"The King of Alabama"
From April of 2018...
“If you did not know him, and had never heard anything about him, and were to go into a room where he was seated, he was a person who would not monopolize a conversation,” says Fred Gray, a civil rights attorney in Tuskegee, Alabama. He’s recalling one of this earliest clients, Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior.
“I think initially most people heard it on the media, and those who heard it, told other people about it, so it spread like wildfire. There wasn’t any question about that. It hit me when he was killed, because I knew we had lost a great leader.”
“Hello, this is the reverend Jesse Jackson. That night around six o’clock, I was coming across the courtyard. And he said “Jesse, you’re always late.” Of course, he was late, I was not late. And we laughed, and he was shot instantly. And I remember just the trauma of instantaneous death. It blew his tie off, it blew his heart out. I remember having to call up Mrs. King about what had happened.”
“Hi, this is actor Danny Glover. I was on campus on April 4, 1968. And a lot of us had moved away from King, in some ways, because it’s generational. I remember being…I remember crying that day, and the realization that you had lost one of the great human beings of anytime time in Martin Luther King. I do remember that day.”
I’m Pat Duggins, Alabama public radio news. During the next half hour, we’ll look at the work Dr. King did here in Alabama and his impact here. We’ll visit the civil rights safe house in the town of Greensboro where King hid from an armed group of Klansmen.
“They would drive slowly by, and you could see them inside their cars," says Theresa Burroughs. "And, you could see the barrels of their guns…”
Last year, Alabama Public Radio hosted journalist Ousmane Sagara from the West African nation of Mali. Now, Sagara reports on how his home country remembers Dr. King
“If King were alive today what would you say to him?” asked Sagara.
“What I will say to him is to educate more of the young African leaders, and also give them the ideology during the civil rights movement.”
And we’ll look at the racial divisions that remain fifty years after Kings death…
“He asked a question: why do we celebrate Robert E. Lee’s birthday?” asked Carl Jones of the Sons of the Confederacy. “Well if Lee’s birthday is not worthy of celebration, apart from Jesus Christ, I don’t know whose is.”
Alabama is one only two states that celebrates Confederate General Robert E. Lee on the same day as King’s birthday. Join me and the APR news team for all of these stories on the King of Alabama.
Students from Hale County High school are heading into a small shotgun style house. This home sits on a dirt road along Main Street in the town of Greensboro, about an hour south of Tuscaloosa. It’s a museum now, but back in the late 1960’s, it was a safe house for civil rights activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior. The relationship between King, the safe house, and its owner didn’t get off on the right foot…
“He was not impressive at all. Not what I expected you know," says Teresa Burroughs. She's eighty eight years old. Her home sits next door to the safe house museum. She owns both. Burroughs and her neighbors like to say Alabama’s civil rights movement began in rural communities like theirs. But, Burroughs says Martin Luther King, Junior just wasn’t the kind of man she thought one of her best friends would marry…
“I just imaged her with a football player…about six something, you know. Martin was not like that.”
The friend Burroughs thought would marry a football player was named Coretta Scott. The future Mrs. King was born in the town Marion, about half hour east of Greensboro. As young ladies, Burroughs and Scott would talk about boys, and about the future. Burroughs says there was someone her friend said she wanted to grow up to be like.
“She had beautiful voice," recalls Burroughs. "And she always told me. She said I’m going to be another Marion Anderson, and I’m going to tour the world, and sing. And you’re going to read about me, because I’m going to be star. That was just the way she was talking, and I said ‘well, alright.’ She gave up her dream and took on his.”
Burroughs impression of Martin Luther King, Junior got better, though. Once he did what many people say he did best…
“The spirit seem to enter his body and comes out through his voice, and it moves you…it moves a person," says Burroughs. "After we got to know each other better, he was all right…”
King gave this speech before Union healthcare workers in New England in March of 1968. It wasn’t the only talk he gave that month…ten days later he was in Eutaw, Alabama urging supporters to elect black candidates to Congress. Burroughs says after his talk, King headed straight to Greensboro to stay in the safe house.
“It was terrible night, it was an awful night,” says Burroughs.
The reason was because the Ku Klux Klan heard King was in Alabama. An armed group of Klansmen spent the night looking for him in Greensboro…
“They would drive slowly by and you could see them inside their cars, and you could see the barrels of their guns. They had the lights on on the inside of their cars, and they had the lights off on the outside of their cars. We kept him safe.”
King left the next morning. For Teresa Burroughs and King’s supporters in Greensboro, the feeling the victory lasted just two weeks…
“It seemed as if I was weak in the knees (after hearing of King’s assassination,) my knees and everything was weak, and I just had to sit down. I just couldn’t stand anymore.”
Theresa Burroughs says that’s why she made the safe house into a museum. She wants people remember what happened here fifty years ago, her long after she’s gone.
