Business Casual: Riding With History
On a recent Sunday afternoon, while bumping along quiet residential streets and bustling city blocks, Wayne Smith artfully avoids getting-out-of-church crowds at the new Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue and Falcons’ game day traffic near the Georgia Dome.
He is driving a busload of Civil Rights veterans (and a couple of observers) as they reconnect with places they knew 50 years go.
Civil Rights Tours Atlanta creator Tom Houck, himself a veteran of the movement, is the tour leader and raconteur. He was kicked out of high school in Jacksonville, Fla., for participating in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in 1965. His narration draws on personal experience – including nine months he spent as a driver for the King family.
The passengers were in town for a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)/ Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) reunion. Black and white, most of them graying now, many had been college students when they came to Atlanta for orientation for the project, led by the late Hosea Williams, which spread out over the South to register black people to vote.
The tour took in the campus of Morris Brown College and went past the crumbling dormitory where many of the students had stayed while they were in Atlanta. There was a stop at the site of the SCOPE House, now occupied by new townhouses that are part of the renaissance of the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. Before it was the SCOPE House, it was home to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his young family until they moved to a house on Sunset Avenue.
The tour covers “Sweet Auburn” Avenue, Vine City, South-View Cemetery and The King Center.
The impact of seeing, in the span of three hours, all these ordinary places where extraordinary things happened is powerful. Inside the old Ebenezer Baptist Church, now operated by the U.S. Park Service, Houck points out the spot in the sanctuary where Dr. King lay in state before his funeral in 1968 – and just a few feet away, the place where his mother, Alberta King, was gunned down in 1974 as she was playing the organ for a Sunday service.
Nearby, the old SCLC building was where Dr. King, Andrew Young and Hosea Williams had their offices. “Between 1961 and 1968, more significant decisions were made in that building than in any other building in the country except the White House,” Houck says. It was where planning took place for the 1963 March on Washington, the Selma marches and the Poor People’s Campaign, a 1968 effort to gain economic justice for all.
If you are a native Atlantan, the tour offers a new perspective on your city even as it brings back memories. The first time I was ever in the old Ebenezer Church, my husband and I were chaperoning a group of our daughter’s first-grade classmates on a field trip.
Parts of the tour have the feel of old home movies – fast-moving, a little blurry in some places, a little worn in others – but still evocative. Historical and contemporary sites sit side by side, as spiritual and commercial interests co-exist: The King birth home, the new SCLC offices, the old Atlanta Life Insurance Co., murals of Civil Rights heroes Congressman John Lewis and the late Evelyn Lowery. They are palpable reminders of the complexity of the Civil Rights Movement – and how compact the nexus of strength and resolve was that would change a nation.
On Sunset Avenue, next door to the King home, is a building where the late Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson once lived; a couple doors down in the other direction is the childhood home of the late Julian Bond. Across the way is the home of the late Grace Towns Hamilton, the first black woman elected to the state’s General Assembly. You can’t help thinking they must have had quite a neighborhood picnic.
The SCOPE veterans, who came from places like Ohio, Oklahoma and California, spent a long weekend remembering, reminiscing and reappraising. Rev. John Reynolds, the reunion organizer, says voter registration is nearly as important today as it was a half-century ago.
The tour is both a reminder of what’s been accomplished and what’s still to be done.
As the bus pulled into the parking lot to drop off the passengers, Houck led us in singing “We Shall Overcome.” Some of the voices quavered at first, and some were a little off-key; but a lilting soprano brought them home.