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The Children of Dr. King: Living with the Legacy

Living with the Legacy Martin Luther King Children 1985This article originally appeared in our January 1985 issue.

My father was sent to do a very specific job. . . . He was a God-sent man and when his work was done he moved on higher. . . . —Yolanda Denise King

“I hate the man who killed my daddy.” That’s what 12-year old Yolanda King said to her mother several hours after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. As they sat on the bed in Coretta Scott King’s dimly lit bedroom, the widow of the slain civil rights leader gathered all her courage and compassion and told her oldest child, “Your daddy wouldn’t want you to (hate the man).” With tears streaming down her face, Yolanda looked at her mother and said, “I’m not going to cry, I’m just not going to cry, because my daddy is really not dead and one day I’m going to see him again – in heaven.” Mrs. King put her arms around Yolanda and said, “Your daddy would be so proud of you.”

Earlier that day, April 4, 1968, at 6:01 p.m., as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, leaning slightly forward talking to someone below, a Remmington-Peters soft-point, metal-jacket bullet, fired from a high-velocity .30-06 rifle, entered the right side of Dr. King’s face, one inch to the right of and one inch below his mouth. The bullet fractured his jaw, exited the lower part of his face and reentered his body in the neck area. The disintegrating shell severed numerous vital arteries, fractured King’s spinal column in several places and came to rest on the left side of his back. A few hours later, at St. Joseph’s Hospital, he died.

In Atlanta, Yolanda had been watching the news on television while her brothers, Martin III and Dexter, and sister Bernice, played in the spacious, five-bedroom King home on Sunset Street, near Morris Brown College. There was a story on the news about the speech her father had given the previous night in Memphis, where he had gone to participate in a strike of that city’s garbage collectors. “He looked sad,” Yolanda recalls. “His eyes were somewhere else, he looked removed, there was a detachment I had never seen before.”

Shortly after the broadcast was over, a special bulletin aired announcing that King had been shot. Yolanda screamed and ran into the room where her mother was already getting the news by telephone from Jesse Jackson. Yolanda went to her room to pray: “Please don’t let my daddy die.”

‘It’s Real Bad’

Sixteen years later Coretta King is sitting in her spacious office, with its panoramic view of the courtyard of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change. She is busily opening correspondence with an ebony letter opener and trying to eat a quick meal before rushing off to a meeting. She is recalling, for the sake of a reporter, the day her husband died.

“It seemed like all the children came in at the same time, just after I got the first call from Jesse. . . . Jesse calling me first was kind of odd in a way, because I wasn’t that close to Jesse. . . . With no tact, he said, ‘Mrs. King, Doc just got shot and you better catch the first thing smokin’ to Memphis.’ A few minutes later. Andy (Young) telephoned and asked, ‘Coretta, did you hear about Martin? … Well I’ll tell you, it’s real bad, but he’s alive and you need to come right away.’ “Mrs. King sighs softly, remembering. “Just the fact that Andy had to mention that and there was something in his voice, I said to myself, ‘This is probably it.'”

That was “it.”

And with the last breath exhaled from King’s body, the wind left the sails of the civil rights movement, a people were without a leader, a country had lost its provocateer of social justice and the world was absent one of the most inspirational men of this century.

But in addition, in a more private way, four children, ages 12, 10, 7 and 5, had lost their father.

Mrs. King has pursued her late husband’s dream of racial harmony. But it is the children who have had to work out how to incorporate their father’s social and spiritual legacy into their own lives. “We were able to convey to the children that what their daddy was doing was important,” Mrs. King says, “in the sense that he was doing God’s work and that he was helping people. . . . Going to jail became a badge of honor, rather than disgrace for them. They thought what Daddy was doing was noble because of the way it was explained.”

An Impressive History

Dr. King was continuing, albeit magnified, the leadership-role endemic to his family. Yolanda, Marty, Dexter and Bunny are not the prodigy of some poor obscure son of a black family from Georgia and his Alabama farm girl bride. They are the inheritors of three generations of family history steeped in service and community stature.

Their paternal great-grandfather, the Rev. A.D. Williams, founded Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1894 and was its pastor until his death in 1931. Under his leadership, and later the pastorate of their paternal grandfather, the late Martin Luther King, Sr., “Daddy” King, the congregation grew to more than 4,000 members. The church became a bedrock of Auburn Avenue, that isle of economic, social and cultural enterprise for the South’s blacks during the segregated first two-thirds of this century.

Daddy King, as he was universally called, led the fight for equal pay for black and white teachers in Atlanta, wouldn’t ride on the city’s segregated buses and helped eliminate Jim Crow elevators in the local courthouse. He passed away in November, following a lifetime of civil rights service.

On their mother’s side, the King children’s great-grandfather, Jeff Scott, owned the 300-acre farm near Marion, Alabama, on which their mother was born. Their maternal grandparents, Obadiah and Bernice Scott, were the proprietors of a small trucking firm, a gas station, a grocery store and a chicken farm around Marion. They sent their daughter Coretta to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where her sister had been the first black to integrate the school. Coretta would meet M.L. King, as he was called then, in 1962, while they were both pursuing postgraduate work in Boston: she at the New England Conservatory of Music while he was studying for a doctorate at Boston University.

The international fame of their father might have left the King children haughty. It has not. They are humble people, who do without the trappings of celebrity. There are no limousines, no bodyguards and no swollen egos. Yolanda, Marty, Dexter and Bernice grew up in the same house that their parents purchased 25 years ago and where their mother still lives with Bernice.

Although Dr. King spent much of his time traveling, he was very close to his children. “Martin always set aside time for family outings,” Mrs. King remembers “We’d go bowling, we’d swim in Herman Russell’s indoor pool and we’d attend the annual Southeastern Fair. He was able to convey to the children that they were a priority. . . . They always felt that Daddy loved them.

“They had a lot of fun with him,” she says as a faint smile crosses her face, “He was not the one to discipline them. Unfortunately, I had to be the disciplinarian and do most of the teaching on how they were to behave. . . . I often felt that Martin was so deprived in one sense; he loved children so much, he wanted to have eight. . . . ”

After the assassination, “It was hard,” Mrs. King says. “For a while, the children were afraid when I would go someplace.” Once, 5-year-old Bernice pleaded with her mother not to go to the bank. “Don’t go, don’t do!, you might get shot,” she said. “Later. . . “Mrs. King continues, “when I started traveling more, I asked them if they were afraid. They said ‘Well not really because you always come back.’ That helped reassure me. But once Marty told me, as I was preparing to go to Charleston, South Carolina: ‘I understand about you having to do Daddy’s work and all that, but sometimes I wish I had two Mommies, one to write books and do Daddy’s work and one to stay home with us.’ They understood,” Mrs. King says, “But it was painful.”

Not only did Yolanda, Marty, Dexter and Bernice understand, they picked up the gauntlet and joined what in the 1980s is the silent struggle for social equality. Although the tools they employ are as different as their personalities and appearances, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change, which started in the basement of their home and is now housed in an $8 million complex adjacent to Ebenezer, is the common skewer that binds them to their father’s goals.

“I don’t have any choice in my involvement at the center.” Twenty-eight year- old Yolanda makes the observation over dinner at the Mansion Restaurant, the candlelight in the dimly lit room reflecting off her glasses. Pushing her long corn-rowed braids aside, she says, “We didn’t hear about being responsible, we saw it everyday.”

Next page: Balancing a legacy with personal dreams

Yolanda’s business card manifestly displays her “involvement.” It lists her as an actress/director/lecturer. The order of the listing is indicative of how she characterizes herself. Yolanda is one of those rare people who have known, since early childhood, what she wanted to do when she grew up. She wrote her first play when she was 7 years old, “a rags to riches story about a queen . . . with absolutely no plot.” She continued to write plays, finding would-be stars in the neighborhood children. “By the time I was 12, I had decided to be an artist.”

Yolanda’s official responsibility at the center is director of the Cultural Affairs Institute. Several years ago she established a New York-based theatrical company with Attallah Shabazz, daughter of the slain Black Muslim Malcolm X. Yolanda splits her time between New York and her Midtown Atlanta home.

“I want to produce my own work,” she says, “to do the kind of roles that are meaningful and educational for blacks. There is no substance, no worth in things being produced today. . . . There is no message or meaning and it can be destructive, demeaning and not healthy. Broadway musicals like Ain’t Misbehavin’, Eubie and Bubblin’ Brown Sugar depict blacks having a light, wonderful time and that was just not so for blacks in the ’20s and ’30s.”

The Struggle

Her theatrical company breaks even, more or less, and she reaps no salary from the King Center. She earns much of her income by delivering lectures around the country. “There are things that need to be said. It’s imperative that we keep talking about the struggle for civil rights and tell the story of who we are and our heritage. Black youth, in general, have no understanding of our past. Young black people who don’t know who Martin Luther King Jr. was, don’t know nothin’. You have to know where you’ve been, to know where you’re going.”

There are expectations when you’re the child of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps of nobody quite as much as Marty, who was once introduced by a jubilant master of ceremony as “Martin Luther King Jr. III.”

“When I was younger, I had problems signing autographs. I didn’t know why anyone would want my signature. Then someone explained the legacy. A stranger told me, ‘I always wanted your father’s autograph and now I can’t get it, so I would like yours.’ After that I began to accept it.”

Marty relates the anecdote in his sparsely furnished office at the King Center, where he recently had been appointed vice president and director of the center’s Youth Programs project. At 26, he has the cuddly physique of an overgrown teddy bear. With meticulously manicured full beard and close-cropped hair, he has inherited the soft round features of his mother’s face.

Although Marty describes himself as a “timid” child, he is intrepid about giving his views: “Today, it’s even more difficult to motivate black people than it was in the ’60s,” he says, “though issues are there.” Universities in Georgia are insensitive to the needs of blacks, he claims.

Reality

Marty’s Youth Program is designed to teach young blacks how to lead and confront issues affecting their communities. “Leaders need . . . training and direction. . . . I don’t know if we’ll (blacks) ever need one leader again. Certainly, we’re all looking for that one messiah, but I don’t think it’s going to be about that. The greatest leadership is a . . . collective body. A whole conglomerate of different persons. Because what happens is, if there is one leader and something happens to him, the whole movement dissipates.”

Marty speaks often of the spiritual essence, strength, resolve and responsibility implicit in working for social equality. At times he sounds more like a minister, than a social activist. Even though his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were ministers, he says there was no family pressure to enter the pulpit. But, he adds, “Sometimes God calls you and your ears are closed.”

“Marty could identify with his father,” says Mrs. King. “He was with Martin a great deal and went to St. Augustine, Florida, where he saw Klansmen in their robes every night.” Marty recalled the 1964 trip and vividly remembers a black man being severely beaten.

