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America Still Not Cured Of Racism

This classic picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the ‘March on Washington’ event in 1963. More than 250,000 people attended, a record protest attendance at the time in Washington, DC’s history. Dr King gave what has become known as his, “I Have A Dream” speech.

This classic picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the ‘March on Washington’ event in 1963. More than 250,000 people attended, a record protest attendance at the time in Washington, DC’s history. Dr King gave what has become known as his, “I Have A Dream” speech.

Martin Luther King Jr Day | Darrin Henry

Did Sharon and I experience racism during our seven weeks travelling through the USA, from the deep south of Alabama and Louisiana, to the rolling hills of upstate New York?

The answer to that question would be yes, but surprisingly, not in the way we may have expected.

Racism We Saw

The large number of civil rights museums and tributes to Martin Luther King Jr throughout the USA almost suggests the struggle for racial harmony in America is something confined to the history books. Sadly, the reality of the black and white divide is as evident outside as much as it is inside among the sombre, air-conditioned museum displays. It’s not just my opinion; the fact is documented and acknowledged at every level in American society.

The Visitor Center is one of the buildings making up the National Historic Site in Atlanta. It is full of galleries, exhibits and films about Dr King and the Civil Rights Movement.

The Visitor Center is one of the buildings making up the National Historic Site in Atlanta. It is full of galleries, exhibits and films about Dr King and the Civil Rights Movement.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta Georgia is open daily from 9am to 5pm, admission is free. Several buildings spread over 35 acres make up the National Historic Site including Martin Luther King, Jr.'s boyhood home and the original Ebenezer Baptist Church. This mural is painted outside the Visitor Centre entrance.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta Georgia is open daily from 9am to 5pm, admission is free. Several buildings spread over 35 acres make up the National Historic Site including Martin Luther King, Jr.’s boyhood home and the original Ebenezer Baptist Church. This mural is painted outside the Visitor Centre entrance.

Inside The Visitor Center in the National Historic Site in Atlanta. It is full of galleries, exhibits and films about Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights Movement.

Inside The Visitor Center in the National Historic Site in Atlanta. It is full of galleries, exhibits and films about Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights Movement.

Inside The Visitor Center in the National Historic Site in Atlanta. It is full of galleries, exhibits and films about Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights Movement.

Inside The Visitor Center in the National Historic Site in Atlanta. It is full of galleries, exhibits and films about Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights Movement.

On 3 April, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" address in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there in support of the black sanitary public works employees’ strike for better treatment. It was to be his final speech. The next day, 4 April, 1968, Dr King was shot and killed as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel’s second floor. He was 39 years old.

On 3 April, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there in support of the black sanitary public works employees’ strike for better treatment. It was to be his final speech.
The next day, 4 April, 1968, Dr King was shot and killed as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel’s second floor. He was 39 years old.

Visitors inside the Visitor Center of the National Historic Site in Atlanta.

Visitors inside the Visitor Center of the National Historic Site in Atlanta.

Yet films and TV programmes from the US often fail to reflect fairly the reality of this cultural wound that continues to blight the self proclaimed “land of the free” even as the country’s first elected black president nears the end of two terms in the White House.

What we saw (motel reception counters, supermarket checkouts, cafes, etc.) was a series of social interactions laced with tension and impatience. Encounters that never quite escalated into full blown confrontations as such, but uncomfortable to witness where on each occasion the only aggravating trigger seemed to be a difference in skin colour.

The 'Freedom Road' exhibit inside the National Historic Site's Visitor Center. This life size exhibit pays tribute to the everyday people, the "foot soldiers" in the Civil Rights movement.

The ‘Freedom Road’ exhibit inside the National Historic Site’s Visitor Center. This life size exhibit pays tribute to the everyday people, the “foot soldiers” in the Civil Rights movement.

We drove through a succession of cities, suburbs and small towns from New Orleans on the south coast to the shores of Lake Michigan in the north, stopping many times a day along the way. It was hard to ignore the invisible boundary lines in many of those places dividing residential areas by colour into affluence or apparent poverty.

That’s what we saw.

