Who Are These Children Dressed in Red? Nonviolent Resistance and the Cost of Conscience

Narayan Desai taught us about nonviolent resistance in Birmingham, a city notoriously known as “Bombingham” because so many churches and homes were bombed by the forces of racism. We saw the parallels between Gandhi’s embrace of the risks of prison and police attacks, and the courage of Birmingham’s civil rights activists.

Police dogs lunge out of this sculpture to give people the feeling of fear that civil rights marchers faced. Terry Messman photo

by Terry Messman

 

In Birmingham, Alabama, the echoes of the civil rights movement can still be heard to this day, and the brave resistance movement that overcame the seemingly all-powerful system of segregation is a lasting blueprint of how a seemingly powerless people can overcome even the most powerful forms of injustice.

Since Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other civil rights leaders were so inspired by the message and nonviolent methods of Mohandas Gandhi, it was historically symbolic that Jim and Shelley Douglass, renowned peace activists and lifelong students of Gandhi, should have invited peace and justice activists from across the country to attend a retreat on Gandhian nonviolence in a Birmingham church in late March 2012.

My wife Ellen Danchik and I were among those who attended the three-day retreat with Narayan Desai, Gandhi’s closest living disciple and one of the very last living links to the momentous campaign of nonviolent resistance that liberated India from British rule.

But if we traveled to Alabama in search of new inspiration from Narayan Desai, and from visiting the historical sites of the civil rights movement in Birmingham and Montgomery, we left with a deep awareness of what can only be called “the cost of conscience.”

Jim and Shelley Douglass

Jim and Shelley Douglass have studied and exemplified Gandhian nonviolence for several decades. For many years, they lived in a resistance community near the Bangor Naval Base in the state of Washington, where they led a nonviolent campaign in resistance to the Trident submarine’s first-strike nuclear warheads. They went on to launch the White Train campaign which organized activists around the nation to hold nonviolent sit-ins on railroad tracks to block trains transporting nuclear weapons.

In recent years, Jim and Shelley formed Mary’s House, a Catholic Worker community in Birmingham, where they assist poor families and carry out peace activism. Jim Douglass is the author of such groundbreaking works on the theology of nonviolence as The Nonviolent Cross, Resistance and Contemplation, and most recently, JFK and the Unspeakable, and Gandhi and The Unspeakable, two books that analyze the powerful political forces behind these two assassinations.

It was highly meaningful to attend this retreat with such amazing activists as Bishop Tom Gumbleton, one of the leading peacemakers in the nation, and a man who has long been one of my personal heroes; courageous nonviolent activists Kathy Kelly and Bert Sacks, who were fined heavily for delivering medical supplies to Iraqi citizens victimized by the war; David and Jan Hartsough, lifelong nonviolent activists who exemplify the Quaker witness for peace and social justice; Ken Butigan, a nonviolent trainer and the director of Pace e Bene, a Franciscan peace group; Rose Berger, an editor of Sojourners magazine; Michael Nagler, co-founder of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at UC Berkeley and founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence; Patrick O’Neill of the National Catholic Reporter; and Father Louis Vitale, a Franciscan priest who has served several lengthy jail sentences recently for acts of civil disobedience in protest of American militarism.

In an interview after attending the retreat, David Hartsough said, “I personally think it was a great contribution to the movement for social justice that Jim Douglass brought together activists from throughout this country to spend a full weekend with this great disciple of Gandhi. Narayan Desai shared with all of us the spirit and the life and the important ideals that Gandhi not only taught, but lived.”

Narayan Desai, one of Gandhi’s closest friends and disciples, speaks at the Birmingham retreat on nonviolent resistance. Terry Messman photo

 

Hartsough said the retreat wasn’t merely a lesson in the past history of nonviolence, but rather an urgent and compelling invitation to explore how activists in America today can apply the lessons of Gandhian resistance to resisting injustice.

“Many of the people at the retreat are inspired by Gandhi and Martin Luther King in their own lives,” Hartsough said. “So meeting together and developing relationships helped us cross-fertilize by sharing our activist commitments. We explored how these different kinds of activism fit together as a way to try to help transform our own society.”

That was one of Jim Douglass’s intents for the retreat — encouraging today’s activists to consider how Gandhian nonviolence can deepen our own commitments to social justice. Douglass asked, “So who are we in relation to this question of carrying on this profound, nonviolent, transforming, satyagraha tradition of Gandhi? How are we going to explore the possibilities of transformation at the point where a national-security state will end, as it must. For all those reasons, I think we had a retreat that is life-challenging.”