When Dr. King was assassinated, Marty had some sense of the violence of the civil rights movement. He had seen it. “But Bunny (Bernice) and Dexter were greatly affected by the assassination,” Mrs. King says. “They were so young.”

Bernice readily admits that her memory of her father is a series of vague recollections clarified by her mother, sister and brothers. She was only 5 years old when Dr. King was killed. “But sometimes,” Bernice says, “it seems as if it was only yesterday. It worries me that I didn’t get to know him. My birthday falls a week before the day he was shot. . . . It still bothers me, especially on Father’s Day. I try to keep busy. It’s a rough thing to deal with, especially when people criticize his policies. I say ‘Look, I lost a father because he was out there risking his life to help blacks.’ ”

At 21, Bernice is blunt, forthright and unpretentious; Clad in beige shorts, white pullover top and sandals, she says her studies at Spelman College, where she is a senior psychology major, have kept her from being as “involved” as Marty and Yolanda. With her feet propped up against a desk in an idle office of the King Center, she says, “I don’t know what my role will be, but I will be helping, I know that. I want to become a member of the board (of directors) and go from there. Yolanda and I talked about me being president of the center when Mother is gone. I can’t remember what I said, but the gist was I didn’t think so. I don’t like to be at the top. I’d rather work in the background. . . . ”

Although Bernice says she would rather “work in the background,” the path she has traveled and her future goals are a prelude to leadership. She has attended four Democratic National Conventions, has made several speeches before various groups, has addressed the United Nations and she plans to become a lawyer: “I want to help those black brothers and sisters who don’t get a fair chance in the criminal courtroom.”

“Bernice wants to attend a major university, a fully integrated one, where she can pursue a masters degree in divinity while she gets her law degree. “I need to get a taste of that. Sometimes I build up prejudices, dislikes for whites (and that’s not right), we’re all the same, we’re all human.”

Bernice says she feels no pressure from being the daughter of Dr. King. “I am trying to establish myself. I’m Bernice and accept me as Bernice.”

Pressure

Dexter has also felt the pressure of being a King. “There is pressure,” he says. “My father was placed here for a special reason and I am the fruit of his labor. I have something personal to do that I cannot run from or I’ll be running forever.”

Named after the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, his father’s first pastorate, at 23 Dexter is the least known of the King siblings. But he is the possessor of most of Dr. King’s outward characteristics: facial features, resonant voice and the melodic cadence of speech that stirred the nation to action. “There are those who have even said I am his reincarnation. . . . But I feel that no one, including myself, can be another Martin Luther King Jr.”

Dexter is a senior at Morris Brown College. After he gets his business finance degree, he wants to pursue an MBA or law degree. “I’m preparing myself academically, mentally, emotionally and physically. . . . No one will listen,” he says, “unless you set an example and prove yourself worthy of a leadership role. That’s one of the things that made my father so effective, in the sense of touching so many people universally.

Dressed in a light blue jump suit, with sunglasses, sandals, pipe and portable phone, Dexter does not exactly incite visions of community service or social justice. But in a small waiting area of the center’s board room, he methodically voiced how he will contribute to the fruition of his father’s work. “The Poor Peoples’ March on Washington in 1968 is where my father left off. That was an economic approach toward helping poor people. . . . I want to utilize entrepreneurship, the business spirit to carry on in that perspective.”

Several weeks after Dr. King’s assassination, Mrs. King says, she overheard a conversation between “Bunny” and Dexter. “Daddy’s going up to heaven and his spirit’s alive,” Bernice told her brother. Dexter remembers those moribund days and recalls what Andrew Young told him that eased some of the anguish of Dr. King’s death. Your father did not die in pain, he told the youngster. The Lord took him in a peaceful way. “That made me feel a little better,” Dexter says. “The strength of the family has surpressed or cancelled any hatred . . . . You cannot let anyone cause you to stoop so low that you hate them . . . .

Yolanda, Marty, Dexter and Bernice were innately influenced by a man who provided the spirit of a movement destined to affect Americans for: generations to come, who spoke words such as these, in 1963, from Letter From Birmingham Jail: “When you suddenly find your.· tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your 6-year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a 5-year-old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean? … ‘ ”

“Each of us has a role,” Marty says. “All four of us are destined to be involved.” Although Dr. King’s death left a tremendous void, he also left behind a mighty legacy: his ideals; his accomplishments; and Yolanda, Marty, Dexter and Bernice.

Leaders and Landmarks

This article originally appeared in our May 1981 issue.

When Donald L. Hollowell settled in Atlanta in 1951, with his law degree from Loyola University and his honorable discharge as Captain from the U.S. Army, he could enter the courthouse through the front door—but couldn’t eat in the cafeteria. If he rode a bus, he had to sit in the last few rows—or stand. Like all other blacks (or “Negroes” in the style of those days), he could not be served at the airport or any downtown restaurant or spend the night at an Atlanta hotel. He and his family were not permitted to use a city swimming pool or the public library.

The list of restrictions was endless.

And it was the law.

“Racial segregation was the order of the day,” he recalls, sitting at his desk in his tenth floor office in the Citizens Trust Building, where he now serves as regional attorney for the Atlanta office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). “It permeated every facet of life outside the home and, therefore, within the home.”

Hollowell grew up in Kansas, where there was little racial segregation. During part of his first and third grade years, he was in segregated classes. But, as he explains, “There were not enough blacks in [his hometown in] Kansas to warrant special schools—or special facilities of any kind, for that matter. Beyond elementary school, nothing was segregated.” (Ironically, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing public school segregation originated in Hollowell’s home state, not the rigidly segregated South.)

Hollowell was not a stranger to the South. As a member of the football, basketball and track teams of  Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, he had visited many Southern cities, including Atlanta. During World War II, he had been stationed for a time at Ft. Benning and had visited Atlanta frequently. He had experienced the daily hardships of a racially segregated society.

Why, then, did a young black lawyer starting his professional career choose a city where schools, housing, public accommodations, jobs, medical care, churches—everything—were strictly segregated?

It was partly happenstance. His family had moved to California during the War, and he had no real ties back in Kansas. His wife Louise, a native Georgian, had stayed in Atlanta while Hollowell was fighting in Europe. Her mother, who lived with them, opposed a move to California. But the decision to remain in Atlanta went deeper than convenience.

“I recognized that the bulk of the culture of the black people grew out of the South, and also I saw an opportunity for service. There were only ten black attorneys in Atlanta at the time, and, as far as I knew, there were none outside Atlanta. We heard about a black lawyer down in Savannah, but I was never able to find him,” Hollowell recalls.

Atlanta had the need; Hollowell had the skills. Was it possible for a black lawyer to practice in the South as a lawyer, not as a black lawyer? He consulted with both whites and blacks in the area. Their consensus was a definite maybe. It was possible, they told him.

Hollowell never doubted that it was, and his 30-year legal career has been guided by that conviction. He is first and foremost a legal craftsman, working within the system, prodding it to correct itself, but never straying outside of it.

Even during the early Fifties in the Deep South, Hollowell’s insistence on being accorded the respect due a lawyer has served him well. “I never let anybody treat me otherwise,” he says simply. “In practicing law, there are only limited situations where there might be a suggestion of racial overtones. In the courtroom there are set procedures and everybody knows them. There is an aura of respect about lawyers. Bailiffs, sheriffs, judges, all come to recognize you if you’re a person with some skill.

“There were times,” he adds, “when people didn’t do that. Sometimes I had to deal with them directly, but in most circumstances, you may call upon the court, the judge himself, to correct the ‘mistakes’—invoke the sovereign presence of the court, so to speak.

“There were many, of course, who gave less than a damn about who you were or what you did if your skin was black, but looking back at all the places we went all over the South, there were surprisingly few. There were some threats of violence, some phone calls, but no instances of real violence. No crosses burned.

“There is a kind of protection that comes from being associated with the law,” Hollowell explains. And from consistently conducting oneself with personal dignity, he might add.

So in 1951, he settled in Atlanta, passed the Georgia Bar exam and began to practice law in association with Cassandra Maxwell, who had recently moved to Atlanta from South Carolina, where she had been the first black female to be admitted to the bar.

At that time, there was hardly a crack in the fortified wall of segregation. Black police officers had been hired a few years earlier but were given no authority to arrest whites. Schools and colleges, public and private, were strictly segregated by race. There was no black official in City government nor any black elected to the State legislature. The Metropolitan Opera sang primarily to whites only (with a few blacks in the top gallery). The only desegregated hospital was operated by the Veterans Administration. Grady Memorial Hospital required anyone calling for emergency service to designate the race of the victim; strictly segregated funeral homes provided the vehicles. There was no black physician on Grady’s staff. The daily papers ran “help wanted” ads under the classifications “for whites” and “for Negroes.”

Perhaps the tenor of those years was best exemplified in the response to a 1955 Supreme Court order requiring the municipal golf courses to either admit blacks or close. The City chose to keep them open, but in announcing capitulation, then-Mayor William B. Hartsfield reassured the white public there were “only a few dozen Negro players and golf, by its very nature, is a segregated game and neither necessary nor compulsory.”

While a college education is not compulsory—or even necessary to many—it is a lot more important than a golf game. The state’s university system, particularly the University of Georgia, became a new target for the foes of segregation, and much stronger resistance developed.

The dean of the small band of black lawyers in Atlanta was “Colonel” (never “Mister”) A. T. Walden, who had begun work in the early Fifties on a suit to force the University of Georgia Law School to admit a black student, Horace Ward. Walden invited Hollowell to join the suit which ended inconclusively after a few skirmishes. “They sent Horace off to the Army,” Hollowell remembers. Ward later decided to get his law degree at Northwestern University. Today, Judge Ward presides over the U. S. District Court in Atlanta.

Hollowell’s association with Walden in that effort, however, began his career devotion to civil rights. He won a suit in 1959 to admit blacks to the Georgia State College of Business Administration (now Georgia State University) and filed suit against the University of Georgia. That, he says “made it all clear. Between the Georgia State decision and the University suit, it was the whole package.” Georgia law required the Legislature to discontinue appropriations to any white school which admitted black students. The suit raised the threat the University would be closed down. That same argument had been used about public schools.

“Many whites wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow if the public schools were closed,” Hollowell says. “But the University shutting down was quite another prospect.”

The case was Holmes vs. Danner (Danner was director of admissions). The decision was handed down in December, 1960. In January, 1961, Federal marshals accompanied Hollowell and his clients, Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter, to Athens, where they registered at the University. The Legislature did not cut off appropriations. The University did not close down.

Holmes later attended Emory University School of Medicine, where he is now a staff member, in addition to maintaining a private orthopedics practice. Hunter went from the University to The New Yorker Magazine, NBC, The New York Times and is now seen on PBS public affairs television programs.

