This week America commemorates an infamous anniversary, the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On April 4, 1968, at 7:01 p.m. Dr. King was felled by a bullet on the balcony of the then Lorraine Motel.
Last February 2017, Toyota Motor Sales USA, conducted a Black History Tour (BHT) arranged by their multicultural agency, PRecise Communications based in Atlanta, Georgia.
As a child of the 1960s, and witness to riots in Baltimore after the assassination of Dr. King, I was super excited to attend to learn more about our history, and was joined by several journalist and blogger peers. The mission was simple yet precise: visit historical sites in the Northeast corridor and travel from site to site in the latest 2017 Toyota cars and compact SUVs:
Madame C.J. Walker’s estate in New York State, Harlem in New York City, historic churches and sites in Philadelphia, and finally the drive back to my home area of suburban Washington D.C. to visit the newest jewel amongst the incredible collection of Smithsonian Museums, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
The trip was truly life changing, especially learning about the history of our struggle in Philadelphia, and of course visiting the first rate, superbly curated NMAAHC. During our multi-hour visit there, I was in an exhibit showing Revolutionary War hero James Armistead.
I froze. My father’s name was James Armstead. Was this one of my ancestors who held a surname that evolved into mine? As I choked up with tears and pride for the way he fought to be free, I realized that my story was one of tens of thousands that others might have experienced visiting the museum that covers our history from pre-slavery to today.
So fast forward to December 2017 and Toyota, again through agency PRecise, was ready for BHT Round Two. This time, the emotional and historical stakes would be raised. Was I ready to participate?
When I answered “yes” on the attendee form, there was no way to realize that at age 57, my life was about to change forever.
The mission for Round Two was to drive in 2018 Toyotas from historical sites in Atlanta to the even deeper south, with additional stops in Montgomery and Selma Alabama, Meridian Mississippi and finally Jackson Mississippi to witness the inauguration of another stirring display of our history, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
In Atlanta, we experienced a bus tour of the Martin Luther King National Site where an eternal flame burns in his memory; saw the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King often preached, saw his statue on the ground of the Georgia State capitol building, and learned much from our tour guide, Tom Houck, who from 1965-1971 worked with the NAACP, SCLC and other civil right groups across the nation. Houck was also a personal assistant and driver for Dr. King from 1966 until his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. As a white American, Houck had many stories to tell about being branded a “nigger lover,” often at great personal peril.
While great learning surrounded the Atlanta portion of the trip, feeling the souls of our ancestors was difficult within the confines of a tour bus, so I was happy to hit the road to Alabama. Our chariot of choice was the all-new 2018 Camry XLE with all the latest entertainment, infotainment, safety and comfort gear. Oh, and it was outfitted with red leather. What?
After several hours on the road, my drive partner, Tami Reed of TalkingwithTami.com, and I were approaching Montgomery, Alabama. This was during the time when a nominee for U.S. Senator for Alabama was being accused of sexual misconduct. To say it was a tense time in the state is an understatement, as war lines were political and racial. When the dust settled, there was a new, democratic senator headed to Washington.
My mind raced as we entered Montgomery, as Alabama as a whole has a terrible legacy of denying civil rights to African Americans. As I child of the 1960s, I remember then Governor George Wallace blocking the doors of schools to thwart integration. I remember brutal “Commissioner of Public Safety” Bull Connor, ordering police to attack peaceful protestors with high-pressure fire hoses and police dogs, while protecting Klansmen and any others who sought to espouse white supremacy. The bombing of the “Freedom Riders” bus and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that took the lives of four little girls came to mind. Dr. King once called Birmingham a “symbol of hardcore resistance to integration.” All of this swirling and stirring up clouds of emotion within me.
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And then I smiled when we pulled up to the Dexter Parsonage Museum, which chronicles the history of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and gives visitors a chance to tour the home next door where Dr. King and his wife Coretta raised there family while he was an Associate Pastor at the Church, as I knew that this was a place where Dr. King could at least think and plan the struggle.
The Dexter Parsonage Museum is a moving legacy to the life of Dr. King, and to all of the powerful ministers that served the church before and after Dr. King’s time there. Parsonage Tour Director Dr. Shirley Cherry was a firebrand, ready to challenge our knowledge of what really happened across Alabama, but passionately educating us and explaining her role with Dr. King and his family as the daily struggle for human rights and decency played out.
Our tour took us through the Interpretive Center, located adjacent to the Parsonage, which features an orientation room for viewing videos and discussion groups on Dr. King’s family, community, and pastoral life. The permanent exhibit in the Interpretive Center includes a timeline of photographs of the 12 Dexter pastors who lived in the Parsonage, a wall of Pastoral Wisdom (inspiring quotes from several pastors), unpublished photographs of Dr. King, Dexter members, civic/business leaders, and Montgomery ministers active in the bus boycott; and historical accounts on the bombing of the Parsonage and other significant events.
