Wanda is taking me and several friends around a church. This isn’t just any place of worship. It is the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor. As we enter the sanctuary, she makes a request. “I am going to challenge y’all to say something that doesn’t come naturally to most people. So, repeat after me, 1) I was wrong, 2) Will you forgive me, please? 3) Thank you, and 4) I love you.” She has us each repeat the phrases. One person’s eyes start to well up.
It must come as a mild shock to hear anyone speak openly about being loving and forgiving to others. Wanda is African American, and when you think of the context of where we are, the Deep South, and how African Americans were ill-treated at one time, the message of forgiveness she spreads is even more remarkable.
It is then that I notice a mural. It depicts the Nobel Peace Prize winning pastor as an angel ascending into heaven. Though the thought may be inspiring, the tragic end to his life is in such contrast to his teachings of non-violence, I find it disconcerting, if not confusing.
Yet for many like Wanda who continue his work, the mantra of spiritual action coupled with forgiveness has carried on long after the proponent is gone. Dr. King’s use of religion as a force for social change, completely unprecedented at the time, changed the lives of many Americans irreparably and has impacted many internationally.
For the people who find his mission and the all-consuming work he did for equal rights significant, there is a US Civil Rights Trail that has recently launched. In Alabama, there is the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. A pilgrimage, if you will, which follows the path of those who marched for voter’s rights from Brown Chapel in Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the State Capitol in Montgomery 54 miles away.
The US Civil Rights Trail marks out the places where Dr. King lived, worked, influenced parishioners, started marches and promoted, as well as taking part in, non-violent demonstrations. In Memphis, Tennessee where his life ultimately ended at the hands of an assassin, while supporting a strike by local workers, the Lorraine Hotel is now a permanent fixture of the trail.
My interest? The civil rights movement was in its heyday when I was a youngster and, when children in Alabama got involved with marches to gain voting rights in 1963, my school friends and I held ‘sit ins’ at our primary school in California in solidarity.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, the famous pacifist, and preacher was christened Michael King Jr. but his father, also a preacher, travelled to Germany and was inspired by the work of the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther. He then decided to change his son’s first name to Martin Luther.
At the age of 25, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became the pastor of the Dexter Ave. Baptist church in the town of Montgomery, Alabama. It would be his only posting as a minister. This church, with its well-to-do members, was quite literally in the shadow of the State Capitol Building. King was telling his parishioners that he, “had a dream”, while Governor George Wallace, who ultimately ran for President on a segregation platform, was merely yards away. The coincidence is startling.
To find out more about Alabama visit: www.alabama.travel
Click to find out more about the U.S. Civil Rights Trail