When the first issue of ATLANTA appeared in May, 1961, the city was preparing for desegregation of its public school system. The Board of Education had faced the same choice the City had faced with its golf courses: desegregate or close. The choice was desegregation—but under an elaborate plan which resulted in an actual total of nine black high school students attending four formerly all-white schools.

The city was absorbing the impact of an agreement to desegregate lunch counters, struck between downtown merchants and Atlanta University Center students. But still on the books and in practice were ordinances requiring segregation in city parks, theaters and other “places of public assembly, where assembly is for charge or free.”

The 1960 sit-ins kept Hollowell busy. One weekend, he recalls, he and another black attorney, C. B. King, had 750 clients in jails in five counties. Dealing with this required not only mammoth legal efforts but the even more enormous task of finding and persuading property owners to pledge their property for bail bonds. Their clients included Martin Luther King, Jr., who had moved back to his native Atlanta from Montgomery and was arrested with students at a sit-in at Rich’s. Reports were that both Presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon telephoned authorities on King’s behalf. Kennedy’s call, the story goes, came first, winning black votes for him. Hollowell, however, denies knowledge of any such telephone calls playing any part in King’s release. As attorney for King and others arrested, he relied not on political influence but on the legal system and his own professional skills.

The dam had begun to crumble. By the end of 1961, Georgia Tech had admitted a black student. The new Atlanta airport had been desegregated. Stouffer’s new Top of the Mart restaurant had opened—desegregated.

The next two years saw a flood tide of legal actions and ripple effects sweeping away most local and state laws separating the races. City ordinances requiring segregation in public places and at public assemblies were invalidated. Agnes Scott College and Oglethorpe University accepted black students’ applications. Black policemen were granted authority to arrest whites. Grady Hospital appointed its first black intern.

By 1963 City Hall was desegregated. Fulton County had its first elected black senator in the General Assembly. There were 144 black students in ten previously white Atlanta high schools. The barrier between black and white real estate was literally removed when the Supreme Court ordered the dismantling of barriers called “racial buffers” on Peyton and Harlan Roads. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution removed racial classifications in the want ads and obituary columns.

The focus of the Civil Rights Movement shifted to the Federal level, not to repeal laws which required racial segregation but to enact laws which would prohibit discrimination and provide enforcement of that prohibition. The Fair Housing Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 addressed many areas of life—education, public services, political participation, community relations. The Civil Rights Act, however, directly addressed the issue of employment.

Hollowell never had thought of working for the government, but when he was recruited to establish a field office in Atlanta for the EEOC, created by the Civil Rights Act, he accepted. It was the only Federal agency set up to serve the individual claiming harm by discrimination.

Only through the EEOC did the law confer upon a Federal agency the right to file suit to redress grievances, and this new law, through this agency, would most directly affect the greatest number of individuals. For a lawyer who wanted to influence and make law, it was an ideal position.

It was Hollowell who sent to Washington discrimination charges from which grew landmark legal decisions, putting flesh on the bare bones legal statement that “it shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate in employment” because of race, creed, color, sex, religion or national origin. When a black man in North Carolina, Willie Griggs, filed a discrimination charge against Duke Power Company, Hollowell pursued the case to the Supreme Court. In Griggs vs. Duke Power, the Court ruled an employment qualification which tends to screen out more applicants of one race than another must be job-related and have some validity in predicting success on the job. That decision required realistic re-examination of qualifications for just about every job in the United States, including those in Federal, state and local governments.

Until 1972 the EEOC had no authority to take legal action in its own name. Amendments gave the Agency that authority. Hollowell’s Atlanta office was the first to go to Federal Court as plaintiff under the broader enforcement powers.

With typically careful understatement, Hollowell describes the atmosphere when he opened the EEOC Atlanta Regional Office: “There was a generally negative attitude in this region against government telling people how to conduct business.

“It was not always safe. In Birmingham an EEOC investigative team of black and white males had to run for their car. A white investigator in a textile plant where the secretary was the wife of the local police chief found himself locked up in jail for six hours. I recall driving down the highway with a white female staff member and having a big semi-tractor driven by a young white male try to force us off the highway. There were attempts at intimidation through Congressional offices, but I am happy to say that I found the Congressional investigations to be fair.”

The Civil Rights Movement today, Hollowell says, is “stagnated—but not without reason. You can’t stay at that high level of intensity exhibited in the Sixties. There must be a period of implementation, of developing strategies. We have made great strides in removing ostensible vestiges of discrimination, but right-thinking people, black and white, must be about the business of completing the job.

“The job is to achieve meaningful desegregation. In the Eighties, the emphasis will continue to be employment—that is critical—and also education, housing and certainly political education.”

The greatest strength of the civil rights movement in the Sixties was its exceptional leadership, says Hollowell, citing “the quality of the white leadership, the bond between the students, teachers and University officials in the black community, the cooperative relationship between young and mature civil rights activists.” He puts particular emphasis on Mayors Hartsfield and Allen, who were intent on trying to maintain an atmosphere in which the city could move forward. “It is to their credit that they were able to guide the city through what could have been a terrible time.”

The movement’s weaknesses, he reflects, were the inability of blacks to exert any political clout (Hollowell himself ran unsuccessfully for Superior Court judge in 1964), difficulty in “getting a coalescence on thought and action among all the different factions in the black community and, at times, the sheer numbers of persons involved.”

And there was real fear. In fact, Hollowell says, the tactic of non-violent civil disobedience (sitting in, “going limp”) grew out of recognition of violent reprisals. “There was no way for the movement to be a success through use of physical force. Nobody wanted to get hurt,” Hollowell says.

“Some were beaten and received other acts of physical violence, but most of those involved in demonstrations escaped without violence. The leaders of the movement were [philosophically] committed to non-violence and so could sell it as a particular way of accomplishing the goals.”

Louise Hollowell adds, “During the University of Georgia suit, I was just a little frightened.” But not for herself. “People were generally considerate of me personally. They would phone and say ‘Tell Mr. Hollowell to get you out of the house,’ that they were going to blow it up by midnight. When I got that call, I called the Police Chief [Herbert Jenkins], and he asked me, ‘Mrs. Hollowell, are you scared?’ I said, ‘Well, I am just a little frightened.’ He said they would send somebody out. For about two nights, they patrolled the house. Other than that, I never felt in any real danger.”

While not discounting the cost of her husband’s absences from home and his professional preoccupation, she doesn’t find the price was too high. “I have been very happy that he could make such a worthwhile contribution,” she insists. “There was so much to be done.”

Hollowell prefers not to characterize his feelings about his accomplishments as “pride” but rather “satisfaction.” His highest level of satisfaction, he insists, has come not from the far-reaching employment discrimination cases or even the history-making University of Georgia suit but in two criminal cases. In one, he successfully appealed the death sentence of a 15-year-old black youth. In the other, he gained the acquittal of Willie Nash, who had “confessed” to a crime after spending several hours in a wooded area with five carloads of police officers.

“The major change for me personally,”” reflects Hollowell, “is an inner peace, a peace that comes to people who have been relieved of the strain, the tension, the indignity of always having to decide if you can do this or that because of segregation laws. [There has been a] change in increased freedom of association, broadened flow of ideas, of viewing blacks—and women—as they move up into the business structure at all levels. Part of my life was trying to remove these shackles. It’s a state of mind that has changed. It’s the freedom to tackle a problem, void of that hard-case steel of segregation that always had to be gotten rid of before you could get to the problem.”

The priorities for the future, Hollowell believes, are increased political participation, better education for the masses and an increased “sense of history.” He says, however, there are pressing needs to find “ways to remove the scourge of drugs and limit the amount of crime.”

“If we fail in that at any point, we will have trouble in implementing rights. We are servants of the people, and only to the extent that we perform well, do we merit the opportunity to serve and lead.”

“I Have a Dream…”

This article originally appeared in our September 1980 issue.

“On Auburn Avenue, we expect to restore his birthplace and continue the life of Ebenezer Baptist Church, his spiritual home. Together with these, in a memorial park, we plan to locate his final place of entombment and build as well a living, open Freedom Hall which will tell for many generations the story of the movement which he led.”
Coretta Scott King
January 15, 1969

Since Mrs. King uttered that statement over 11 years ago, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change has had many vocal critics, some in Atlanta, others nationwide.

Boyd Lewis, a reporter for Radio Station WABE in Atlanta, has been among the most critical and caustic. In his probing investigative reports, also carried on the national public radio network, Lewis questioned what happened to $5 million in grants which have come to the Center during the past 11 years; why it took ten years for the organization to file an annual fiscal report with the State of Georgia; the function of the Fund for Peace, Nonviolence and Brotherhood, which received a total of $362,191 from the Center from 1971 to 1977; and the fact that the chairman of the board of trustees didn’t know of the existence of this fund.

Lewis also asked why Jimmy Carter was given the Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace Prize in 1979, implying it was a politically motivated gesture to help the Center receive large sums of money from a variety of Federal agencies. Why did the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which was founded by Dr. King, picket the 1979 MLK birthday week activities?

What, exactly, is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change?

Mrs. King granted ATLANTA Magazine a four-hour interview when the initial research into these questions began, and other Center staff members were equally helpful. Board members were interviewed, along with former directors in an attempt to unravel some of the mystery often associated with what the Center is doing.

To investigate allegations of financial mismanagement and possible violations of the regulations for solicitation and collection of funds for charitable purposes, interviews were held with officials in the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office and with officials in the Office of the Attorney General. Atlanta Constitution reporters who had written a series of articles on the Center in 1979 were questioned, and the publisher of a black newspaper in Atlanta — a critic of what the Center has and has not been doing — was interviewed.

In short, opinions and facts were gathered from friend and foe alike in an effort to gather sufficient information to objectively analyze the organization and its success or failure in reaching its stated goals and objectives.

One conclusion comes across loud and clear after interviewing scores of individuals: there is a great deal of general confusion about the real purpose of the Center.

John Cox, an active board member, chairperson of the steering committee for King Week 1980, and a Delta Air Lines executive, says the Center is “a Mecca for black people. It symbolizes a great person, a great man.” He further states that “it is a national organization,” and that it has “a national and an international mission.” It is not a local center, he says. “It is manifested in Atlanta and in other parts of the country.
Some, however, feel good works should begin at home.

C. A. Scott, owner and publisher of The Atlanta Voice, believes the King Center should be doing more in Atlanta to help the elderly and the needy in emergency situations. He also believes the mission of the Center should be primarily to “carry out the basic non-violent philosophy of Dr. King.” Mr. Scott, an active Republican, also says Mrs. King is too partisan to the Democratic Party and President Carter. (Mrs. King, Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr., and most of the King family have publicly endorsed Carter for President in the 1980 election.)

