By Ernie McCray
I’ve been dealing with some back issues but a trip to Atlanta, especially moments I spent in a church basement there, got me standing as tall as I can.
Being in Atlanta, a Black Mecca, made me rejoice in just being black and alive.
I mean there were people who looked like me everywhere I trained my eyes: in the airport, in front of and behind counters; serving and being served; pushing wheelchairs and being pushed in wheelchairs; announcing flights and boarding flights – in the hotel doing every job there is to be done in the hotel industry.
I had never seen, upon entering an eatery, so many dark-skinned waiters and maître d’s.
I’d never seen so many streets with black folks’ names on the street sign.
I had never seen so many members of my ethnicity walking tall and proud, as though they “belonged,” on an American street, and I’ve walked, now that I’ve been to Georgia, streets in every state in the USA. And the people I saw represented the full gamut of humanity from down and out to top of the business and entertainment and athletic and political world.
What a high. I felt that I belonged too, like I had traveled “home” in some cosmic kind of way, a feeling I once experienced long ago when I set foot in Dakar, Senegal, on a trip there and to other West African countries: Liberia, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast.
It’s hard to describe how you feel inside when you come close to your roots, to places where your lineage might have begun.
That feeling of connection, however, was abruptly interrupted by a little wiry fast moving white woman who was loudly scolding several black airport workers, on the run, for being worthless and lazy…
Hey, you win some and you lose some. And who knows, they might have been worthless and lazy but as loud as their boss was they must also now be deaf.
On that trip I sat in a holding cell, off the coast of Dakar, on Gorée Island, trying to wrap my head around what it must have been like for ancestors like mine, during those times, who were stacked like cattle on sea vessels that gave them hints of how they were going to be treated when they arrived in the Americas.
That experience was overwhelming and reaffirming to me at the same time, just knowing that a people could be treated so inhumanely and then give birth to descendants like all the beautiful soul brothas and sistas in Atlanta who stretched out in all directions before me as living examples of the sentiments embedded in Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.” So many black Atlantans’ eyes are focused very much on the prize: liberty and justice for all.
That being said it’s hard for me to imagine a white person dressing down a black person in Atlanta, or dressing down a brown person, or a yellow or red person, or an immigrant of any color, as diversity in the city stands out like a beautiful sunset on a bright and clear day – with white people seeming to be the ones blending in. Quite well it appears, I might say. It’s an uplifting sight to see. Breathtaking.
But nothing was as awe-inspiring to me on my stay in Atlanta as walking into Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King’s house of worship.
I had to, right away, cast out a sudden memory that Martin’s mother, Alberta King, was shot and killed there as she played the organ for church service one fateful Sunday morning – just down the street from her house where she and Martin Luther King Sr loved and raised a wise and beautiful man.
And when I went downstairs to the basement, where he and his inner circle (Joseph Lowery, Wyatt Tee Walker, Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Bayard Rusten, Julian Bond, et al…) would gather and put their heads and hearts together to seek solutions to a people’s deferred and denied hopes and dreams – well, just standing in the space suddenly brought on an onslaught of emotions in me of both sadness and joy like a flash flood causing a river to rise.
I could hear their conversations about how they were going to deal with certain situations: how to stay peaceful when you’re at your wit’s end; how to take on
Eugene “Bull” Connor with his firehoses and vicious dogs and a hatred for black people that would never end; how to secure voting rights.
I could see Martin sitting there with his fellow activists, caught up in a civil rights movement that counted heavily on him and them, playing with words in his mind that would lead to the powerful beautiful poetic phrases that he used to mesmerize us in his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
I couldn’t help but stand tall, bad back and all, in a basement where people met to consider the making of a better world.
I left there that day fully committed, as I’ve been all along, to making Martin’s dream a reality but I’ll be doing so with renewed energy because of my brief moments in a historic basement that awakened the very depths of my spirituality.