As President Obama said in an interview while we were travelling through the states: “Racism. We are not cured of it.”

The Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church Heritage Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall, on Auburn Avenue, the spiritual home of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. The church has now been designated a National Historic Landmark. It is open to the public daily, 9am – 5pm.

The Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church Heritage Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall, on Auburn Avenue, the spiritual home of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. The church has now been designated a National Historic Landmark. It is open to the public daily, 9am – 5pm.

The Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church Heritage Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall, on Auburn Avenue, the spiritual home of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. It was here that Dr King learned the Christian principles and values that helped form the basis of his nonviolent direct action philosophy toward racial discrimination. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., was baptised here at the age of five and preached his first sermon in the Heritage Sanctuary at age 17. The church has now been designated a National Historic Landmark. The church is open to the public daily, 9am – 5pm.

The Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church Heritage Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall, on Auburn Avenue, the spiritual home of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. It was here that Dr King learned the Christian principles and values that helped form the basis of his nonviolent direct action philosophy toward racial discrimination. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., was baptised here at the age of five and preached his first sermon in the Heritage Sanctuary at age 17. The church has now been designated a National Historic Landmark. The church is open to the public daily, 9am – 5pm.

A painting inside The Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, on Auburn Avenue, the spiritual home of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

A painting inside The Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, on Auburn Avenue, the spiritual home of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

Random Act Of Kindness

What we experienced personally in terms of exchanges with all colours/people was nothing but warmth and friendship.

How do we explain the difference? Perhaps living on St Helena and in the UK helps; we don’t seem to carry the same racial baggage as people in the states? Perhaps.

The Eternal Flame burning at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change Inc. Inscription on the plaque reads: The Eternal Flame symbolises the continuing effort to realise Dr King’s ideals for the “Beloved Community” which requires lasting personal commitment that cannot weaken when faced with obstacles.

The Eternal Flame burning at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change Inc. Inscription on the plaque reads: The Eternal Flame symbolises the continuing effort to realise Dr King’s ideals for the “Beloved Community” which requires lasting personal commitment that cannot weaken when faced with obstacles.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change is located on Auburn Avenue, near King’s birth home and next to Ebenezer Baptist Church. The remains of Martin Luther King, Jr., were moved to the tomb that sits in the middle of the reflecting pool, next to Freedom Hall. Coretta Scott King was interred with her husband on 7 February, 2006.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change is located on Auburn Avenue, near King’s birth home and next to Ebenezer Baptist Church. The remains of Martin Luther King, Jr., were moved to the tomb that sits in the middle of the reflecting pool, next to Freedom Hall. Coretta Scott King was interred with her husband on 7 February, 2006.

The Grand Foyer of Freedom Hall at 449 Auburn Avenue, looks out through the giant windows onto the reflecting pool and tomb of Dr and Mrs King.

The Grand Foyer of Freedom Hall at 449 Auburn Avenue, looks out through the giant windows onto the reflecting pool and tomb of Dr and Mrs King.

Inside the Grand Foyer of Freedom Hall, part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. The paneling lining the staircase is made from the sapeli tree which grows in Nigeria.

Inside the Grand Foyer of Freedom Hall, part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. The paneling lining the staircase is made from the sapeli tree which grows in Nigeria.

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from the Birmingham Jail, 16 April, 1963. Hans Godo Fräbel, native of Jena, Germany, founder and principal artist of Atlanta’s Fräbel Studio, created this glass sculpture:  FREE-DOM! The cry swelling up from the oppressed soul, as a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., and in anticipation of the ultimate, universal emancipation of the human spirit as envisioned by Dr King and for which he toiled and died. Dedicated January 12, 1989.

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from the Birmingham Jail, 16 April, 1963.
Hans Godo Fräbel, native of Jena, Germany, founder and principal artist of Atlanta’s Fräbel Studio, created this glass sculpture:
FREE-DOM!
The cry swelling up from the oppressed soul, as a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., and in anticipation of the ultimate, universal emancipation of the human spirit as envisioned by Dr King and for which he toiled and died. Dedicated January 12, 1989.

