East of Downtown Atlanta, is the historic African American “Sweet Auburn” community. The Sweet Auburn community has enjoyed the long-standing reputation of being one of the largest concentration of African-American owned businesses in the entire United States. This area is also home to the iconic Ebenezer Baptist Church. The historical church was the place of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s baptism, his being ordained as a minister at 19-years old, becoming co-pastor with his father Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. in 1960, and his funeral in 1968.
Just a few steps away from the church is a plaza in the center of a quite reflecting pool. That red brick plaza contains the modest tombs of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and is wife Coretta Scott King.
I am originally from Gainesville, Florida. However, I was raised in Savannah, Georgia. To this day, the greater Savannah area is still where I call home. Savannah is only quick four-hour drive from Atlanta, and Dr. King’s birth home, and The Ebenezer Baptist church.
Even as a child I considered Dr. King to be the greatest American to have ever lived. I stipulate his unrivaled American greatness as fact, and I am willing to debate that with vigor anyone who disagrees.
In light of my sincere admiration for Dr. King and living within proximity of some many prominent landmarks to King’s life, it wouldn’t be until November 19th of last year that I ever stepped foot in The Ebenezer Baptist Church or laid eyes on the graceful tomb which houses the body of the greatest civil right leader in history.
I was in Atlanta on November 19th thanks to being asked to give the Keynote Speech for Races for Peace’s 5k charity run. At the event, I was honored to have been recognized as the 2016 Protector of Peace by the organization. After leaving the run, and trying to make my way back towards home, a series of wrong turns caused me to pull over to figure out what had gone wrong and why my GPS did not seem to be directing me towards I-75 South.
As I put my car in park, something in front of me caused me to forget about my GPS completely. Right there staring at me through my front windshield was a dark blue and white neon sign that read Ebenezer Baptist Church.
That neon sign looked like it belonged in the 1960’s more than today. I stared at the sign for a moment, and then let my eyes wander up the of the redbrick gothic style church, which prominently lay in front of me. The reason for my GPS's inaccurate driving instructions and how exactly I ended up right in front of Dr. King’s church, technically is still a mystery. However, as I put my car in park and got out, the reasoning seemed irrelevant. At that moment, I did not consider my current location to be an accident.
In light of the fact, that I have always held Dr. King in the highest of regards for as long as I can remember, I can only attribute my failure to have visited The Ebenezer Baptist Church for the first thirty-five years of my life to my personal rejection of materialism. I’ve always hated money and spurned the idea that any material objects transmit any real sense of wealth or value. Therefore, honestly felt no strong desire to place my feet in the material spaces that Dr. King once inhabited. For me, Dr. King’s power was in his words and his spirit. To me, within my mind, Dr. King still lives on.
I am humble in saying, that I could not have been more wrong about my pre-existing beliefs. This was something I realized the moment I stepped inside the walls of that Progressive-era church building that chilly November afternoon.
After walking through the door to the church, an elderly African American man smiled at me and said, “Here to see the sanctuary?” After acknowledging indeed, I was, he pointed towards a set of stairs to the right of me and said, "It's right down that way." Admittedly, initially, I was stunned at the fact that one of the most iconic churches in U.S. history didn’t require me to pay some entry fee before I stepped into the spiritual home of the greatest man to have ever walked the continental United States.
Any ponderings of the essential monetary importance that I had been accustomed to was immediately an afterthought as I stepped into the sanctuary. Immediately, I felt an indescribable energy radiating from the walls of that church the moment I set foot on the plush royal red carpet. I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but I was amazed at how inviting and comfortable the entire room felt to me. It was if the spirit of the Divine had emerged from the rows of the gorgeous mahogany pews and said, “Welcome home, you’re amongst friends.” I felt a presence that seemed like the energy of thousands of people, yet as I looked around, remarkably on this Saturday afternoon, I was the only person in the entire sanctuary.
I made my way through the rows of the church, contemplating in my mind, at how the silence of the empty room sounded like the most enchanting song of my life. I sat down in the very first pew. As I sat down on the characteristically, churchlike wooden seat, I felt like I had just rested my fears, worries, and mortal stress on the wings of an angel. My eyes wandered to the right of me, and I saw the same organ, sitting in the exact same spot it was on June 30, 1974, when Alberta King, Dr. King’s mother was shot and killed just as she finished playing “The Lord’s Prayer." In front of me was a plain wooden table. The very table Dr. King's bronze casket once laid on during the private funeral service for his family and friends on April 9, 1968. Just beyond that was the same pulpit that Martin Luther King Jr. once had stood and shared some of the greatest sermons of all time.
I sat there in that captivating silence that day, and I closed my eyes and let all of the senses we typical use to perceive our environment fade away. I prayed to God, and I prayed to Dr. King, offering him my many thanks for all that he sacrificed for this country. I told him I was sorry, for how much we have at times failed to remember everything that he fought for and taught us. I informed him of the award I had just won (which, I’m not sure exactly why, but I brought with me into the church), and that I would try to do everything in my power to never let his dream fade away.
Amazingly, Dr. King answered me...
As I sat there with my eyes closed, I heard Dr. King’s historically recognizable voice,
“And then we got down one day to the point — that was the second or third day — to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, “Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. You’re just as poor as Negroes.” And I said, “You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because, through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march.”
Now that’s a fact. That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white — and can’t hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out.”
Dr. King’s voiced echoed through the mind as they played through a set of speakers mounted to the ceiling. I knew those word, and had heard them before, those words were from a sermon he gave from the very pulpit which was in front of me on February 4, 1968. The Sermon has been immortalized, as “Drum Major Instinct.” Dr. King’s words were describing a conversation between himself and some jailhouse guards in Birmingham, Alabama. In them, he spoke of the irrationality of racism in that it inherent involves battles fought by disadvantaged individuals who are pitted against each other by societies elite.
As I opened my eyes, I heard the clamor of voices behind me as a tour group was walking in the church. I got up from the pew, smiled and nodded my head as I walked past the group of wide-eyed guest. I thanked the gentlemen that first greeted me and wished him to have a blessed day. As I walked to my car, I remembered the end of Dr. King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon. In that speech, two months before his death, King spoke of how he wanted to be remembered at his funeral. Dr. King asked that his awards and achievements not be mentioned or recognized. Rather he said, “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
On my ride back to Savannah that afternoon I realized something. They say that every church is a house of God. However, that day I discovered God, indeed has favorite rooms in his house.