It’s not everyone who gets to deliver their eulogy. I’m Stan Ingold, Alabama Public Radio news. Mourners heard from Dr. Martin Luther King during his own funeral. It was a recording of a sermon gave at Ebenezer Baptist Church in February of 1968. It was called the Drum Major Instinct.
“The day I’m on the job I’m just taking pictures left and right, oh there’s Sammy Davis Junior, oh there’s Jaqueline Kennedy," says Jim Peppler. He was a photographer for the Southern Courier newspaper out of Montgomery.
“One of the shots I remember getting was Richard Nixon walking through the crowd next to Wilt Chamberlain, odd couple so to speak. Then Bobby Kennedy and Ethel and of course he was killed later that same year.”
Some in the crowd were there to remember King. Peppler kept in mind the mission of The Chronicle during the turbulent times of the civil rights movement… “which was to be a weekly publication giving an honest, open, factual, it was like a demonstration of what journalism should be as well as what America should be and certainly hoping honest coverage of events going on and the attention being paid journalistically to the black communities of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.”
But, Peppler was aware of Dr. King long before he signed to shoot for the Courier and act as the paper’s photo editor. He had heard King speak when he was finishing up in college. It was that message that brought Peppler to the south,…
“I’d heard pieces of his speeches over the radio and was inspired by that understanding of his words," he recalls. "But there are people that have a charisma there’s something in their presence that speaks to something in those around them when they are in that presence, it spoke to me.”
Peppler says King’s presence was even more powerful in person. Even in a room full of people, the civil rights icon spoke in a way that felt personal, like it was a one-on-one conversation…
“There was a sense that he was speaking to me and everyone else in the room from his heart. He had a brilliant way of expressing deep emotional and intellectual truths and words the captured the full intention of what he meant to say with them.” Peppler followed King throughout Alabama, but it was during a demonstration in Mississippi that he felt he got to see a different side of the civil rights leader. That demonstration became known as the “March Against Fear.”
“I got to see him having breakfast and walking around, talking and walking along with him for hours on end on the march. Being there right next to him or behind him as he confronted state troopers as one issue or another would come up.”
Peppler says seeing King on television was one thing, but seeing him work in person was a different story…
“But being there as he went through one thing after another in the field," he says. "It filled out the image of what he was about and what his movement was about beyond the words and the rhetoric of his marvelous speeches that I had experienced up until then.” Peppler covered other stories during his time with the Southern Courier, tending to focus on the everyday lives of black people living in the south that were not being covered by larger papers. He was on an assignment when he heard that Martin Luther King Junior has been killed…
“I was coming back from something, I forgotten what, in Selma riding with a reporter and we were driving along and heard it on the radio and we pulled over and just started crying.”
But it didn’t take long for Peppler’s journalistic instincts to kick in… “and then prepare myself to do what I next needed to do immediately to prepare from the pictures I had some kind of a visual tribute to him for the next issue of the paper and then plan to be in Atlanta to photograph his funeral.” \
Once he put together a tribute for the paper Peppler he made his way to Atlanta to cover King’s funeral. He says he wanted to stop and pay his respects to King at the church… “But the line, at 3 o’clock in the morning went for way further than, if I had gotten in that line, I may or may not have gotten a picture but I wouldn’t have gotten another picture for the rest of the day.” He says he was almost too busy to be emotional during the proceedings…
“I was on the job, so there the journalistic imperative to get the job done and I’m only one person covering an event that spanned the city of Atlanta.”
Covering King’s funeral took a lot out of Peppler, the way he sees it, it was his last real assignment for the Southern Courier…
“After I covered Dr. King’s funeral I kind of lost something of myself that empowered me to carry on and I didn’t know what I was going to do. Essentially, from my point of view, King’s funeral was the last thing that I felt myself committed to getting done.”
Photographs are one way people remember Dr. King. For others, there are living tributes. Last year, Alabama Public Radio took part in an international journalist exchange program. That’s where we met Ousmane Sagara of the West African nation of Mali. APR news invited him to examine how people in his country feel about Dr. King fifty years since his death. Sagara’s story begins with the civil rights leader’s reaction to his visit to the African nation of Ghana.
"The road to freedom is a difficult, hard road. It always makes for temporary setbacks," said Dr. King during a sermon he gave in Montgomery in 1957. "And those people who tell you today that there is more tension in Montgomery than there has ever been are telling you right."
The sermon was called The Birth of a New Nation. The inspiration wasn’t what was happening in the United States, but rather the African nation on Ghana. He had just returned from celebrations after Ghana declared independence from Great Britain. King looked at the fight for freedom in Africa, and he saw a reflection of what was going on in the U.S.