Left: Coretta Scott King with her husband, Dr King as he receives the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1964, at 35 years old, Martin Luther King, Jr. became the youngest person to be awarded the Prize.  Right: Clothes worn by Dr King during marches for freedom and justice.

Left: Coretta Scott King with her husband, Dr King as he receives the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1964, at 35 years old, Martin Luther King, Jr. became the youngest person to be awarded the Prize.
Right: Clothes worn by Dr King during marches for freedom and justice.

For sure, I know in all interactions we felt genuine acceptance, free from discrimination. From the tiny Alabama country town of Rutledge to the honky tonks of Nashville; from celebrating 4th July in Missouri to being the only non-white faces at a rodeo in Pennsylvania.

There were many occasions when we were surprised by random acts of kindness; either a motel room upgrade, a spontaneous gift of homemade relish and dill, or the three Tennesseans who started a conversation by the riverside and recommended the city’s barbeque ribs!

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights... I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” Excerpt from Letter from Birmingham City Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., 16 April, 1963 The two mule, wagon which carried the body of Martin Luther King, Jr., during his funeral on 9 April, 1968. Pulled by “Belle” and “Ada,” the wagon led a mourning crowd of over 200,000 people the 4.3 miles from Ebenezer Baptist Church to Morehouse College. Formerly used in old time prayer meetings, the wagon symbolised Dr King’s work among the poor.

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights… I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”
Excerpt from Letter from Birmingham City Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., 16 April, 1963
The two mule, wagon which carried the body of Martin Luther King, Jr., during his funeral on 9 April, 1968. Pulled by “Belle” and “Ada,” the wagon led a mourning crowd of over 200,000 people the 4.3 miles from Ebenezer Baptist Church to Morehouse College. Formerly used in old time prayer meetings, the wagon symbolised Dr King’s work among the poor.

Here we are at 501 Auburn Avenue, (yellow house) birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his boyhood home for his first 12 years. The house dates to 1895. Its 14 rooms were enough to house an extended family, which it did throughout Martin Luther King, Jr’s youth. At the time of King’s birth, the home belonged to his maternal grandparents – they lived downstairs, he, his siblings, and his parents upstairs. The arrangement was typical of families along Auburn Avenue.

Here we are at 501 Auburn Avenue, (yellow house) birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his boyhood home for his first 12 years. The house dates to 1895. Its 14 rooms were enough to house an extended family, which it did throughout Martin Luther King, Jr’s youth. At the time of King’s birth, the home belonged to his maternal grandparents – they lived downstairs, he, his siblings, and his parents upstairs. The arrangement was typical of families along Auburn Avenue.

While visiting the state capitol building in Nashville we got chatting for 10 minutes to a family from Illinois who were fascinated by our journey, coming all the way from St Helena. A few days later we received an email offering us a place to stay if we needed it when we reached their state.

These things happened up and down the country leaving me to draw the conclusion; people are essentially good, however, America within has simply lost its way and allowed mistrust to take root. It might seem an overly simple assessment, but there it is.

Today, as America marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day, there is usually an event at the National Historical Site in Atlanta, Georgia, which tends to attract a large crowd. This is a picture story of our own visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Historical Site in 2015.

The bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi at the entranceway to the Visitor Centre. The plaque reads: "Nonviolence, to be a potent force, must begin with the mind. Nonviolence of the mere body without the cooperation of the mind is nonviolence of the weak of the cowardly, and has, therefore, no potency. It is a degrading performance. If we bear malice and hatred in our bosoms and pretend not to retaliate, it must recoil upon us and lead to our destruction."--Gandhi

The bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi at the entranceway to the Visitor Centre. The plaque reads:
“Nonviolence, to be a potent force, must begin with the mind. Nonviolence of the mere body without the cooperation of the mind is nonviolence of the weak of the cowardly, and has, therefore, no potency. It is a degrading performance. If we bear malice and hatred in our bosoms and pretend not to retaliate, it must recoil upon us and lead to our destruction.”–Gandhi

(Many of the photo captions have text extracts taken from plaques on the exhibits and displays)

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