Mrs. King considers her personal work and efforts as being vital parts of the contribution the King Center is making, and it is difficult to separate the activities of the Center from her activities. From 1971 to 1977, $362,191 was taken from the treasury of the Center and “donated” to the MLK Fund for Peace and Non-Violence. The address for this Fund was Mrs. King’s home, and there is no public accounting for how these funds were spent. Official King Center records indicate Mrs. King received a salary of only one dollar per year from 1968 through 1978. Her annual stipend as of October, 1979, is $12,000 per year.

Mrs. Christine Farris, treasurer of the Center and sister of the slain Nobel Prize winner, says the Fund was used to pay for the Center’s non-profit business affairs. (The Fund has since been succeeded by the President’s Program.)

In 1978 Mrs. King spent $80,000 to attend conferences and do whatever she felt was necessary to accomplish the goals of the Center. Nonviolent Change, an occasional newsletter put out by the Center, noted in its Winter, 1979, edition that the President’s Program “includes Mrs. King’s work as she travels across the country speaking out on social change issues as Chief Executive of the King Center.” (In 1979 her work also took her to Europe and Asia.)

Lloyd Davis, the new Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Center, agrees with Mrs. King that her efforts have been crucial in helping the organization move toward meeting its goals and objectives. He says the nation would not now have the Humphrey-Hawkins full-employment bill had it not been for the King Center and the personal efforts of Mrs. King and other officers in helping persuade key people in Washington to support the bill. Davis also says we would not have other pieces of social-oriented legislation without the efforts which have been put forth through the Center’s President’s Program. He cites the White House Conference on Families (on which Mrs. King was the deputy chairperson) and support of the Equal Rights Amendment and causes of the labor movement as examples of important and meaningful activities of the King Center and Mrs. King.

Some argue Mrs. King could have participated in all of these activities as an individual even if there were no such entity as the MLK Center for Social Change. Her stature as the widow of Dr. King might easily qualify her to sit on numerous boards and commissions. Supporters contend her position as President of an organization dedicated to social change gives her the opportunity to establish her own identity and reputation as an effective leader and organizer, fighting for issues and causes she believes are just and right.

An Atlanta Constitution series on the King Center, published October 17 and 18, 1979, by Carole Ashkinaze, Seth Kantor, Jim Stewart and Tina McElroy, delineated the Center’s ability to raise millions of dollars during the past 11 years for its many projects and activities. Steve Klein, who is in charge of the Center’s pubic relations, says he did not consider the series an objective evaluation of the entire organization, although he did admit the King Center generally got better coverage from the Constitution and the Atlanta Journal than from most newspapers.

In an effort to investigate allegations that the organization might be raising funds for one purpose and using them for another, ATLANTA Magazine examined certain reports which have been recorded with the Secretary of State’s Office. According to the state law which regulates professional fund raisers, every charitable organization which has received contributions during the preceding calendar year “shall file a written report with the department [Department of State] on or before March 31st of each year . . . ” The Center for Social Change, which began receiving funds in 1971, did not file until 1979, after WABE’s Boyd Lewis discovered the Center had never filed a financial report in Georgia.

A careful review of the reports filed since 1979 by this reporter and Boyd Lewis found no evidence of a misappropriation of funds. Officials and board members state their lawyers had not known they had to file a report in Georgia.

But what have they been doing with all that money?

Next Page: A center out of touch with its community

One Atlanta journalist who has covered the Center since its conception says he still does not know what the goals of the organization are. When reminded that the King Center would be a memorial to Dr. King, he replies, “Is this in keeping with the hopes and aspirations of the people Martin Luther King, Jr. struggled to help and to improve conditions for?” He says he does not think so.

Others tend to voice similar opinions. Many say they feel that what the Center is and what it aspires to be do not meet the goals and vision of the person for whom it is named. Over and over again, those in the streets around the Center and in the towers overlooking the city echo the aforementioned reporter: “They do not maintain their ties with the underclass, the underprivileged, the underpaid, etc. And if they don’t do that, then they’re not doing what Martin Luther King wanted done.”

Ms. Ella Mae Brayboy, the Center’s new full-time community organization specialist, is viewed as the staff person who is really in touch with the community. She says her title is Outreach Coordinator. Most of her efforts seem to be directed toward the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, which is described in the organization’s 1979 annual report as a program which “seeks to integrate and coordinate the economic, cultural and physical development of the MLK Historical District with the surrounding ‘Sweet Auburn and Old Fourth Ward’ community.” The long range goal is to “make the District one of the greatest tourist attractions in the nation.”

Ms. Brayboy is involved with the “citizen participation component” of the program, and she was most cooperative in attempting to illustrate how the King Center is really in touch with the poor and oppressed in Atlanta. Aside from two student interns, she is the only staff person who is actively working as a liaison between the poor and the plethora of social service programs in Atlanta. She says the organization is “fast becoming an information and referral agency in the community.” When asked what is the major criticism she most often hears about the King Center, she admits, “The people haven’t really known what the Center is designing itself to do.” She says there is much confusion between the city-owned MLK Community Center and the MLK Center for Social Change. One thing she would like to make clear is the distinction between the two “King Centers.”

The King Center Complex’s programs and facilities are being developed in a four-phase plan which is now in its final phase. Phase I, was the restoration of Dr. King’s birthplace, 501 Auburn Ave., completed in January of 1975. Phase II was the MLK Community Center at 450 Auburn Ave., opened in 1976. Phase III, the Permanent Entombment and the Inter-Faith Peace Chapel, was dedicated in 1977. Phase IV, the Freedom Hall Complex, is the last remaining component. When groundbreaking ceremonies were held in October, 1979, the first spadeful of dirt was jointly thrown by Jesse Hill, Rev. Andrew Young, Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr., Mrs. Coretta Scott King and Henry Ford II, chairman of the Freedom Hall fund-raising campaign. Mr. Ford has helped raise over $8.2 million to construct Freedom Hall.

The King Historic District is a five-block area which does not technically include the City-owned King Community Center. The Community Center is adjacent to the King Historical District, and the City of Atlanta is responsible for its coordination of services, operation and maintenance. Inside, along with a variety of City and Fulton County programs, is a day care center operated by the Center for Social Change. The other four human service agencies in the Center include a branch of the Atlantic Public Library; a gymnasium, game rooms and a beautiful covered pool operated by the Bureau of Parks and Recreation; an office of the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services; and a neighborhood service center operated by Economic Opportunity Atlanta.

The objective of the Community Center is “to provide direct access to a broad range of human services at the neighborhood level. The Community Center serves as a catalyst or hub from which community life emanates and flourishes.” So states an official brochure published by the Atlanta Bureau of Human Services. At the bottom of the brochure is the statement: “In support of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change.”

What this all means is that the Community Center is not really a part of the Center for Social Change. It is not even a part of the King Historical District. It is, however, a part of the King Center Complex. Along with a display of Freedom Hall in the Center’s lobby, a large sign states: “Freedom Hall will complete the ten-year construction plan of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change. Freedom Hall’s two wings will contain the King Library and Archives, the International Conference Center, Secretariats for the Institutes on Non-Violence and on Policy Research, seminar classrooms for the Scholarship Internship Program and a two-story exhibit area depicting man’s continuing commitment to human rights.”

There is, then, a relationship between the Community Center and the Center for Social Change. Without the efforts of Mrs. King, it is doubtful the Community Center, opened in 1976, would have so quickly received over $3 million from H.U.D., the Department of Interior, the City of Atlanta and a million-dollar grant from an anonymous donor.

When local residents, however, are asked if they think Mrs. King is doing anything for the community, the responses are vague. One man says he thinks she is doing something to help, but he doesn’t know exactly what it is. “She never gets out to walk among the poor in the community or in the projects [which are across the street from the Community Center],” he says and adds that he feels she should be more in touch with the people in the area.

When a group of young working men are asked what they think of the Center for Social Change, they think they are being asked about the Community Center. When the distinction is made clear between the Community Center, (where the gym and pool tables are) and the King Center up the street next to the “birth home,” the response is: “I didn’t even know a center was up there.”

Darell E. Lumpkin, who has lived within five blocks of the King home all his 24 years, says, “They’re not doing nothing as far as I know. I hear about it on the news.” Samuel Perkins, his friend who works at Western Electric, agrees that he also has no knowledge of any activities of the Center.

A janitor in a group of apartments within a few blocks of the King Center is asked what he thinks the Center has done to continue the work of Dr. King. His answer is swift and direct: “Nothing.”

When an elderly woman is asked what she thinks the King Center should do to carry on the work of Dr. King, she answers, “If they own so much property, they should tear down some of these raggedy-assed houses and put up some decent houses for people to live in.”

Wheat Street Garden Public Housing (also known as the Martin Luther King Apartments), where the above interviews were conducted, is a slum area with numerous abandoned buildings, broken windows, derelicts sleeping in empty apartments and doorways. Children living there complain about rats in their homes and in their play areas — play areas which are cluttered with broken wine and beer bottles, frequented daily by winos who make passes and remarks to seven- and eight-year-old children. Most of the play equipment is broken, there are no swings, no see-saws, no semblance of any attention by City officials to the recreational needs of these children. Of the 15 to 20 youths who gather around a tape recorder, eager to talk, playful, at times serious, few even know who Martin Luther King, Jr., really was. To many he is a holiday — a day out of school; to some, a great black man. None of these youngsters, ranging in age from eight to 14, all black, has ever heard of the MLK Center for Social Change.

Harrison Anderson, administrator of the Community Center right next to the projects, admits there is great confusion between the two centers. His primary concern is money to maintain his operation; he has had the same allocation for the last three years, despite inflation. He says they need help from the private business sector desperately. Millions are being poured into building Freedom Hall across the street, but employment programs are being cut back in the Community Center due to lack of funds.

When the proposed Freedom Hall was shown in a slide presentation, previewed during 1980 King Week festivities, the narration (spoken by critically acclaimed actor James Earl Jones) stated, “This is the way he would have wanted it.”

Some, it is obvious, doubt that.

Leon Hall, now a City official, is one of six past administrators of the Center for Social Change. A close friend of Dr. King and one of the leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, Hall is a firm supporter of the Center and its objectives. He was very much in the middle of things from 1875 to 1979, and he was director of the 1979 January program with the title Special Assistant to the President. He admits there were many problems getting the Center off the ground and many mistakes were made. He also says people expect much from this organization, perhaps too much, just as they expected so much from Dr. King.

One journalist says the problems with the Center might be more image oriented, more psychological than concrete, adding, “But if it is psychological, then surely there is something that can be done about it.”

One of the things which could possibly be done is to let people know more about programs the Center is working on. Steve Kline, the PR man, says no one looks at the programs; they just keep focusing in on the activities of Mrs. King. He feels there has been no good press recently on the success of the Center’s programs.