Since Narayan Desai is now 87, we were aware that this might be his last trip to America. He traveled to Birmingham with his daughter, Sanghamitra (Uma) Gadekar, a medical doctor, and a nonviolent leader in her own right in the anti-nuclear power movement in India.

Douglass said afterwards that one of the most moving aspects of the retreat was seeing Narayan’s close relation with Uma, “whom he very lovingly describes as his daughter, his doctor and his director — or, smilingly, his dictator.” Douglass added, “They have both have huge gifts and such a beautiful relationship in a profoundly nonviolent and mutually illuminating way — illuminating for all of us.”

The Final Witness to Gandhi

Narayan Desai is the “ultimate, and, in a certain sense, the final witness to Gandhi,” Douglass said. Narayan is the son of Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s closest personal friend, biographer, and secretary.

Douglass said, “Narayan had this totally unique experience of Gandhi up to his death. He grew up in Gandhi’s ashram, he was the son of Gandhi’s secretary, and he played with Gandhi in the waters of the river near the ashram. And then he was also uniquely involved with Gandhi’s two greatest disciples, Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan.”

Narayan Desai worked alongside Vinoba Bhave in the land-gift movement, collecting voluntary donations of land from the rich and distributing it to poor, landless people. He worked with Jayaprakash in the Shanti Sena campaigns, the Indian peace brigades that sought to nonviolently end violent conflicts.

Later, Desai became the director of Shant Sena, and was involved in founding Peace Brigades International. He was elected chairman of War Resisters’ International, and has just completed a 2,300 page biography of Gandhi.

A Father-Son Closeness

As a child, Narayan Desai enjoyed a father-son closeness with Gandhi, or “Bapu,” as he called the leader of the Indian resistance movement.

At the retreat, Desai asked, “How was Gandhi’s relation to children? I can tell you, he was first and foremost our friend. Nothing more, nothing less. We came to swim with him. There were 56 years between me and him. But we went swimming, splashing water in his face and he would be facing us off and we thought, it was a good game!”

Satyagraha, the term Gandhi used to describe his experiments in nonviolent resistance, may be literally translated as “holding firm to truth.’ As Desai told us at the retreat, it can be translated as “truth force,” “soul force” and “love force.”

Desai reminded us that each of these three synonyms for satyagraha express nonviolence as a “force,” a forceful way of struggling, not some kind of peaceful passivity. Instead, Gandhi’s satyagraha campaigns were mounted as a nonviolent insurrection, a new form of rebellion that was based on love and truth and reverence for life, and yet a force powerful enough to defeat the might of the British Empire at its strongest.

A Force that Moves Mountains

In the United States, people often misconstrue nonviolence to mean the mere negation of violence. Yet Desai explained, “To Gandhi, nonviolence was an active force that could move mountains.”

Desai said that this was a crucial contribution Gandhi made to the concept of nonviolence. Until then, nonviolence was taken as something very passive and innocent. “Here, nonviolence was considered as a force that could change the world,” Desai explained. “After 1945, Gandhi said, nonviolence is the only force that can face nuclear weapons. He came right out and said that.”

Another groundbreaking contribution Gandhi made to our understanding of social-change movements is that revolutions need to both “raze an unjust system to the ground” while at the same time they “raise up something new.”

To transform society, movements must go beyond opposing injustices, and also launch what Gandhi called “the constructive program” to build alternative institutions and new economic models and thereby create a renewed and more equitable society that truly serves human life.

“Gandhi was one of the very few revolutionaries who talked about both the positive and negative sides of a revolution,” Desai said.

It is fairly easy for activists to see the injustices they want to raze to the ground. Desai said, “They see colonialism, they see imperialism, they see exploitation; they see color prejudice. They may see gender prejudice. And all that has to be removed — that’s clear. They also know something else may take its place, but that’s rather hazy, it’s not very clear.”

Revolutions and reform movements usually are so focused on overcoming an unjust system that little thought or effort is spent on developing a new, life-affirming vision — the constructive program.

“In Gandhi’s actions, both processes went hand in hand,” Desai said. “He wanted to fight against colonialism and change a system of violence, and in place of that, create a new system based on nonviolence. He started doing that while he was fighting against the violent system.”

3 Conditions for Resistance

Gandhi found that blindly striking out in an ill-considered, chaotic protest was too often futile. In Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns, there were three conditions for satyagraha to be conducted with integrity:

1. The cause must be just. Resistance to injustice must be rooted in truth and activists must check and cross-check their analysis of injustice. They must be open-minded and willing to change courses if that is where the truth leads.

