often looked out the window to see if anything was going on that was going to cause them any danger. 
From the back, looking toward the front: Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
The organ and pulpit.
From the front, looking toward the back and the balcony.
One of the few stained glass windows.
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was organized in 1877 and known as the Second Colored Baptist Church. In 1879 they purchased the corner lot where the church now stands. The current brick structure was completed in 1889. Vernon Johns, a leader in the civil rights movement was pastor from 1947 to 1952. Martin Luther King, Jr. followed from 1954 to 1960. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized at the church. This place helps to see a little better the public face of Dr. King. 
Dexter Parsonage
But to get a feel for the private life of Dr. King, the Dexter Avenue Baptist parsonage, now a museum, is the place to go, located on the other side of the capital and about a half mile away. This relatively humble home is where Dr. King lived with his family, where a bomb exploded damaging the home and where Dr. King had a powerful epiphany that changed his life. In the kitchen of the parsonage we listened to a recording of Martin Luther King describing the epiphany that happened there. It was February 27, 1956. King was up late at night. His wife and 10 week old daughter were asleep in another room. He had been leading the Montgomery bus boycott for the last month and he had been receiving up to 40 phoned death threats a day. He answered the phone and got a message that shook him to the core. He was told that if he wasn't out of town in three days "we're going to blow up your house and blow your brains out." He went in the kitchen to make some coffee. 
He was ready to quit, to leave to save himself and his family. He prayed out loud. He said, "I could hear an inner voice saying to me, 'Martin Luther, stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness." His fears ceased and he resolved to continue on. Then, just a few days later, about 9:00 p.m., a bomb exploded on the front steps, doing significant damage to the house, but fortunately no one inside was harmed. 
A bronze plaque on the porch acknowledging the bombing and pointing out marks in the cement caused by the explosion.
But the epiphanic experience had changed him. He was now undeterred. It was very powerful to be in the kitchen and hear the description of the experience in his own voice. I had the feeling we were on sacred ground. This website gives more detail, and this video is of Shirley Cherry, the director of the parsonage museum, in the parsonage explaining the event. 

There are many other civil rights related museums and sites in Montgomery, some of which we saw, but this combination of diverse buildings in such a small area I felt created a powerful combination of events to think about. I came away feeling like I needed to be more courageous in circumstances where minorities of whatever stripe are being persecuted by a majority. It gave me much to ponder that day and I've pondered it many times since.  


  1. I'm just reading the account of this epiphany in a biography of MLK. It was a watershed moment. I thought it was interesting that the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church is still segregated, but by choice now. The guide told us that there has been one (or maybe two) white people attend over the years, but that's it.

  2. Interesting stuff. I've heard about George Wallace's switch, but I've never heard that story of MLK's epiphany.

    The simpleness of the Church is appealing.