Next page: Measuring the benefits

In its annual report for the 1979 program year, the Center for Social Change gives a lengthy report on nine programs and under “New Directions” briefly discusses three on the drawing boards. Also under the “New Directions” are nine institutes, all reported to have been established.

One of the primary programs seems to be the President’s Program (of the King Center), which gives Mrs. King “an opportunity to pursue those interests where she can make a unique contribution.” During 1979, it permitted her to chair the Full Employment Action Council, which the annual report states “made possible the passage of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act.”

Many people, of course, are critical of the usefulness of this act. “It is a goal — which is easy to set forth — but it does not mandate that these goals must be reached,” says one critic, while others say, “It simply set another goal. How many people does it feed? How many businesses has it persuaded to hire unemployed and under-employed poor people?” and “How many minds has it changed that are prejudiced against black people?” Another sums it up this way: “The HH Bill is meaningless when it comes to actually changing unemployment.”

The President’s Program has allowed Mrs. King to attend the United Nations as the first voting public delegate and “to represent the Center in a wide range of activities from board membership on the National Alliance of Business to serving as Commissioner during the International Women’s Year.” Also under this program, Mrs. King “utilized press conferences, congressional testimony, media interviews, articles and countless speaking engagements to focus public attention on a variety of critical issues ranging from unemployment, crime and violence to disarmament and self-determination for developing nations.”

The Archives Project, which was the center of a minor controversy and the focus of an Atlanta Constitution article in October, 1979, recently lost its archivist, David Levine. It is operating under a three-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and is supposed to be “one of the most complete historical records of the organizations dedicated to carrying on the work of Dr. King.”

Prior to leaving the staff, Levine was quoted as saying the Archives may not be open to the general public in Freedom Hall. As of that interview, he said no final policy decision had been made on whether to restrict access solely to “qualified” scholars.

Day Care, or The Early Learning Center Program, is housed within the Community Center across the street from Ebenezer Baptist Church. It provides basic day care and meals for an average 68 pre-school children. The director, Ms. Brunetta Lucas, has a highly trained staff of ten full-time and three part-time teachers. Four of the ten “lead teachers” are fully accredited four-year college graduates; the other six are graduates of the Atlanta Area Technical School who are certified in early childhood education.

Despite some criticism, the program appears to be’ an excellent one where children are being taught nonviolent problem-solving techniques and families are being counseled to relieve domestic and economic problems. There are over 200 applications on file for persons requesting and needing child care. The problem has received ratings of excellence from many State and Federal agencies.

The Reading Academy has enrolled more than 600 students and trained more than 500 tutors since 1976. During the 1979-1980 school year, it attempted to establish several satellite reading programs in the inner-city of Atlanta. Among students pre-tested for the program during 1978-1979, 467 read below the fourth grade level, and of those, 37 were illiterate. Eighty-five per cent of all students from 1976 to 1979 were between the ages of 26 and 45. The greatest gains were made by those whose reading levels upon entrance into the program were from the first through the sixth grade.

The Scholars Internship program is in its fifth year and is supposed to involve 11 weeks of intensive study, discussion and field work. The initial two weeks are intended to be devoted to seminars and discussions in which the interns explore the theories, history, key movements and strategies which give nonviolent social change its spirit and power. More than 80 college students have participated in this program as of January, 1980.

Students enrolled during the 1980 winter quarter were an integrated group of males and females, bright and eager to become involved in promoting social change.

These six students were somewhat disappointed there had been no intensive two-week preparatory period because of a recent change in staff at the Center. The new director had only been on board for a month, and the promised seminars had not been organized beforehand. Most of the students had field assignments, and most were pleased with what they were learning at the King Center.

One girl, from Antioch University (Mrs. King’s alma mater), was very upset because the Center was not as socially active as she had expected. She asked at one meeting, “How can a place that is institutionalized promote social change?” She felt if the King Center became a part of the system, it would have to give up many of its values and ideals. Most of the students had no prior knowledge of the Center until they were told about it by college officials. Martin Luther King Week is the most widely known activity of the King Center. Annually, during the week of MLK’s birthday — January 15th — scores of dignitaries come to Atlanta from around the world to honor Dr. King.

Speakers at the 1980 observance described the Center for Social Change as “the centerpiece of Atlanta, Georgia and the heartbeat of the nation. The week-long program was stimulating and often inspiring. The question on many minds was what do we do for the next 51 weeks? Freedom Hall was discussed extensively, and a strategy session outlined a scheme for network building. There were solemn presentations on topics such as “Solutions to the Problems of Crime and Violence” and emotional discussions of ERA and the power of the gay lobby.

Mrs. Rosa Parks, known as the “Precipitator of the Montgomery, Alabama Bus Protest (1955-56)” was this year’s recipient of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize. (The award last year went to President Carter, provoking protest from the SCLC and several organizations representing the poor and oppressed.)

Freedom Tours is a major income-producing program of the Center. Managed by Isaac Farris — husband of Dr. King’s sister, Christine — the Tours are estimated to attract more than 200,000 people per year to Atlanta. The King Center says this is the “the largest number of visitors for any site in Atlanta.” The Atlanta Chamber of Commerce estimates this number will have approached 500,000 by mid-1980. The charge for the tour is $2 per person.

Buses can be seen rolling up Auburn Avenue daily, stopping in front of Ebenezer Church, the permanent entombment, the birth home, the Community Center or the organization’s headquarters. The doors do not open, however, until the buses reach the area of the MLK Complex. After the tour, the visitors get back on the bus and roll out of the area to their hotels and motels. Officials at the Center say the Tours “have a very positive effect on the local economy.”

Auburn Avenue businessmen would disagree.

“Sweet Auburn” is now a depressed area, suffering from urban decay and neglect. There is no visible evidence to suggest the Tours are helping local black businesses in any significant way. No food is purchased locally by those on tour, and all souvenirs are purchased from the souvenir shop operated by the Center and located in front of the ongoing Freedom Hall construction.

Under “New Directions” in its annual report, the King Center discusses the Neighborhood Revitalization, Chaplains, Scholars Intern and Communications Programs, in addition to new programs such as Volunteer and Committee on Research and Program Development. These efforts are still in the developmental stage.

Also in the planning stage — becoming operational over a five-year period, beginning this year — are nine Institutes: those for Policy Research and Dissemination, Youth Policy, Cultural Affairs, Theology and Philosophy, Economic Development, Labor, Governmental Affairs, International Affairs and Nonviolence. The latter recently completed a summer program in cooperation with the National Education Association.

The Center also proposes to create at Freedom Hall one of the world’s major “think tanks.” Mrs. King said at the annual board luncheon during this year’s MLK Week, “I believe that if we can get enough people committed to the nonviolent struggle, we will see even more wondrous change than has taken place since Martin Luther King, Jr., was born half a century ago. Just think of it! A world-wide nonviolent movement could lead to an end to the arms race and a genuine process of disarmament.”

The goals of the King Center, clearly, are ambitious and extensive. Local board members stress that the past decade has been dedicated to building a vehicle to promote meaningful change, that the next decade will be used to get that vehicle in motion, and the following decade will be a period of serious reflection and analysis to determine if the nonviolent approach is an effective strategy to humanize a nation contaminated with racism and economic exploitation.

Those eager to judge, it seems, will have to be patient for a while, to wait and see if the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change will address the experiences of all people, especially those who are poor and oppressed, those for whom it was intended.

Anatomy of a Divorce

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Divorce has many witnesses, many victims. It is a lurid duet that entices observers to the dance; the pas de deux expands, flowers into a monstrous choreography and draws in friends, children and relatives. Each divorce is the death of a small civilization. Two people declare war on each other, and their screams and tears and days of withdrawal infect their entire world with the bacilli of their pain. There are no clean divorces. Divorces should be conducted in abattoirs, surgical wards, blood banks or funeral homes. The greatest fury comes from the wound where love once issued forth.

Illustration by Jaff Seijas

I have studied the divorces of my friends and learned some things. I have studied my own divorce and learned much more. I find it hard to believe how many people are getting divorced in Atlanta, Georgia. I find it hard to believe that this number of people voluntarily or involuntarily submit to such extraordinary pain.

I think it would have been easier if Barbara had died. I would have been gallant at her funeral, worn dark glasses, shed real tears and taken the children aside to tell them myself. It would have been far easier to have a mate die than to stare at each other across a table, telling each other that it was over, that it did not work. It was a killing thing to look at the mother of my children and know that we would not be together for the rest of our lives. We would not grow old with each other as we once had thought. It was strange to think of her growing old with another man. It was terrifying to cast off, to pull up the secure anchorage of our marriage and say goodbye to all of that. It is hard to reject a part of your own history.

When I moved out of our house into my apartment, I told myself one thing: I did not want to die alone. When I meet men or women who are separated or divorced, I ask them how they are dealing with solitude. They never ask what I mean. By then they are veterans of loneliness, and they have learned to deal with it. Or, they have not. I have not learned to enjoy my solitude. It is but one of the failures of my divorce.

Each divorce has its own special grotesqueries, its own labyrinthine excesses and its own bizarre denouements. It often is a communicable disease, and married couples feel threatened around their divorced friends. Cancer patients have felt the same rejection from their friends whose cells are healthy, whose cells are not under the obscene assault.

There is an unanswerable mystery in all divorces. How does it happen that two people who once loved each other, who promised to live out their lives together, who were not happy when deprived of the other’s presence, who felt incomplete and unfinished in the absence of that person — by what dark conjuring of circumstances, by what sordid legerdemain and by whose dispirited auspices are they brought to that moment of grisly illumination when they decide it has gone irretrievably wrong? How can love change its garments and come disguised as indifference, anger, even loathing? These are some of the questions that thunder obsessively through the minds of men and women who voluntarily or involuntarily enter that injured league of the divorced. The league is an alliance of the damaged.

Divorce should be declared a form of insanity. I have seen no one walk out of a divorce unmarked. It is one of the few acts you can go through that changes you completely, that by definition will make you a different person than you were before the process began. And that is precisely why divorce is so insidious and harmful and also why it is often so good for you. You can enter the sinister cocoon as a butterfly and stagger out later as a caterpillar doomed to walk under the eye of the spider. Or you can reverse the process.

There are no laws of nature which apply, only laws of suffering which are different for every single person who enters that sad, sad country. When I went through my divorce, I saw it as a literal country, and it was treeless, airless and had no transit system to take me out; in that country there were no furloughs, no flags and no holidays. I entered it as an initiate to the league, and I entered without passport, without directions or maps, and I entered it absolutely alone, and I had to make my own roads as I walked and to choose my own landmarks and memorize the shimmering, hostile geography of that terrain. Insanity or hopelessness was a natural product of that land, and it grew in vast orchards like malignant fruit. As the marriage broke up, everything broke up. The mind was set on fire with startling images of decay and loss. I did not know the precise day that I arrived in that country, nor was I ever certain about the precise day I left. I am not even certain that you can ever renounce your citizenship there completely.