2. Every action must have some expression of love. It may be called compassion, it may be mercy, it may be an expression of generosity. But actions must flow from love.

3. The nonviolent resister must be prepared for the most difficult kind of suffering, physical or mental.

This third point is a very difficult one for many U.S. activists to accept, or even consider. Desai’s declaration that satyagraha is also known as “love-force” is beautiful in its idealism; but when one considers the sacrifices it may demand, it can be terribly difficult and full of overwhelming hardships.

On his first night at the retreat, Desai said, “If we have enough faith in love, we are prepared to die for love. Faith in love makes us able to cope with the world’s concerns. Love force can change situations. It can move mountains. It can change the hardest of hearts.”

“Love force” is a beautiful way of describing a form of resistance that seeks to overcome systems of injustice through radical acts of dissent, rebellion and non-cooperation — yet acts nonviolently, lovingly, always honoring life as sacred. A form of resistance that is based on a reverence for life. What could be more lovely?

And yet, I kept hearing an echoing phrase all through the three-day retreat, an echo that became impossible to ignore after we left the retreat and visited the civil rights memorials in Birmingham and Mongomery.

The echo was a warning from Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.” Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker, discovered the truth of Dostoyevsky’s stark warning when she attempted to embody “love in action” on the cruel, unforgiving streets of New York City.

The Cost of Conscience

Love may move us to join a nonviolent movement, or start a Catholic Worker, and such a commitment is beautiful and inspiring — until one adds in the “cost of conscience.”

Consider the cost paid by Narayan Desai. Let me repeat what he told us at the retreat: “If we have enough faith in love, we are prepared to die for love.”

Narayan Desai was only a teenaged boy when his beloved father, Mahadev Desai, died in prison in 1942 while nonviolently resisting Britain’s unjust colonial rule of India. Mahadev Desai willingly gave his very life in the struggle for Indian independence, and in faithful service to his friend and leader, Gandhi.

In an interview, Jim Douglass said, “The British government took 22 days to inform Narayan and his mother that his father had died in prison, which was unconscionable. And how deep a blow it was to have that knowledge and to have it so late. It had a huge impact upon him.”

Yet Douglass explained that Mahadev Desai had freely given his life out of love for Gandhi. He was obeying Gandhi’s oft-repeated mantra that Indian resisters must be prepared to “do or die” for the cause of freedom and independence.

“This brings home the depth of Mahadev’s love for Gandhi because Mahadev understood something so profound that he gave his life for Gandhi’s life,” said Douglass. “Gandhi later said that Mahadev’s sacrifice was not a small thing, and said that his sacrifice is bound to hasten India’s day of liberation.”

Narayan was left fatherless because of this sacrifice in the name of “love-force.” Gandhi had always been his surrogate father, and Narayan also lived to see this beloved father figure — “Bapu” — assassinated in 1948 during the bitterly divisive and violent partition of India and Pakistan.

Narayan himself endured arrests and beatings during his own participation in satyagraha campaigns and his involvement in the Shanti Sena, the Indian peace brigades. Yet his perspective is that all these forms of suffering are to be celebrated, not regretted.

Douglass said, “At the heart of nonviolent transformation is the willingness to accept suffering. This is a perspective that we, as Americans, resist.”

Accepting Jail Joyfully

Douglass related that, even as a small boy, when his father was going to jail, Narayan accepted his father’s jail sentence joyfully, and would encourage him to get a longer sentence next time!

“That’s the perspective of Gandhi’s ashram,” Douglass explained. “As the various members of the ashram went off to long jail terms, their families hoped for longer jail terms. That is not our perspective, for the most part.”

This is not a matter of embracing suffering for its own sake. Nonviolent movements try to lessen the suffering of the world by resisting the deadly systems of militarism and economic oppression that cause untold suffering and deaths.

Even though nonviolent movements attempt to express reverence for life, the deeply entrenched enemies of social change are free to use every weapon in their arsenal against unarmed activists.

After all, Narayan was teaching us about nonviolent resistance in a city that was notoriously referred to as “Bombingham” because so many churches and homes of activists were bombed by the powerful forces of racism.

Douglass drew a parallel between Gandhi’s willing embrace of the risks of prison, beatings and even death, and the courage of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights activists of the South.

Douglass said, “Martin Luther King suffered the ultimate price as well. King was anticipating his death and seeing it as a necessary, transforming hope that something might be gained through the redemptive power of suffering.”