My home country is Mali. Ghana is on our southern border. But, we remember Dr. King, too. In Mali, we have living tributes to King. ‘’ We have an English club in Mali here which name is Martin Luther king," says Mohamed Koita. He's the chairperson of ‘’Martin Luther King’s club’’
There, we learn his idea and also a mission that he did in American society," says Koita. "So, we can say that thanks to him, color people in USA are living in better conditions. I listened him more than hundred times. In his speeches, he is like a prophet. It occurred exactly as he said”
“Martin Luther king is one the greatest black leaders of civil right movement," says Mariam Kone, a human rights worker in Mali. She draws inspiration from how Dr. King fought for civil rights in the U.S.
“And also he was a leader who raised up the voice of black Americans who had no voice at that time, living in precarity and who really need to get all the right to live like other Americans”
That is why during my time in Alabama, I wanted to visit The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. I took part in a visiting journalist program, which is how I came to work in the newsroom at Alabama Public Radio. That led me to the Institute in the city of Birmingham, where King wrote his famous letter from the Birmingham jail. And, as the world prepares to remember the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, one might wonder what his legacy might be in the future. I asked people on the streets of Bamako on what they thought…
“What I would say to him, is to educate more the young African leaders, and also give them the ideology during the civil rights movement”. If King were alive, what people would say to him? “I would just congratulate him, and do my best to learn with him as possible” If King were alive, what people would say to him? “ I would say wow! His dream became reality. And I hope he could be here to see that”.
“It was a day I will never forget," says Theresa Burroughs. " I will never forget that day and the beating that I took that day.” We met her earlier in our program. She owns the civil rights safe house where King hid from armed Klansmen in March of 1968. It wasn’t Burroughs’ first brush with the civil rights movement…
On March seventh 1965, Burroughs and around six hundred more civil rights activists, most of them black, marched from Brown Chapel in Selma hoping to reach Montgomery. They wanted to protest measures aimed at preventing African-Americans from voting. They were met on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by police batons and tear gas. Attack FX continues
“You know, we were just knocked everywhere," says Burroughs. "They just beat the hell out of us, I tell you.”
That day became known as Bloody Sunday. And every year, civil rights advocates gather in Selma to retrace those marchers’ steps across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and remember their sacrifice. The bridge is often the focal point of Bloody Sunday. But, just a mile and a half away, there’s another monument to the fight for voting rights…
“This is the house that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lived as he planned the Selma to Montgomery march,” says Jawana Jackson. That house is her family home, which has remained virtually unchanged since the mid-1960s. It essentially became the headquarters for the civil rights movement. “so when Dr. King decided to do the Selma march several years later, he asked my parents if he could come and stay here and use this as a base of operation. And of course our lives changed drastically, from a house that had a mother and a father and a little girl, almost overnight became a house where the world came in.”
Jawana was about five at the time.
“And I wish I had been just a little older to understand the gravity – to understand the historical significance. To the world he was Martin Luther King, Jr. To me, he was Uncle Martin.”
Jawana runs the Jackson house as a museum and foundation. And it’s filled with artifacts from the era.
“Of the beds in this house, of course Uncle Martin slept in every one," she says. "And over the years my mother, for practical purposes, bought new mattresses and box springs. But this is the original mattress and box spring that was on the bed when he was here.”
And then there’s the spot where King saw all this effort pay off.
“The museum contains the very chair, the very television that Dr. King was sitting in the night that President Johnson announced that he would indeed sign the Voting Rights Act, which he did several months later in August of 1965.”
“You hear so much about the march, but not what went on behind the scenes,” says Elisa George. She’s part of a student group from Trinity Washington University touring the Jackson House. “And just to be able to be here and experience and feel the spirit of the people who planned it, and what they probably had to endure, and the changes their decisions made in this place, was very impactful for us.”
It’s impactful because George is African-American and came to the US from the Caribbean as a child. She is a DACA recipient and she says there are parallels between the 60s and today’s debates over immigration.
“In a country that's supposed to be the home of the free, people are still not free. They weren't free back then because of the color of their skin, and now they're not free because somebody has made a decision that they didn't make, and they're being punished for it. And I believe that just as Dr. Martin Luther King and the others stood up for the rights of African-Americans to be able to vote and be a people, that God is going to raise somebody to stand up for these young people, that they too can be free to live in this country, that's supposed to be the home of the free.” '
Theresa Burroughs says she hates to see young people of color taking their right to vote for granted—especially considering what she and others went through.
“Somebody cried for them, and somebody died for them, and didn’t even know their name. And yet they won’t go and vote.” Burroughs may have reason to be concerned. Attendance for the annual Selma bridge crossing jubilee is down compared to 2015. That was the fiftieth anniversary of bloody Sunday which drew huge crowds. However, young people like Elisa George seem to be recognizing Burrough’s sacrifice, and her call to action may be getting through. However, divisions remain. APR student reporter Allison Mollenkamp explains how Alabama is one of only two states that observes someone else on the day the nation remembers Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Their legacies are very different.