The Parsonage, built in 1912, has been restored to its appearance when Dr. King and his family lived there. Much of the furniture was actually used by Dr. King, and it’s now a part of the National Register of Historic Places. While on the front porch of the Parsonage, we were alerted to look at the differences in the two front windows on the porch. The reason one looked newer is due to the ugly fact that his home was firebombed by Ku Klux Klan supremacists and was a constant target for hate.
While touring the Parsonage, I experienced a life-changing moment. As a historic place, touching anything or photographing certain things was a no-no. I was honored when Dr. Cherry asked me to take a seat at the very same dining room table where Dr. King and his family dined. She then informed us that it was the table where the vaunted Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) was formed. Talk about a front seat to history! A wave of emotion immediately swept over me, as there I was, an ordinary man, sitting in the seat where one of God’s supreme fighters for equality planned out part of the mission to end our pain and misery. Dr. Cherry’s tour was so steeped in the history of the Parsonage and the entire struggle in Alabama, it was like we were actually living through the experience.
From The Dexter Personage Museum tour, we drove on to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
Dr. King served the Church from 1954 until 1959, part a long, distinguished line of pastors at this historic church, located just one block from the once hate filled State House. The Church is now a World Heritage Site.
When we arrived, it was early evening, and the choir was practicing for Sunday services. Guess who got to sing with the choir? All of us on the tour! After meeting current pastor Reverend Cromwell A. Handy, Tour Director Wanda Battle gave us a tour of the church museum. Adorning a complete wall in the Museum was an incredible mural of our history, from slavery to martyrdom. In 1980, twenty years after Dr. King left the church and twelve years after his assassination, artist and Dexter deacon John W. Feagin painted a 10′ by 47′ mural at the church depicting scenes of Dr. King’s journey from Montgomery to Memphis during the Civil Rights Movement. It portrays the segregated facilities of the Jim Crow era, along with struggles, sorrows, prejudices, and personalities of Civil Rights Movement that followed. The Mural told an incredible, silent story. Dr. King’s office is still there; unchanged from the last time he used it. His original Altar is there, and was a central prop in the movie “Selma.”
Incidentally, our accommodations in Montgomery at the Renaissance Hotel were along a street that was once infamous for its slave warehouses. Just by chance I noticed the signs while having breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant.
So now it was time once again to raise the emotional stakes, as we were about to drive from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama. It was the same route (from Selma to Montgomery) that freedom marchers took to show a watching nation that freedom in the Deep South was far from free.
Mother Nature threw a serious curveball during this leg of our journey, as a major storm blanketed the south in snow and ice. No worries, as our Camry’s advanced traction control systems and some common sense behind the wheel got us through.
We arrived in icy Selma in time to visit the National Voting Rights Museum, which took a close look at another side of the story. Many died for the right to vote, and the Museum houses an actual period voting machine, which was beyond the reach and dreams of many in Alabama.
The National Voting Rights Museum is at the base of the infamous Edmund Pettus bridge, where Selma to Montgomery marchers were met with tear gas, water cannons, police dogs and batons to keep marchers from continuing their equality march. This sad episode of American history played out on a national stage, as broadcast networks aired the carnage of what was to be named “Bloody Sunday” on television across the country.
Again, tears welled up in my eyes as I stepped foot onto the bridge and attempted to cross. About a quarter of the way up, I realized that the severe icing on the bridge’s sidewalks would probably end up with me falling, and even worse, sliding off the sidewalk into oncoming traffic. So I held the iron railing fast, and I imagined what that day was like, and what those who experienced such hate must of felt.
After driving over the bridge, we stopped at the base on the opposite side to read historical markers noting Bloody Sunday.
On that infamous Sunday afternoon, more than 600 marchers moved slowly up the Pettus Bridge, led by Congressman John Lewis, who was then a part of the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and SCLC leader Hosea Williams. Sherriff Jim Clark then unleashed terror on the marchers as they approached the other side of the bridge.
Just across the street from the bridge was another museum called the Selma Interpretive Center, operated by the National Park Service. Free of charge, it shows in great detail the images from Bloody Sunday, and profiles struggles all across Selma that led to that pivotal event.
The Center also outlines the Selma-to-Montgomery Historic Trail, set up with historical sites and markers so you can retrace the 54-mile march, beginning at Brown Chapel in Selma. Inside the Museum itself, you can see displays marked “Martyrs of the Movement,” “The Hayneville Story,” “Tent City,” “Abuse of Power,” “The Ministers’ March,” and much more.