King was even able to see the deaths of four young girls in the bombing at the Baptist Church in Birmingham as having the potential to be redemptive.

Douglass said, “In his sermon at their funeral, King talked of redemptive suffering. That’s not an easy thing to talk about in the midst of parents who have just lost their children in a terribly evil attack. This is an understanding of nonviolence that I believe has something deeply to do with the Gospel, the Beatitudes and the witness of the crucifixion.”

King delivered a sermon at the funeral for three of the four girls on Sept. 18, 1963. It has come to be known as “Eulogy for the Martyred Children.”

Speaking only three days after their deaths, King said, “These children — unoffending, innocent, and beautiful — were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. And yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.”

In Kelly Ingram Park, this sculpture shows a child attacked by police and dogs during a civil rights march. Terry Messman photo

 

Then King described his belief in the redemptive power of unearned suffering, saying: “History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city.”

Birmingham Museum

Immediately after the retreat, Ellen and I went with David and Jan Hartsough and Ken Butigan to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a beautifully designed and extremely moving museum that shows the high costs paid by the Black community for their brave acts of resistance to the evil system of racial apartheid in the deep South.

The Birmingham museum is absolutely revelatory in conveying not only the history of the civil rights movement, but capturing the feeling of murderous racism transformed step by step, mile by mile, arrest by arrest, martyrdom by martyrdom, into human liberation.

I wish every American citizen would visit Birmingham and Montgomery to witness the cost of conscience suffered by activists in the civil rights era. It was a shockingly heavy price paid by principled nonviolent activists who were beaten, arrested, shot, attacked by police dogs and high-pressure firehoses, murdered in cold blood, and bombed, simply for taking part in a freedom movement that peacefully tried to end the tyranny of segregation.

We all know the story. It is a beautiful story, full of some of the most inspirational moments in American history. It is beautiful, like the song lyrics to “We Shall Overcome.” It is beautiful like “love in dreams.” But in Birmingham, one is forced to confront the “harsh and dreadful” reality of “love in action.”

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was created in 1992 to enshrine the Freedom Movement’s legacy of courage and confrontation. The museum has an uncanny power to take us back to the time when Black Americans threw off the chains of fear and placed their very lives on the line in resistance to a system of white supremacy so vicious and cruel that it even unleashed all the power of hate and violence and murder against children and ministers in prayer.

I have always admired the civil rights movement above all other movements. All the odds were against the Black community, who responded with so much perseverance, so much courage, so much love, even in the face of deadly assaults.

But when you tour the museum, arrest by arrest, martyr by maryr, murder by murder, you come to understand the overwhelming price that was paid. It shakes you to your core just to see how much was paid and how much was lost.

For many of us, Birmingham was a sacred space to study Gandhian nonviolence, a city sanctified by the unimaginable bravery of schoolchildren who defied fire hoses, attack dogs and police clubs, and ministers like Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth who endured beatings, arrests and the dynamiting of his home.

On Hallowed Ground

The Birmingham museum is located on hallowed ground, consecrated by the blood of martyrs. After we viewed news footage of police dogs attacking children marching nonviolently for civil rights, we looked out the large, floor-to-ceiling windows of the museum, right across the street at Kelly Ingram Park, a key staging area for the civil rights movement.

Kelly Ingram Park is the scene of one of the most publicized episodes in the civil rights movement. It is the park where Martin Luther King and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth led protests for voting rights and were attacked in a violent police raid ordered by Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor.

The shocking footage of activists and young children being viciously assaulted by police clubs and attack dogs sparked a nationwide public outcry. Martin Luther King later said that the news reports from Birmingham moved the nation as nothing else had, and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation in public spaces.

It was eerie and profoundly unsettling to view the familiar news footage of these violent attacks on unarmed demonstrators and then to look out the window at the very park where it had all happened. The museum has an amazing ability to make those days come alive so one can vividly feel the brutality that was endured — not just by seasoned activists — but by schoolchildren.

Inside that museum, our nation is still on trial. Those lasting images of brutality, and bravery in the face of brutality, have haunted me ever since we visited it.

In Kelly Ingram Park, sculptures by James Drake have frozen in time those moments of violence and courage so they will never be forgotten. We were struck silent by the stories etched in stone — sculptures of children behind jailhouse bars, declaring that they’re not afraid to go to jail. A sculpture of a policeman and his German Shepherd attacking a small, defenseless boy. One statue of Martin Luther King and another of children, both in the line of fire of high-powered water cannons mounted on tripods. A sculpture of three ministers kneeling in prayer.

