On MLK Day I always remember our family visit to Montgomery, Alabama, the city many consider to be Ground Zero of the American Civil Rights movement. Montgomery was where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated city bus. And the arrest of Rosa Parks kicked off the year long Montgomery bus boycott. A boycott run by the hastily formed Montgomery Improvement Association, the president of which was the new young pastor of Dexter Avenue Church. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Our fondest memories of the day my family spent in Montgomery were from our visit to the King parsonage, the church-owned home where the King's lived while he was pastor at Dexter Avenue Church.
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 (pictured here).
Our guide through the parsonage was Shirley Cherry, a retired school teacher who was then hosting the parsonage tour 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 had come to know many of the Montgomery citizens who actively participated in planning and executing the boycott. Mrs. Cherry regaled us with stories and was, all by herself, historian, tour guide, personal testimonial, teacher, evangelist, and interactive museum exhibit.
One of the nice personal touches Shirley added 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 took the key and opened the front door of Dr. King's 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 I want to mention came at the end of the parsonage tour and was in the King's kitchen.
The whirlwind of events surrounding the bus boycott had caught King unawares. When he went to be the pastor at Dexter King was mainly looking for a quiet place to finish his dissertation and perhaps from there move into the life of 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 King 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. King hadn't signed up for this.
Plato, Niebuhr, Tillich, yes. Theology, that's what King wanted. 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 ten-week-old baby girl, Yolanda, were asleep nearby. But King couldn't rest.
King got up and went to the kitchen where he made himself some coffee. There was something about that voice on the phone that King couldn't shake, a seriousness that he couldn't ignore. This time, King knew that the bomb threat was real.
The bomb would come. Sooner or later, it would come.
King began thinking about the life of his baby girl. The life of his wife. His own life.
As the coffee brewed in the dark kitchen the fears pressed in on King, overwhelming him. He sat down at the 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 responded.
Three days later King's house was, indeed, bombed. Word about the bombing spread like wildfire that night and many black citizens descended upon the King home armed and ready for battle. But King's calm that night, addressing the angry group gathered on his lawn, prevented a riot from the outraged black community.
The other-worldly calm and courage King exhibited the night of the bombing was the product of his midnight epiphany three evenings earlier, a strength of purpose and resolve he carried all the way to his death twelve years later. It was a courage he described 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!My family lingered a long time in the kitchen of Dr. King's house. This was holy ground. Mrs. Cherry 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.
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!"