It was the ordinariness that got me. The unremarkable, almost indifferent ‘80s architecture, executed in concrete and red brick. The lack of a grand portal. The absence of ornaments, of gold and marble. Even the central water feature, which invites visitors to sit and reflect, is plain and undramatic.
This is not what I expected. When I headed downtown on the interstate on my way from the airport, the signpost to the Martin Luther King Center was on of my first impressions: this exit for the National Memorial. I imagined a something with a vast statute akin to Lincoln’s, a majestic palace of worship overrun with camera-toting pilgrims enthusiastically buying sentimental kitsch. The more I elaborated on the idea, the less I wanted to go. If America was going to have a National Memorial, I was convinced that it was bound to be in bad taste, disneyfied.
I put my visit off. It was on my list but like the Georgia Aquarium, never an urgent priority. More than a week had passed since my arrival when one morning I decided to leave my apartment block on Auburn Avenue, and head towards the Center, which was about ten blocks down the road. Auburn Avenue is a special place, full of atmosphere and history – opposite my block was the Royal Peacock Theater, a nightspot that had been going since 1937 (on the playbill anyone you ay care to mention, from Ray Charles to Marvin Gay to Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight), the Silver Moon barber shop, which announced itself as Atlanta’s oldest black owned business (established 1904), Big Bethel church, which has the legend JESUS SAVES in large blue capitals affixed to its spire, and two murals the size of the house. One is a quote by King: “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”. The other giant mural depicts a quote by one of King’s lieutenants, John Lewis. “Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and every hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution is complete”. And most importantly of all, this is the street where Martin Luther King was born, where he grew up, and where he served his congregation as a minister.
I followed the road, which lay peacefully in the sun, past the boarded-up Thelma’s Rib Shack, past Ebenezer, King’s old church, until I reached the Center, which resembled a public library in a provincial town. As I entered, I saw the courtyard with its plain water feature and the Walk of Peace, a prefab esplanade whose greatest luxury was the protection it afforded from the sun.
Inside, there was a monumental plaque with a quote by Coretta Scott King, complete with a portrait of King’s widow, who survived him for 38 years. If I had considered Coretta as a counterpart to Jackie O – a tragic but apolitical widow – the exhibits on display taught me different. Coretta was a campaigner in her own right, with strongly-held convictions. Above all, like her husband, she preached a gospel of love.
Among the contemporary artwork on the wall, commemorating slavery and condemning its continuation by another name, the exhibits are displayed in plain cases. There’s no Tiffany-style presentation for King’s Nobel Peace Prize medal – it may have pride of place in the modest entrance hall, but the packaging is simple. On the first floor, there’s a room dedicated to Rosa Parks, whose one-woman campaign of civil disobedience preceded that of King. Contemporary clippings of Parks’ court appearances make for fascinating reading: the tone of the newspaper is more factual and detached than I expected. A German mother walks in with her two young children and explains to them what Parks’ campaign was about. It’s touching she made the journey, and how she tries to explain racism in a way a child can understand without making it sound too scary or too sad.
There’s a room dedicated to Gandhi, whose teachings King studied and applied. And perhaps most touching of all, there’s King’s travel suitcase, not much larger than an airplane tray and neatly packed with the bare necessities. Beside it is the key to the Memphis hotel room on whose balcony he was shot. The year was 1968. King had achieved his first objective; to smash all the legal structures that held segregation in place. Considering where to go from there, he was thinking about economic rights, economic equality. A bullet ended that.
In the courtyard, King’s voice comes tiny from an outdoor speaker. Sitting at one of the concrete tables and looking to his tomb, the words are chilling.
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The following day, King was shot in the face.
Now the man’s body lies but a few yards away, next to that of his wife, in a simple tomb surrounded by pale blue swimming pool water.
Humble in appearances but forceful in spirit, there could be no better memorial to the couple.