One sculpture literally unleashes fear on the unsuspecting visitor as vicious dogs leap out of the walls, lunging and snapping at passers-by, evoking the moment when terror was unleashed on schoolchildren.

After seeing the sculptures, Jan Hartsough said, “What was very powerful was the sculpture in the park of the dogs lunging out of the frame. It was so real. It was very powerful. I thought they really captured the feeling and the terror of what that would be like.”

But the terror grew much worse in the following weeks. Across the corner from the museum is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. It was a meeting place and organizing center for civil rights activists, and many marches began with processions heading out of the church doors.

Birmingham Church Bombing Takes the Lives of Four Girls

In the early morning hours on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted a box of dynamite under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. At about 10:22 a.m., an explosion ripped through the church, killing four young girls, ages 11 to 14, and injuring 23 more. The bomb exploded just before the 11:00 a.m. church service began. The scheduled sermon that Sunday was entitled, “The Love That Forgives.”

The cost of conscience is shown in this sculpture in a Birmingham park where schoolchildren show their willingness to go to jail. Terry Messman photo

 

Martin Luther King showed the nation what those words truly mean, when he spoke of forgiveness and the redemptive power of suffering at the girls’ funeral three days later. The Love that Forgives.

The bombing ended the lives of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robinson and Denise McNair. The museum does a remarkable job of telling who those girls were and how their families and friends felt about them.

Full of Plans for a Future That Would Never Come

The museum’s multimedia displays tell the stories of their lives at home and at school, portraying their youthful dreams and hopes. The exhibits somehow take these girls out of their historic role as martyrs and tragic heroines, and brings them alive again so we can see the young ladies that their parents and friends must have known — smiling and sunny and happy and all excited and full of plans for a future that would never come.

Then we are confronted by the explosion that destroyed those young lives. It is all the more heartbreaking because we have previously been given a concrete picture of who they really were — not martyrs for the ages, but kids with their whole lives in front of them.

The story of those four young girls haunted me after our visit for many weeks. I had long known the story of this infamous bombing, but the Birmingham museum described their young lives so vividly that you could see their youthful happiness, their hopes for the future, their love of their families.

All of that was erased, irrevocably shattered by the hate-filled violence of the bombers. While learning about their lives at the exhibits, I tried so hard not to be overcome, because this museum is about the way the civil rights movement defeated the forces of violence and hatred and racism. I know that we’re supposed to “keep our eyes on the prize.”

But I just couldn’t. I brought back to my mind the way Dr. King consoled their parents, saying that these girls died nobly, as “the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.”

But I just couldn’t feel that way, no matter how I tried. I couldn’t help it. I wept.

Maybe it’s because I’m a parent of three children, and each of them is sacred to me for a thousand different reasons. My son Daniel and daughters Ariel and Alyssa contain all of the meaning of my life, all of my love, all of my memories.

And those girls’ parents had the same feelings and the same memories. And then their daughters were annihilated for no reason. Why were those particular girls chosen to suffer for the racism of adults? Why were their families left bereft and heartbroken, with an anguish no parent should have to experience?

Martyrs in Montgomery

The next morning, we traveled to Montgomery and visited the Civil Rights Memorial created by the Southern Poverty Law Center in remembrance of 40 martyrs murdered in the civil rights struggle.

The museum tour begins with a film about those martyred in the struggle for equal rights, and has multimedia displays so you can hear about the lives and deaths of each of the 40 martyrs. Once again, we heard the stories of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robinson and Denise McNair. I wept again. I could not find any peace.

We walked outside to see the permanent memorial created by Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The memorial is a large circular black granite sculpture with the names of each of the 40 martyrs engraved in stone, while a thin sheet of ever-flowing water continually washes over their names. On the wall is a scriptural passage from Amos often cited by Martin Luther King: “Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Visitors are encouraged to touch the engraved names. I touched the names of Addie, Cynthia, Carole and Denise, and then went around the circle to the engraved name of the final martyr: Martin Luther King, assassinated in Memphis.

The night before, I kept being haunted by a song sung by Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert, “Harriet Tubman.” The song honors the life of Harriet Tubman — the Moses who traveled the South rescuing slaves, throwing them a lifeline and freeing them on the Underground Railroad.

“Hundreds of miles we traveled onward

Gathering slaves from town to town

Seeking every lost and found

Setting those free that once were bound.”