And though the ice was still coming down, I crossed back over to the Pettus Bridge, held that rail and walked to the crest, so I could see the point where the carnage took place from the view of those who marched.
A powerful moment…
Our stop in Meridian Mississippi, where we had planned to walk the Meridian Civil Rights Trail, was derailed by the weather, so we headed straight to Jackson in preparation for what had become a controversial event: the opening of two adjacent museums, one dedicated to the Civil Rights struggle in Mississippi.
What made it controversial? President Trump had accepted an invitation to attend, leading to a boycott of the opening by many of those who led the way during the struggle, including Congressman Lewis.
On a very cold Saturday, December 9th morning, we assembled to watch history. Many luminaries spoke at the grand opening ceremony, none more powerful and poignant than Myrlie Evers, the widow of civil rights martyr Medgar Evers, who was gunned down in his Mississippi driveway more the 50 years ago. Trump took a private tour and left the Museum, giving meaningful remarks to those assembled before his departure.
As part of the media, we had the opportunity after the ceremony to speak with many of those behind the vision and execution of this superb museum, and also to Mrs. Evers. While she spoke, I stood just about two feet away on her right. Listening to her, I flashed back to my childhood days in Baltimore, going to rallies for our freedom with my mom, and remembering the night Baltimore went up in flames in during the riots after Dr. King’s assassination. There were few dry eyes listening to Mrs. Evers, who spoke about her struggle over the years to tamp down the hatred she felt towards those who murdered her husband and one of our heroes. In 1994, avowed racist Byron De La Beckwith, who had admitted to the murder, was finally convicted of Ever’s death.
After thanking Mrs. Evers for her strength and courage, I toured the Civil Rights Museum in absolute silence.
I could not talk. I could barely think…
The images and stories where overwhelming for me, and I’m sure for anyone old enough to live through that period in our history.
There were several displays that really made me emotional. The first was a list of names of those lynched in Mississippi, just Mississippi, from the early 1900s to about 1970. There were so many panels of names, and these were very tall panels, I wondered whether some names had been repeated. They were not repeated.
Photos of those arrested in support of the struggle filled the ceilings in several display areas. Many of those arrested where white, including scores of Ministers opposed to the hatred of those days.
Details of the murder of Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner, chased by racists, tortured and shot, and then buried in a mud bank by a river.
I viewed a display which included the photos of two young whites who sat with “Coloreds” during a lunch counter sit in, a common form of peaceful protest during those turbulent times. They were subsequently harassed, with condiments poured on their heads, and arrested. “I look so young in that picture,” said the diminutive woman standing beside me. “Is that you?” I asked her. “Yes,” as she began to tell me her story of courage. Joan Trumpauer was one of scores of whites that played significant roles in the struggle.
Finally, the Medgar Evers story, told via film in a theater-style viewing area with closed walls and seating. Of course we all know how his story ended, but I was shocked to see the Enfield .30-06 rifle that killed him on display.
As the video played and the moment came when Evers pulled into his driveway that fateful evening, a single gunshot rang out, and the once white-lit display case housing the murder weapon instantly turned to blood-red lighting. The gunshot sound shook my soul, as those assembled to watch gasped with despair. Seeing the murder weapon in red made me weep with sadness and anger. Outside of the theater, pictures of the Evers family, and scenes from his open casket funeral adorned the walls. Along with meeting Mrs. Evers, I also met his daughter and grandson.
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is sadly an excellent portrayal of the formerly racist history of the state. What really stood out during our tour was the fact that Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi do not hide from the past. All that we learned was given to us straight, with no chaser.
Much of this history was played out less than 50 years ago. Do you know this history? Do your children and grandchildren know?
If we forget our history, we are sadly doomed to repeat it.
After my experience on the BHT, I was emotionally spent. After leaving the Museum, I walked the two miles back to my hotel to decompress a bit, and passed the Mississippi Board of Tourism, which was open and welcomed passersby in to encourage tourism in the state. Like the NMAAHC in Washington, the MCRM is a must visit destination.
Later that Saturday evening, we had a reception with executives from Toyota who flew in from Plano, Texas; Jackson city officials; Mississippi state officials, local HBCU presidents and local Toyota dealers and suppliers to welcome us to the state, and applaud our completion of the educational journey.
Toyota is a company headquartered in Japan, but is deeply tied and committed to making an economic presence through plants and executive offices here in the U.S., and social presence through the scores of programs, events and facilities they’ve sponsored, including the MCRM. At each stop during our tour, a check was presented by Toyota.
Thank you Toyota and PRecise Communications for facilitating a life-changing Black History Tour.
The preceding article appeared in its entirety in Black Enterprise and is reprinted with permission.