One thing is certain: a divorce does not begin when one person looks at another and says, “I want to put an end to this.” The divorce has begun long before those words are uttered. Nor does the divorce end when the papers are signed. Its life span is unpredictable and open-ended. It begins when the hurt begins, when you come to the astonishing realization that you are lonely even though you are married, that you feel ineffably alone even though you are with the person that you vowed to be with all of your life. Divorce is the process of institutionalizing that loneliness, of building a grotesque cathedral out of nightmare and anger and guilt to pay loathsome homage to that loneliness. I studied the architecture of that cathedral and tried to learn some things. It is one of the surprising byproducts of divorce that you learn more from it than anything you have ever done before. All veterans of the dark country agreed with that. All of them.

When I drive around the city of Atlanta, I am acutely aware of the number of people who are enduring their own personal seasons of loneliness as marriages come apart and the histories of couples stagger toward their completion. Not enough people seem aware that divorce is a time of mental illness, a process of psychological deterioration so severe that the city itself becomes an enemy landscape, the city receives the embittered investiture of blame for all that has taken place. For no esthetic reason whatsoever, I still hate the silhouette of the Peachtree Plaza hotel simply because it was being built as I was falling apart, that it was rising inexorably skyward as I was plunging into the depths, that it was a symbol of growth and renewal at the very moment that I had slipped into the ice of a long and brutal psychic Winter.

For an entire year I did little but talk about my divorce, and I searched out people who had shared the experience, who had made the promenade through the volcano. People who have gone through divorce compose an obsessed and articulate tribe, minstrels of hurt who can sing of those days with insight and defeat and wonderment. We find each other at parties, we become friends with each other, we date each other, and we compare scars and stories. The nights of Atlanta are filled up with our voices repeating over and over again the tales of our wounded folklore as we greet each other honorably and tenderly, as brothers, as sisters, as survivors of the worst times of our lives.

I have listened to stories of extraordinary destructiveness and anger, and I have recorded them in a journal I keep on divorces. One woman took her wedding pictures and cut them into small fragments. At a party celebrating his divorce, a man played — for his friends’ edification — the tapes of his wife and her lover talking on the telephone. A neighbor of mine had her face beaten in by her drunken husband who threatened to shoot her with a riot gun if she left him. A man was run down in the street by his wife after he told her firmly in the office of their marriage counselor that their marriage was over and that he was having an affair with a woman he loved more than her. She broke his pelvis, and he urinated out of tubes for six months. His affair was platonic for the same period of time.

Each divorce has its own natural metaphors that organically grow out of the special circumstances of the dying marriage. The metaphors assume many shapes, some unthreatening, some ludicrous, some hilarious and some phantasmagoric, all final. They come to represent the end of the thing, the last acting out of the ceremony of amputation.

One man and woman separated in a tearful angry scene, and both of them removed their wedding rings simultaneously as a symbolic and official gesture that it was over. They had a brief reconciliation and put their rings back on when he returned to the house. The husband’s ring finger broke out in a terrible, swollen rash, and he removed his ring again. He left for good a week later.

Another man was inordinately proud of his salt-water aquarium that he filled with exotic eels, brilliant fish and graceful plants that flourished in that fake, diminutive ocean five hours from the sea. He left his wife two weeks after witnessing the birth of his first son. What visitors noticed when they went to check on her and the children was that she was not taking care of the aquarium. The fish began dying of negligence, of starvation and of unconcern. An eel escaped the tank, and she did not find it until it began decomposing. The aquarium was the pride of the husband who abandoned her — his hobby, not hers; his identity, not hers. The death of the marriage and the death of the aquarium became irretrievably linked in my mind. There came a day when there was not a single thing left alive in the tank, but it continued to sit in the same place, with the light on, with the oxygen bubbling, supporting nothing except the memory of life.

For a long time I could not discover my own metaphor of loss. Often the people involved find the metaphor invisible, and it is sometimes only visible to those who are watching the disintegration from a distance. It was months after the event that I realized the death of our dog, Beau, was the irrefutable message that Barbara and I were finished.

Beau was a feisty, crotchety dachshund Barbara had owned when we married. Dachshunds had never seemed like real dogs to me, and it took a year of pained toleration for us to form our alliance. But Beau had one of those brilliantly illuminating inner lives that only lovers of dogs can ever understand. To be licked by Beau when you awoke in the morning was a fine thing. Beau had a specific and unrepentable genius for companionship and for making himself completely comfortable. He had perfected the arts of sloth and cowardice except when I was with him on walks through the streets and parks of Atlanta. On those walks he would transfigure himself and his fat, ludicrous frame into a creature from the pages of The Call of the Wild. Without the slightest provocation he would attack all dogs who weighed over a hundred pounds, were closely akin to German police dogs and Dobermans and who had not gotten their rabies shots. These big dogs, amused and randy killers, would be ready to swallow Beau like he was a vitamin E tablet when I would be forced to enter the fray to remove the fangs of the Doberman or the mastiff from Beau’s throat. I was bitten three times the first year Beau and I got together. We noticed that Beau never picked a fight when I was not inches from his side, and I just hoped we would not one day surprise a lion together.

On one of the first days of our separation, when I went to the house to get some clothes, my youngest daughter, Megan, ran out to tell me that Beau was hit by a car but that he would be all right since a man had taken him to Briarcliff Animal Clinic. I drove to the clinic, ran past the receptionist and found Doctor Ruth Tyree, who had been Beau’s veterinarian since we had come to Atlanta. She carried Beau in to see me and laid him on the examining table. I had not cried during the terrible process of breaking away from Barbara. I told her that I was angry at my inability to cry, that the imprint of the American male weighed heavily upon me, and I hoped that I could weep with ease some day.

I did not cry when I saw Beau; I came completely apart. It was not weeping; it was screaming. It was not sadness; it was despair. The wheel of the car had crushed Beau’s spine, almost severing it in half. Heavily drugged, Beau looked up at me while Doctor Tyree handed me a piece of paper, saying that she needed my signature before they could put Beau to sleep. She also handed me an X-ray showing the massive, irreparable damage done to Beau’s spine.

I could not write my name because I could not see the paper and because I could not hold the pen. I leaned against the far end of the examining table and cried as I had never cried in my life, crying not just for Beau but for Barbara, the children, myself, for the death of marriage, for inconsolable loss and for the agony, the agony, the unspeakable agony of those days. Doctor Tyree touched me gently on the shoulder and I heard her crying above me. And Beau in the last grand gesture of his life dragged himself the length of the table on his two good legs and began licking the tears as they ran down my face.

I do not remember signing the necessary papers or thanking the veterinarian for her help or stumbling out into the bright afternoon and into my car. I remember the vet telling me that there was nothing anyone could do, that it was over. And I remember looking into Beau’s eyes arid telling him that I loved him, that I needed him, and that I would miss him. It was over and there was nothing anyone could do. I had lost my dog and found my metaphor. In the X-ray of my dog’s crushed spine, I was looking at a portrait of my broken marriage. But there are no metaphors powerful enough to describe the moment when you tell the children about the divorce. Divorces without children are minor-league divorces. To look into the eyes of your children and to tell them that you are mutilating their family, that you are changing the structure of their world by a process of radical surgery that will make all their tomorrows different is an act of desperate courage that I never want to repeat in my life.

When I talk to people about their divorces, the children are the subject that produces the heaviest sorrow. It is their parents’ last act of solidarity together, and it is the absolute sign that the marriage is over. No parents lightly skip into a room to inform their children that their life as a family is finished. How did it feel? How did you do it? Friends asked me after the fact. It felt as though I had poured gasoline over myself, called my children into the room and struck a match. Or, more precisely, that I had doused my entire family with gasoline, and we sat in our house on Briarcliff Road and burned together, our screams a pained, exquisite symphony of our collective grief.

When the three girls entered the room for the conversation that would bring them into the furious center of the divorce itself — when they no longer would be merely silent, involuntary victims of the dance macabre of those harsh days — they held their eyes to the floor and would not look at me or Barbara. A majestic fragility shimmered about the room. The natural inclination of every parent is to spare his or her children from as much pain as humanly possible. Barbara and I had not told them a single thing about our problems, but their faces on this day told me that they knew. Their faces were all dark wrings and grief of human hurt. As I studied the profiles of these young sweet girls, I felt like Judas Iscariot studying the beads of Caesar as he fingered his 30 pieces of silver. My betrayal of them filled the room as I told the children while Barbara wept. My betrayal of them trailed behind them as they left the room and went upstairs to talk the divorce over with each other and Barbara went to the kitchen to make us very strong drinks. My betrayal of them shouted at me when they returned to the room and still refused to look at me.

But they had written me notes of farewell since it was me who was moving out of the house. When I read the notes, I did not see how I could ever survive such excruciating pain, such colossal guilt and such relentless melodrama. The notes, scrawled in childish hands, said, “I love you, Daddy. I will visit you.” The notes had that existential smell of the moment, of gasoline and phosphorous, and matches held by small and fragile hands. At that moment the seeds of nightmare rooted deep into the outback of my subconscious, and for months I would dream of visiting my three daughters locked in the same lightless room of a mental hospital. The fear of damaged children was my most crippling obsession in those first months alone.

For a year I walked around feeling like I had undergone a lobotomy. My voice was edged with desperation, and I sometimes did not recognize my own voice as I spoke. Anxiety became a longterm tenant in my stomach, and it was my first experience with completely losing my sense of humor. I felt like a piece of Gothic architecture set loose to roam on Peachtree Street.

Even familiar objects acquired an emotional significance, a psychological content they never had before. There were records I could not listen to because of their association with Barbara, poems I could not read from books I could not pick up, pictures that wounded; and I found it difficult to ride by the house where Barbara and I had lived the final years of our marriage. The house itself was a villain in my consciousness as though the design of the wallpaper or the shape of its rooms affected the structure of the marriage itself. There is a restaurant I will never return to in my life because it was the scene of an angry argument between us. I returned to none of the stores where we used to shop, and I visited none of the neighbors. It was a year when memory was an acid.

I began to develop the odd habits of the very lonely. I turned the stereo on as soon as I entered my apartment. I needed to hear another human voice and the companionship of noise, and I dreaded all moments of silence. I turned on every light in the apartment as I feared nighttime irrationally. I called my friends long distance, then would sometimes call them again. I invented excuses to call my friends in Atlanta. I would drink to the point of not caring that I was alone and lonely and desperate. Then I would call other friends in Atlanta. I cooked elaborate meals for myself, then would not be able to eat them.