“Setting those free that once were bound” — that is also an eloquent description of the civil right movement.

The song has an absolutely astonishing ending, a vision of a procession of martyrs, an image that will always bring to my mind the memories of the martyred daughters of Birmingham.

“Who are these children dressed in red?

They must be the ones that Moses led.”

In my mind’s eye, I saw the children dressed in red in a procession, and I had a haunting image of a long procession of martyrs on the streets of heaven, and at the very front of that march are those four young girls, and Rev. Martin Luther King, still witnesses to the freedom struggle and the violence that took their innocent lives.

Marchers dressed all in red — the color of martyrdom, the color of blood.

That night, unable to sleep, I kept hearing the song’s disturbing question:

“Who are these children dressed in red?

They must be the ones that Moses led.”

In my half-sleep, the last word kept changing from Moses to Martin:

“Who are these children dressed in red?

They must be the ones that Martin led.”

For Martin had indeed led the marches from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church across the street to Kelly Ingram Park. And Martin paid the cost of conscience himself — arrested, jailed, his own house bombed, until finally he shared the martyrdom of the children dressed in red.

A Visit to MLK’s Church

So there was only one place to go next — Martin Luther King’s own church, the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. But we had come to Montgomery on a Monday, a day when the church is closed and locked to all visitors.

By some unimaginable coincidence, Bettina Vernon happened to drive up to the church just as we were about to leave. Bettina is the church’s tour director, and even though she wasn’t supposed to give us a tour on this off day, she graciously invited us into the closed church anyway.

Then Bettina, who turned out to be as eloquent and knowledgeable as she was warm and friendly, gave us one of the most exceptional tours I have ever experienced. She showed us the large mural of King on the first floor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and pointed out every single one of the scores of civil rights activists portrayed in the mural.

One amazing image on the mural shows an angelic visitation to Martin in the jail cell where he wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Martin’s winged visitor comes through the jail bars and hands him a piece of paper with an inscribed Biblical passage: “Blessed are you when men persecute and revile you.”

Bettina Vernon then took us on an overwhelmingly poignant tour of the rest of this church where Rev. Martin Luther King was a pastor. This church was to become the cradle of the civil rights movement when the first meetings to plan the Montgomery bus boycott were held.

The Cradle of Civil Rights

The civil rights movement really began in Montgomery in 1955 when the entire black community showed the world what dedication and solidarity could really mean. They walked, they prayed, they went to jail, they boycotted the bus system for an entire year, and they toppled the segregated bus system with one of the most brilliant and persevering nonviolent campaigns in American history.

The boycott began on Dec. 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to go to the back of the bus, and lasted until Dec. 20, 1956, when the courts ruled that laws requiring segregated buses were unconstitutional. Martin Luther King was there at the foundation as a planner of the bus boycott, and his church was a co-conspirator in the Freedom Movement.

I was overawed to see the pulpit where King preached, where he baptized, where he urged his congregation onward in the struggle for freedom, where he began to become a prophet.

We went upstairs and entered King’s private study. On April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination, King said that he had received many threats on his life. But he said he was no longer fearing any man, because “I have been to the mountaintop.”

I’ve always been amazed by his clairvoyance in saying the following words: “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.”

King’s Clairvoyant Vision

I’ve always been so awestruck at the prophetic vision contained in those words and so heartbroken they came true the very next day. The day after uttering those words, King was assassinated in Memphis.

How did Martin know? Because God had let him go up to the top of the mountain and look over at the promised land.

So with all that in mind, it struck me so deeply to see on Martin’s desk in his private study, a copy of Ebony magazine. It was the May 1968 issue of Ebony, the issue that came out right after his death, with a cover photo of Martin and his words: “I’ve been to the mountaintop.”

I was devastated and overcome to see that. I imagined I saw Martin’s spirit come into his study in May 1968, a month after his murder, to prepare a sermon, as he had so many times in the past. Then he sees the May 1968 Ebony magazine quoting from his speech, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.”

Martin looks around his study one last time, and he knows he gave everything anyone ever could in the quest for justice, and to fulfill God’s will. Greater love has no man than this, that he lays down his life for his brothers and his sisters.

All I could do was send a prayer of thanks to Martin Luther King, and thank God for letting me see his church. I carried away the haunting image of that magazine on the desk of his study, the May 1968 Ebony, the issue he never got to see while still in his physical being on this earth.

I told Bettina Vernon, the wonderful woman who gave us the tour, that this was one of the most joyful days of my life.

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