“He asked a question: why do we celebrate Robert E. Lee’s birthday?" That;s Carl Jones. He’s speaking at the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Robert E. Lee celebration. "Well if Lee’s birthday is not worthy of celebration, apart from Jesus Christ," he says. "I don’t know whose is.” Jones and his supporters all gathered in the auditorium at the state archives building in Montgomery. Men in grey confederate uniforms sit side by side with men in motorcycle jackets and women dressed in their Sunday best. The mood moves between celebration and the sense that a grand cause is under attack.
“It really has been a tough year for us, hasn’t it?” That’s Pat Godwin, of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. “But actually not just this year. It all began on the seventeenth of June, 2015, when in Charleston, South Carolina, Dylan Roof started this avalanche of cultural genocide at Mach speed, against the South, our heroes, and all things Southern.”
Dylan Roof is the South Carolina man who became the first person sentenced to death for commit federal hate crimes. He shot nine church goers to death in 2015. The genocide Godwin is referring to is all things Southern.
“Unfortunately, our battle changes faces. In eighteen-sixty-one they allowed us to fight with bullets," says Pat McMurry. He’s a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Mechanized Cavalry. “They won’t let us do that now, so far," he says. "But today we’re being fought against with weapons that are far more long-reaching and powerful than a bullet.”
The idea of an ongoing battle is shared by a very different group of people that met a few days earlier just blocks away. The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church sits one block from the state capitol, and the sanctuary is filled to standing room only. Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior served as pastor here from the mid to late 1950’s. There are women in church hats and others in shirts emblazoned with King’s picture or quotes from his speeches. One notable difference being this event and the one for Robert E. Lee is the diversity. This crowd looks like what King would have wanted, black and white people sitting together. Kay Ivey
“I am delighted to join with you today in the forty-third annual program to celebrate the birthday of not just a former pastor of the Dexter Avenue Memorial King Baptist Church, but also one of the defining leaders of the twentieth century America: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Governor Ivey was one of several dignitaries that spoke at the King celebration. Together they unveiled plans for a statue of King in Montgomery. Ivey also spoke at length about the civil rights trail that includes Alabama. After all the politicians had their turn at the microphone, the main event of the day was the pastor of what was once King’s church: the Reverend Cromwell Handy. “Forward march against those who are trying to ignorantly take America back. And my question to you here as my brothers and sisters in Christ who are sponsors today, you, ‘We the People”: back to where?”
There’s a sense of a fight here too, though Reverend Handy was careful to never names who his congregation might be fighting against. It’s easy to figure out, though. “We demonstrated the power at the polls just last month, didn’t we? In your senate race that showed the rest of the nation with a conscience, assured the nation that Alabama ain’t embarrassed when it comes to doing what’s right.” Voting was an integral victory of the civil rights movement in the sixties, so it’s no surprise it’s still a big point of pride. This event feels like a continuation of the history that lives and breathes in Montgomery. Christianity runs deep in discussions of King and in his own speeches. But, then so does the supporters of Robert E. Lee. Back at the celebration for the Confederate general.
Here’s Pat McMurry again, describing Lee. “One of our greatest Southern leaders, and I think one of the greatest Southern men ever written in history. He emulated a man of the south, a gentleman, a father, a Christian, a good man, a leader.”
When the sons of confederate veterans talk about Robert E. Lee, the focus is on Lee’s defense of his home, on Southern pride and resiliency. During the entire two and a half hour event, I heard the word slavery once. “Our adversaries like to take that four year period, and frankly, the two hundred years leading up to it, and dumb it down to one word: slavery.” This is Carl Jones again. He closed out the Lee event with a speech entitled “the vindication of Robert E. Lee.” “If we want to look at one word causes, for the war, I’ll give you one word that caused it: Yankees.”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans event wasn’t explicitly about race or slavery. But let’s go back to that moment where Pat Godwin mentioned Dylan Roof. She called the after effects of his actions a cultural genocide. She and her compatriots mourn the loss of flags and monuments. What she made no mention of was the nine black people that Dylan Roof murdered. The Lee event wasn’t about race, but the crowd was very conspicuously white, save for three or four exceptions. Alabama celebrates Martin Luther King and Robert E. Lee on the same day every year, despite the fact that we are one of only two states left that do so. There have been efforts to change this, to either do away with Robert E. Lee day or move it to another part of the year. For now, though, the dual holidays serve to demonstrate the reality of life in Alabama. We are still divided.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans and the congregation at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church look back at different pasts and they dream of different futures. There was another thing that separated the two events. The average age of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is fifty-six. On Dexter Avenue, elders who marched with King stood to hold hands with a crowd that included plenty of young people, including children who before last year had never known a white president.