My brain swam with images, with fantasies I could not control nor slow down. I worried about the men that Barbara would date. I knew I had no right to worry and I worried even more. I was afraid that she would date men who would be cruel to her, who would abuse her, who would be unworthy of her, who would take advantage of her loneliness and vulnerability, who would ignore the kids.

I wondered what movies they would see, where they would eat dinner, whether or not they would hold hands or make love, whether they would make love at Barbara’s house and if the children would know or hear. I had left Barbara, and I still had a primitive need to possess her. I wanted her to have a wonderful time with men, and at the same time I wanted her to have a terrible time. I wanted her to forget me; I wanted her to miss me.

I had entered into the dark country of divorce, and for a year I was one of its ruined citizens. I suffered. I suffered. I survived. For an entire year I studied myself on the edge, and I learned things that I could not have learned except through total submergence in grief and anxiety and guilt. I introduced myself to the stranger that lived within. It was at once the most painful and valuable year I have ever spent. That is the one gift of the dark country.

I want to write a novel one day and tell about the lives of American men and women in the Seventies and how they related to each other and, more significantly, how they failed to relate to each other. I will write about my divorce from Barbara, about my friends and how they reacted during the divorce, and about the kind men and women who helped pull me through it. If people did not understand what I was experiencing, there was at least a sublime heroism in their attempts to understand.

I want to tell about what I learned during my year of grief. I want to say in the book that in the Seventies I found myself locked in the dilemma of the American male. In that season of inestimable sadness, American women were beginning to find out exactly what was wrong with men, and they began writing and talking about it with extraordinary clarity and the gifts that came from centuries of studying the subject firsthand.

I will try to tell honestly what it was like for a woman to have a relationship with me and what I was thinking and how I was feeling toward her and how it seemed like a very bad thing to love me. Because I was raised an American male, I will tell that I did not learn to give or receive affection, that I did not learn to weep when I was hurting, that I did not learn to love women in ways that made them feel secure and desirable and needed. I will tell of the day I told the great Atlanta therapist, Marion O’Neill, that whenever I uttered the words “I love you” to a woman, they had the hollow dispossessed sound of someone ordering a meal for the first time in a foreign language. I will tell that I felt inexhaustible but inexpressible reserves of love within me, and I searched for women who were able to translate my silences, interpreters who understood about the inarticulate lover screaming from within.

I looked for women who would make me more like women. And it was unfair and cruel to all of them and far too much to ask. I will tell about listening to feminists and reading Ms. Magazine and feeling as if every one of the women had studied me personally for a very long time. I will tell about being an American male in the Seventies and how I became a feminist because I thought it right and because I knew it was my only hope and the only hope for other men like me.

Barbara and I have had one success in our divorce, and it is an extraordinarily rare one. We have remained friends, and when the residue of anger and hurt subsides with time, we have an outside chance of becoming best friends again. We meet each other for drinks or lunch occasionally, and I have become friends with her boyfriend, Tom Pearce. When she was graduated from Emory Law School, I gave her a party to celebrate. When I left the party, I looked back and saw Barbara and Tom holding hands. They looked very happy together, and it was painful to recognize it. I wanted to go back and say something to Tom, but I mostly wanted to say it to Barbara. I wanted to say that I admired his taste in women.

Coming: Mr. 715

This article originally appeared in our April 1974 issue.

He is almost always just Hank. He is recognized wherever he goes and people want to touch him, get his autograph and pose for pictures with him.

He was 20 when he began these sojourns, swatting No. 1 in 1954, when Eisenhower was President. Hank is supposed to have said then that this first trip around the League was like riding through a beautiful park and getting paid for it.

Of all those playgrounds, only Wrigley Field in Chicago still is used for baseball; everywhere else, he is older than any piece of baseball turf. All has changed save him. Only one player still is performing in the major leagues who was there when he arrived. Seven managers are younger than he. In his first Spring he played the Dodgers in Brooklyn; in his golden Summer, and now with the turning of his leaves, they are in Los Angeles.

Before the Atlanta Braves ever played one game, Hank Aaron already had hit more home runs than all but a half-dozen players then in the Hall of Fame. By now, he has stolen more bases than Rabbit Maranville, hit for more bases than either Babe Ruth or Georgia’s Ty Cobb, caught more fly balls than Tris Speaker, scored more runs than Honus Wagner, and driven in more than Ted Williams.

This is the season—probably the month—when Aaron, at 40, takes a moon walk above one of the most hallowed individual records in American sport, the 714 home runs hit by George Herman Ruth. Only in the last year or two has Aaron attracted the national attention his exploits have merited for years. His statistical accomplishments are so vast and continuous that putting them into perspective is like trying to remember numbers of passing freight cars.

He has gone to the plate more than 11,000 times, hit for more than 6,000 total bases and collected more than 500 doubles. As impressive as all those accomplishments are, the big number is 715. His relentless pursuit of that treasure has made Aaron the single most conspicuous figure in American sports.

The enormousness of it has closed in fast on Aaron, on and off the field. As the climax approached at the end of last season, he was walked increasingly because opposing pitchers frankly feared him. Opposition infields overshifted, trying to force him to hit to right field. Aaron ignored them and took the overhead route; in baseball vernacular, he “went for the pump.” Aaron wants everybody to come in with their hard stuff. When pitchers get shifty, trying to nip the outside corner, he disapproves but adjusts accordingly, grumbling all the while about pitchers who “want to fool everybody.” Aaron prefers the problem of hitting against a man such as the New York Mets’ Tom Seaver.

“A man like Seaver, he says, ‘All right big guy, here it is. Pschoo!’ Why hold on to the ball? Why sneak it in? That’s not what the good dudes do—Gibson . . . Seaver. ‘Here’s the heat,’ they say. ‘Here, you want me? Pschoo!'”

Some baseball aficionados cite such comment as evidence of the massive pressure on Aaron. They also observe the number of times Aaron stepped out of the batter’s box last season, how tightly he seems to grip his bat, the way he questions umpires about strikes. But when Babe Ruth is chasing you, people see things they never noticed before. And, yes, it is a matter of Ruth chasing Aaron, the old legends dogging Aaron’s steps, wraiths in pinstripes hounding him.

Always one to read and answer fan mail, Aaron realizes that while most letter writers are pulling for him, a disturbing number do not want him to hit 715. For some who bode him ill, the reason is that Ruth is a colussus in their pantheon. For others, Aaron’s color is sufficient to denigrate his quest. Letters that begin “Dear Nigger,” and go downhill from there, say far more about the mind of parts of the nation than they do about Aaron. “It bothers me,” he says. “I have seen a President shot and his brother shot. The man who murdered Dr. Martin Luther King is in jail, but that isn’t doing Dr. King much good is it? I have four children and I have to be concerned about their welfare.”

Yet Aaron seems to thrive on pressure: it has made him all the more steadfast in his Olympian ambition.

Perhaps this helps explain why the pressure hasn’t seemed to take a noticeable physical toll. Aaron’s wiry, superbly conditioned body shows only the faintest signs of wear. A consummate and deliberate craftsman, he is the same Aaron players have held in awe for years. An accomplished outfielder with keen baseball savvy, Aaron is said never to have made a mental error like throwing to the wrong base. His quick wrists (at eight inches around, they are bigger than Muhammad Ali’s) still snap the bat with sizzling speed, and he hits what are known in baseball’s dugouts as “frozen ropes.” At 190 pounds, Aaron is only 10 pounds heavier than when he broke into the big leagues 20 years ago with Milwaukee. He is the most steady player in a sport that demands consistency of its genuine heroes.

His record in this respect is scintillating. Only twice has he failed to hit at least .280; once was in 1966, when the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta. His average that year fell to .279, but with 44 home runs and 127 runs batted in, nobody could complain that his hitting was inadequate. Because of his consistency and high performance in so many categories, even an average season for him produces eye-opening statistics. Despite his ability, longevity, consistency and willingness to play, even when injured, the national fame accorded Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Stan Musial wasn’t granted Aaron until last year. Perhaps it was because he did not play in New York, and thereby missed the glow of glory that flooded Mickey and Willie, or that he did not come into the Big City and rip the fence in Ebbets Field as Stan did. Being in Milwaukee and Atlanta did not help Aaron’s publicity value, but all of that has changed. Still, Aaron is somewhat resentful. He remarked plaintively in a recent interview with CBS-TV’s Heywood Hale Broun that “I wish all this fame had come earlier. I’m 40 years old now, and I gotta pace myself . . . can’t go as fast as I once did.”

Being the first ballplayer outside New York or Los Angeles to make it to the media vitals has not been easy for Aaron, a flesh-and-blood Everyman who has demonstrated that a hero need not be mythic. He prefers a subdued lifestyle free of curiosity-seekers and paparazzi; his wardrobe is fastidious, not flashy; he drives a 1973 Chevrolet. As one friend reports, “Hank’s idea of a big night out is dinner at a Polynesian restaurant.”

Hank Aaron 1973
Hank Aaron talks during a press conference before filming “The Flip Wilson Show” on October 15, 1973.

Photograph by by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In the last six months, Aaron has made TV appearances with Merv Griffin, Flip Wilson and Dinah Shore. Last year he appeared on the covers of publications as disparate as Newsweek and Jet. Now his likeness will proliferate like posters when the circus is due. More recently, he popped up on the sports, business, and entertainment pages, and his wedding last Fall put him on the society pages. Three books on Aaron were scheduled for March and April release, and another will be rushed into print as soon as he cracks 715. Another book on Aaron may be written by George Plimpton. (In August, 1968, Atlanta magazine already pictured Aaron on its cover: that issue featured an extract from a book written by Atlanta Journal sports editor Furman Bisher.)

At the outset of this year, a barnstorming, banquet-circuit tour took Aaron to Chicago, Boston, New Hampshire, Milwaukee, and New York—not to mention celebrations honoring him in Atlanta, and his birthplace, Mobile. While in Los Angeles, Aaron was offered a part in a movie which is to costar Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier.

“I was to play a bartender,” Aaron said. “They gave me about a page of lines to learn, and I was to serve a few drinks, but I turned it down. It would have been fun, but I just don’t want to make another trip to the West Coast. That’s a different world out there . . . they’re too fast. I don’t want any part of it.”

Hank’s business manager, Berle Adams, is determined to “get an organizational structure around Hank that we can work with and try to control.” While Aaron is not a great one for getting to business meetings on time, he has filmed a series of Brut commercials, plugged Lifebuoy soap and Oh Henry chocolate bars, and signed a pact with the Magnavox Corp. calling for payment of $1 million over a five-year period.

