Pursuing the Dream: The Civil Rights Trail


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A statue of Martin Luther King stands in front of the Georgia state capitol in Atlanta.

SENIOR LIFE Irv Green

At first glance it’s an unassuming little church, one that befits a small town in central Georgia. Along with about 20 other people, I walk through the arched doorway. A woman hands me a sheet of paper.
Martin Luther King gave his first public speech during an oratory contest in the First African Baptist Church of Dublin, Ga.“Inside this building it is April 17, 1944,” she says. “Here in the First African Baptist Church of Dublin, we’re having an oratory contest. We will all attend that contest, and you will each play the part of the person whose name is on the paper I gave you.”
She pauses and smiles broadly. “One of the contestants is a fifteen-year-old boy named Martin Luther King. The speech he gave on this day was the first public speech of his career.”
King did well in the competition, but it wasn’t his speech, titled “The Negro and the Constitution,” that changed the course of history. It was what happened afterwards.
I look at my paper. I’m to play the part of Sarah Bradley, the teacher who accompanied King to the competition. I stand up when my name is called. I tell about our bus ride back to Atlanta, how Martin and I were told “by the brutish driver” to move to the back of the bus to make room for a group of white passengers, and how Martin resisted but when I pleaded with him not to make a scene, he eventually moved with me to the back. It was, I say, the angriest he had ever been and a moment that would stick with him forever.
Later, back as my own self — a simple visitor to Dublin rather than a chaperone at an oratory contest — I realize that it was here that Martin Luther King began to formulate his dream to “one day live in a nation where [people] will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
The fight for civil rights was brought into sharper focus in January 2018 with the launching of the United States Civil Rights Trail. Spanning more than 100 sites in 15 states plus the District of Columbia, it showcases places that played significant roles during the Civil Rights Movement of the Fifties [when the first large demonstration against segregation took place in Montgomery] and the Sixties [when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis]. By the Seventies, the fight for equality had shifted to a new phase, one that hopefully will be explored in a future Civil Rights Trail.
The sites include well-known places, such as Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., where nine teenagers were refused entrance to an all-white high school, as well as less familiar places such as Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, Kan., where segregationist policies led to the Supreme Court decision that legally ended racial segregation in the United States [Brown v. Board of Education].
In 1944, Martin Luther King, then 15, delivered a speech from this podium during a state-wide oratory contest.I begin my exploration of the Civil Rights Trail in Atlanta, the city where Martin Luther King was born and where he was living with his wife and children when, having gone on a quick trip to Memphis to give a speech, he was assassinated.
At The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, I tour his Birth House, visit the church where he was baptized, and spend a quiet moment sitting by the reflecting pool that surrounds his tomb, and that of his wife, Coretta Scott King.
A three-hour drive brings me to Albany, Ga., where a group of young teens used music to publicize and win support for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Rutha Mae Harris, now 76 years old, and the only one of the original Freedom Singers who still performs regularly, enters a small auditorium, flashes a megawatt smile, and tells us how folksinger Pete Seeger realized that the group’s heartfelt songs, which were often derived from familiar hymns or spirituals, would help spread the movement’s message to folks across the nation.
Within the next year, the teens travelled to 46 of the then 48 states, singing songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine.” They performed alone, with Seeger, and eventually with other well-known entertainers, such as Peter, Paul and Mary, John Denver, and Bob Dylan.
Rutha Mae Harris, the last of the original Freedom Singers who is still able to perform regularly, tells people about the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.Rutha pauses and takes a deep breath. Her voice fills the room. Shivers run up my spine as this woman belts out songs that show how courageous leaders and ordinary people fought, prayed and yes, sang to win equal rights for all people. Her voice is powerful, her passion undeniable.
At the end of my tour, with the songs of the Freedom Singers still ringing in my ears, my thoughts go back to that time nearly 75 years ago when a 15-year-old boy and his teacher were forced to the back of the bus. Today, in front of Dublin’s First Baptist Church of Dublin, a giant wall painting shows a young girl who, by blowing on a dandelion, an ancient symbol of hope, expresses her wish that Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream will continue to inspire future generations.
For more information about these destinations and others on the Civil Rights Trail, see “Napkin Notes” on traveltizers.com.