Dr. Sheri Adams led a class on Civil Rights and Religion in May 2009 which included a tour of key historic sites from the Civil Rights Movement. One of the places we visited was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage where Martin and Coretta King lived during their ministry there. This story comes from that experience.
I am standing in my Grandmother Martin’s kitchen. It’s true: Grandmama died nearly 14 years ago and her kitchen was dismantled long before that, but I’m telling you, this is her kitchen.
Her resin dishes are laid out on the Formica table ready for supper—though I remember them being a pale pink, not this mint green. The table setting includes a bowl of pecans. Granddaddy often collected pecans from the yard to be cracked after supper; and for the record, he and Grandmama called them “pea ca’ns,” giving equal emphasis to the first two syllables and letting the third one slip in for free. (Only those uppity carpet-baggers from the North used the term “puhcahns,” spitting out the “puh” just to get to the “cahns.”)
The ceramic napkin holder is new to me. I’m not surprised it’s in her kitchen though since it has strawberries on it; Grandmama did love her strawberries. Her oven, probably still hot from cooking biscuits, looks like it always did and her Frigidaire does too. The coffee pot—a percolator—has not changed at all. The kitchen shelves hold the usual, everything from Jewel® shortening to HotShot® bug killer in the pump and shoot tin can. Granddaddy murdered many a 6-legged intruder with that beastly weapon.
“’Get out of town within three days,’ the caller threatened, ‘or you’ll be sorry,’” The docent’s words drew me out of my reverie. “Martin knew this threat was different.”
“The call had awakened him and he could not get back to sleep, so he left Coretta and newborn Yolanda asleep, and came in here to the kitchen.”
This kitchen: this kitchen that looked so much like my Grandmama’s.
“He made himself a cup of coffee, but says he never even took a sip. And he sat down at his kitchen table. By the way, most everything in the parsonage here is authentic; however, this table is not the one that was here at that time, but it is very much like the one Martin sat at that night.”
(And it’s very much like the one my Grandparents sat at in their kitchen in Georgia during those very same years.)
My divinity school colleagues—19 of us counting students and professors—crowded into the parsonage's tiny kitchen and stood around the little table. Studying civil rights and religion, we were travelling to significant sites in the South, learning more about faith’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. Coming to the end of this tour of the Birmingham parsonage of Martin Luther King, Jr., we found ourselves spellbound by our guide’s retelling of the famous “kitchen table epiphany.”
“Martin sat here, full of despair. He thought of Coretta, and baby Yolanda. He thought of all the threatening phone calls. He thought of all he had to lose. He sat here in the wee hours of that morning and cried out to God, confessing his own doubts, his own weaknesses.
“When Martin recalled the story, he said it was at that moment of confession that he heard the voice of Jesus say to him, ‘Martin Luther stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ He heard Jesus tell him he would never be alone, no matter what.” The docent looked up to heaven, lifting her hands as if in thanksgiving. Then looking down, she shook her head slowly.
“And he didn’t give up. Not even three days later when his house, this house, was bombed. You see Martin was right: the call he got that night was more than just a prank. It was a real threat. What a blessing that Martin had just reaffirmed his calling and his faith right here in this kitchen.”
This Montgomery, Alabama kitchen that belonged to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an African American Baptist preacher and the leader of the Civil Rights movement. This kitchen:so familiar to me that it could have been in the Albany, Georgia home of Mrs. Mabel Louise Martin, my white, Southern Baptist grandmama.
Published originally June 25, 2010
The METRO was packed. To the regulars, I’m sure it was normal: Washington, DC at 5 o'clock is not, after all, the most deserted place in the world. But I was a tourist from Smalltown, NC and subway trains are scary enough to me when riders all have room to spare. Slightly motion sick and seriously wide-eyed, I sat-tight beside a stranger as the train rushed to stop and more weary workers flooded the aisles. They reached to the ceiling, grabbing hold just as the train sped on to its next destination.
In front of me, a man had been snoozing on and off throughout the journey. I'd watched him, amazed by his commitment to rest despite the chaos that surrounded him. (A devoted sleeper myself, I was impressed.) But as we took off this time, he sat up, eyeing the older woman who stood holding the pole in front of him. He watched her until she met his gaze.
“Here,” he said, gesturing to his seat and starting to rise.
She shook her head smiling unspoken thanks, “Next stop,” she said, pointing to the door.
The man nodded, pulled his cap back down over his eyes, and went back to sleep. When the train stopped again, the woman exited and went on her way.
And that was that. No big deal. No one called the police. No one staged a riot.
An African American man offered his seat on the train to an elderly Caucasian woman. They had a polite exchange, and life went on as if nothing had happened—as if what I had just witnessed was not, in fact, a little miracle.
That exchange illustrated for me what the students in the Mississippi Freedom School knew back in 1964 when they penned their “Declaration of Independence from the State of Mississippi” in which they listed their grievances against Mississippi’s government. They enumerated injustices common in the Jim Crow South and then they closed with a remarkable statement. They said, “That no man is free until all men are free.” (MLK said it too. So did many others over the years.)
See, the man on the subway could offer his seat (or not) because he was free. And the woman, well because he was free to offer it, she was free to refuse. Sixty years ago, they would not have been on the same train at all. Fifty years ago, they might have been on the same train, but few would have questioned it if the woman had awakened the sleeping man and demanded his seat. Forty years ago, tensions ran so high between the two groups, that no one knew what to do. And we still don't know. We still have so, so far to go.
But last week, two people passed each other courteously, respectfully, and peaceably. And in their faces, I think I saw the face of Christ.