Civil Rights Family Trip: Montgomery

When we drove into Montgomery we went straight to the Rosa Parks Museum on the campus of Troy University.

The Rosa Parks Museum is on the spot where Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. A historical marker marks the spot:

(Fun fact: On the other side of the marker is a tribute to Hank Williams.)

The Rosa Parks Museum is small but state of the art, covering in detail the Montgomery bus boycott, the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Troy University has done a wonderful job locating a great deal of the original police reports and citations related to the boycott. One can see, for example, a traffic ticket given to one Martin Luther King Jr. Also on display are some of the bank records of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that ran the boycott and had the enormously complex task of funding and coordinating the fleet of cars the black community used to help people get to and from work without using the buses.

The most interesting display in the Rosa Parks Museum was the very first one, where you get to act as a "witness" to the events on a Montgomery bus on December 1, 1955. After an orientation film, you go into a room where a cira 1955 Montgomery bus is waiting for you. The windows of the bus function as movie/video screens so that you, standing on the outside, can look inside the bus. You then witness, with a narrator filling in the story and giving historical detail, Rosa Parks get on the bus, the bus get full, the bus driver request for her to move, her refusal, the driver leaving the bus to call the police, the bus passengers (white and black) reacting to the confrontation, and, finally, the police coming on board and arresting Mrs. Parks. All with street sounds and the sounds of the opening and closing of the bus doors. It was really well done and fun to experience. Congratulations to Troy University for putting together and running such a wonderful place.

After a night at the hotel we got up the next morning and went to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. This was King's church, his first and only pulpit as the executive pastor in charge of the pastoral care and running of a church:

In the basement of Dexter is the Pastor's Office, left unchanged since the time King was the pastor. In the office is the desk and bookshelves that King used while he ran the bus boycott, prepared his sermons, wrote his dissertation, and conducted church business. (We were allowed to take personal pictures in the office but were asked not to put them on the Internet.)

After visiting the office we went upstairs to the Dexter sanctuary where you can see King's pulpit. (The communion table pre-dated King, but was there during his ministry.) The pews were also original to the time. So it was a real thrill to sit in the pews and stand in King's pulpit.

We left the church and drove seven blocks to the King parsonage, the church-owned home the King's lived in while he was pastor at Dexter:

On January 30, 1956, at the start of the boycott, King's home was bombed. On the porch you can still see a bit of the crater left from the blast which is also marked by a plaque:

Our guide through the parsonage was Shirley Cherry, a retired school teacher who now runs the parsonage for the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Foundation. Although not a participant in the bus boycott (she was living in New England at the time), since running the parsonage Shirley has come to know many of the Montgomery citizens who actively participated in planning and executing the boycott. She regaled us with stories and was, all by herself, historian, tour guide, personal testimonial, teacher, evangelist, and interactive museum exhibit. We loved Shirley Cherry!

One of the nice personal touches Shirley adds to the tour is allowing a person in the tour the honor of opening up the parsonage to let us all in. She picked me and handed me the key saying, "This is the highest honor I can give. Take this key and open the door using the very lock Dr. King used to open his door when he came home from work at the church." I have to admit, I got a chill when I unlocked the door and walked into the house.

The parsonage has been decorated circa 1955 and a great deal of the furniture was owned by the King's: Couches, dinner table, bed, King's office desk, his bookshelves.

The highlight and end of our trip, at the end of the parsonage tour, was in the King's kitchen.

The whirlwind of events surrounding the boycott had largely caught King unawares. When he went to Dexter King was mainly looking for a quiet place to finish his dissertation and, perhaps, move into a life as a college professor after a stint in the ministry. King was an intellectual, and he wanted to lead a quiet academically-oriented life.

But then Rosa Parks happened and he found himself, as the newcomer in Montgomery (all the other pastors had too much water under the bridge with each other), elected President of the Montgomery Improvement Association. By accident, fate, or providence King found himself at the center of the advent of the Civil Rights movement.

But then the death threats started coming. Threats on his life and his family's. Slowly the fear began to overwhelm this academically inclined 26 year old. He really hadn't signed up for this. Plato, Niebuhr, Tillich, yes. But not death threats.

Around midnight on January 27, 1956 the parsonage phone rang. King answered it and heard a low voice say: “Nigger, we’re tired of your mess. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow up your house and blow your brains out.”

Shaken, King tried to go to back to sleep. His wife and 10 week old baby girl, Yolanda, were asleep nearby. But King couldn't rest.

So he got up and went to the kitchen where he made himself some coffee. Something in the voice on the phone scared him. This call wasn't a mere threat, it was serious. And King was rightly worried about his baby girl getting killed. Or getting killed himself and leaving her fatherless.

As the coffee brewed and the fears pressed in King sat at his kitchen table and prayed:

"Lord, I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone."
And in that moment, sitting at his kitchen table, King had the most profound experience of his religious life. In the middle of that dark kitchen, alone and scared, King heard an "inner voice" speak to him:
"Martin Luther, stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness. God will be at your side forever."
And with that assurance, King's fears lifted. His courage returned. And in that moment he firmly committed his life to the path of Civil Rights. God had called him and he had responded.

Three days later King's house was, indeed, bombed. But his calm that night, standing on his porch, prevented a riot among the outraged black community (many of whom were carrying guns). That calm was the product of his midnight epiphany three evenings earlier, a calm he carried all the way to his death 12 years later as seen in the final words of his final sermon:
"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!

And 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!"
We lingered a long time in the kitchen. Shirley let us each sit at the coffee table where King's epiphany had occurred, sitting in front of the very coffee cups used by the King family. It was a wonderful moment, sitting there imagining what had occurred in that small, dark kitchen.

Mountain tops, it seems, come to God's people in the most unlikely and humble of places...

And so ended our trip. It really couldn't have ended any better, sitting there at King's kitchen table. We left with our hearts full with all we had experienced this summer in Memphis, Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery.

But now it was time to go home. The school year, for all of us, was just around the corner.

We got in the car and headed home to Texas.

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6 thoughts on “Civil Rights Family Trip: Montgomery”

  1. To see into MLK's heart, mind, and faith while sitting at his kitchen table! Thank you!

  2. Your thoughts and ideas are always moving and challenging, Richard. Thank you for this journey. I made it with you from Ghana. I hope someday we will have an even deeper appreciation of the 'greatest man' this country has ever produced.

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