The Magnavox pact calls for Aaron to engage in promotional activities, including his own TV specials. At a New York press conference detailing his Magnavox contract, Aaron said he not only was signing his exclusive services but also the balls, bats, uniforms and other memorabilia associated with his career.

“Each ball, each bat, even the uniform Hank uses, will become our possession,” Alfred di Scipio, a Magnavox official, told the New York assemblage. “They will be carried around the country for people to touch so they can feel a part of this legendary event.” Aaron’s Magnavox contract allows his commitments to other companies until their expiration, when his promotional activities fall under the sole direction Magnavox.

Aaron has become much more than a baseball superstar. He eclipses the sports page and is, in the lexicon of Hollywood, a singular merchandising phenomenon. The home of Lt. Gov. Lester Maddox, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Margaret Mitchell and Ralph McGill has put him on a pedestal. The Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the City of Atlanta initiated a massive “Atlanta Salutes Hank Aaron” celebration which encompasses a citywide Aaron billboard campaign, an Aaron Scholarship Fund administered by the Metropolitan Foundation of Atlanta, and other salutes such as street and school names, and a bust of Hank to be placed at Atlanta Stadium.

At the recent “Atlanta Salutes Hank Aaron Dinner” Gov. Jimmy Carter read a proclamation citing Aaron as an honorary Admiral in the Georgia Navy. Mayor Maynard Jackson awarded him a sterling silver medal, Atlanta’s second highest honor for public service. Explaining why it was not the City’s highest honor, a gold medal, Hizzoner quipped: “I’m saving that one until he breaks the record.” Braves’ announcer Ernie Johnson, observing that a player must wait five years after terminating his playing career to be eligible for the Hall of Fame, commented: “Special dispensations have been granted in special cases in the past, and if Hank Aaron has to wait five years, it’s injustice!”

There is something serenely beautiful in the way Aaron is being honored in Atlanta—a way no black athlete could have been feted as little as 20 years ago. Aaron, while keenly aware of it, takes it in stride: His overall cool throughout the adulation has bordered on the comatose. Now and then he reflects on the magnitude of these tributes: “I have always thought the way I could do the most for my race was through excelling in my conduct on and off the field as a player. Now, because of the position I’m in, I hope I can inspire a few kids to be a success in life. The problems we have in Atlanta are no different than anywhere else: I want to break Ruth’s record as an example to children, especially black children.”

Ivan Allen Jr., mayor of Atlanta when the Braves moved from Milwaukee in 1966, offers this perspective on Aaron: “There was a lot of subtle apprehension about how the South’s first major league sports franchise and its black players would go over. Hank played a major role in smoothing the transition and confirming the end of segregation in the South through his thoughtful consideration and cooperative attitude with everyone, and his exemplary conduct. He taught us how to do it. The first time he knocked one over that left-field fence here, everyone forgot his color.”

Five years ago, the thought that Aaron would be as much a fixture of American culture as Coca-Cola would have been preposterous. The conventional wisdom around the big leagues then was that Ruth’s record not only was untouchable but inviolable, and anyone who thought otherwise obviously had taken leave of his senses. Aaron in less halcyon days remarked: “People keep wondering if I’ll be around long enough to break Babe Ruth’s home run record. I really don’t know. I do know that I will not hang on just for the sake of hanging on—picking up 12 one year and maybe 20 the next and jumping from club to club. I have too much respect for the game of baseball to do that just to chase someone’s record.”

This is the gist of the Aaron legend: immense self-respect. It’s also a kind of class which Aaron attains simply by being himself, a man who would like to pare life to certain essentials but finds it hard. Aaron is first and foremost a baseball player (“The only thing I really know is baseball”) and all the Hollywoodish packaging and grooming cannot obscure that fact. For all his business deals, for all the largesse he has raked in, Aaron seems somewhat uncomfortable about the whole business.

His off-season schedule kicked off at 8 a.m. daily and usually stretched nonstop to midnight: TV commercials, speaking engagements, and discussions with civic leaders—in town one day, out the next. Trying to rap with Aaron during the off-season was a hit-and-run proposition—five minutes here, 10 there, and catch me if you can. The irony is that the acclaim denied him through much of his career now threatens to overwhelm Aaron. In defense, he has developed stock answers for the stock questions he hears every day. His pursuit of the Babe also has become a wish for solitude. Aaron couldn’t wait to get to Spring training this year: “It’s gonna be like a vacation,” he said.

Baseball: That’s where Aaron’s roots are. There he takes his ease; there is his domain. One recalls Braves third baseman Darrell Evans teasing a sartorially resplendent Aaron prior to the Atlanta Salutes Hank Aaron Dinner: “Hey, ‘Supe’”—( short for Superstar)—”how come ya got ‘that fancy jacket on? Whaddya doin’— gettin’ married again?” Hank grinned, but you felt he wanted to take off the damned tuxedo, pick up a bat and start limbering up right there in the Marriott’s Grand Ballroom.

Braves owner Bill Bartholomay once said of him: “One of the few right things I might have done in Milwaukee was to get to know Aaron right away. My admiration for him goes beyond description. He’s Mr. Brave.”

Aaron must admire records because he has created so many of them; yet, for all of the scuffled hysteria over his chase of the Babe, Aaron observes: “To be frank, it is not as important to me as to baseball. The only thing I ever thought about was to be as good as I could. I never thought about being the greatest ballplayer or anything; just to be as good as I could.”

A friend has noted that “for all the commercials, endorsements and business connections, he’ll never be a ‘Broadway Hank.’ The thing about Hank is that he’s really simplified. Simplified. He doesn’t complicate anything. Thoreau would have loved the guy.” So when Commissioner of Baseball Bowie Kuhn failed to congratulate Aaron on his 700th home run, and issued an edict warning pitchers not to “groove” Nos. 714 and 715 for Aaron, it was construed as scandalous. Some pitchers had made some offhand remarks about “groovin’ the biggies,” but only Kuhn took the talk seriously.

Other so-called experts on baseball have referred to the architecture of Atlanta Stadium as the real reason Aaron’s about to overtake Ruth. While it is a park without any wind factor, and because of the altitude of Atlanta, the ball rockets over the wall as if launched from Cape Kennedy. One look at this park and you want to pick up a bat. To suggest, as many have, that this is the principal reason why Aaron has pulled even with the Babe smacks of errant folly.

Such minutiae and petty slights, coupled with the Hall of Fame’s lack of enthusiasm for Aaron mementoes, are an understandable source of annoyance to Aaron, although he will not be caught badmouthing Kuhn or the Hall of Fame. “I like to let the record book speak for itself.”

In the last game of the 1973 season, 40,517 turned out at Atlanta Stadium on a rainy Sept. 30 to see if Aaron could finish off the Babe. Each time Aaron came to bat, there it was, louder still: noise, enthusiasm, recognition. In his first three times at bat that day Hank hit three singles. When he popped up in has last at-bat in 1973, the din was enormous. All Aaron had done for his year’s work, at the age of 39, was slam 40 home runs, hit .301, and knock in 96 runs.

When Hank Aaron paused on his way to the dugout that day, it was beyond any mere note of excitement; it was with absolute authority. The only baseball player before Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Aaron who played with the kind of zest and gusto referred to as “black style” was Enos Slaughter.

There was the echo of the tone of one of William Faulkner’s characters who said, standing at the wagon: “Them that’s going, get in the goddam wagon. Them that ain’t, get out of the goddam way.”

Aaron’s in the front wagon.

This article originally appeared in our April 1974 issue.

S.C.L.C.: What’s Happened to the Dream

 

This article originally appeared in our April 1972 issue.

On a Memphis motel balcony four years ago this month, a 30.06 slug tore the life from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His colleague and intimate friend, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, was standing inches behind him when the bullet struck.

“I got down over him and I patted his cheek until I got his attention,” Abernathy recalled days ago. “I know talked. His lips quivered, and his eyes said to me, ‘Don’t you let me down, Ralph.’ It was like an inner voice.”

Abernathy succeeded King as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), that loose confederation of towering egos and simple folk who want justice which served as the vehicle for King’s movement. But many were convinced that SCLC’s fuel was King’s charisma, and without him, it would falter.

They could make a good case.

The mellifluous, urgent baritone solo of Martin Luther King has been supplanted by a cacophony of militant rhetoric in America. SCLC, the one-time vanguard of the black American revolution, is in the back seat to the headline potential of Huey Newton and Angela Davis.

SCLC has moved from mule train to Whisperjet, from frequent street marches to sedate board rooms. Around SCLC’s yellow-brick headquarters on Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue, the symbolic denim of revolution yielded to double-breasted suits and mod accoutrements. Many faces familiar in King’s day have vanished. So has much of the drama.

“Used to be, if there was trouble somewhere, everybody in the place would pick up and go,” said the Rev. Andrew Young, one-time King lieutenant and now the conservatively dressed director of Atlanta’s Community Relations Commission. “We’d have maybe two people to answer the phone. Everybody else would go march.”

And march and march and march … in Southern towns like Selma and Grenada, towns that never had made a Northern headline; in better known cities like Montgomery and Birmingham, which soon took on new symbolism … places that were never the same after SCLC had mounted a campaign.

Today, SCLC rarely commits all its resources to a single issue. Instead of a hundred or more workers in the field, there are only a dozen. Its 48 other staffers—most of them in Atlanta—have desk jobs to perform and phones to answer.

Has Abernathy failed King’s admonition not to “let me down”? Is SCLC a walking cadaver?

“The times have changed,” King’s jowly successor intoned slowly, his booted feet propped on a thick, monogrammed attache case by his desk. “We were having problems prior to Dr. King’s assassination. Had he lived, he would have changed with the times, too.

He would have been saying ‘right on’ and ‘power to the people’ just like the rest of us.”

(One staffer confided that King had decided just before his death to let his close-cropped hair grow to moderate Afro length.)

“During Dr. King’s lifetime,” Abernathy added, “we dealt with the obvious, overt forms of segregation. Now we are faced with more subtle forms. Sure, we have the right to eat downtown and stay in a hotel. But do we have the right to hold the job to earn the money to pay the hotel bill? We earned the right to schools, but do we have quality education? There once was a time when we could expose evil through mass demonstrations. But demonstrations alone will not solve our problems. We have to have jobs, income, control of our communities.

“The philosophy of our organization is still the same: militant nonviolence. But the strategy has changed.”

Even if the more sophisticated challenges of jobs and political power were amenable to mass confrontation tactics, it is doubtful that such demonstrations would command the headlines that they did before.

The Rev. Hosea Williams, a firebrand SCLC organizer whose mere presence in a small Southern town sets old-line white leaders boiling, summarized it: “Unless you go out and get you a gun and shoot at some white folks—you can’t just talk about it, you got to shoot at someone now—you don’t make the press. But if you go out and do some hard work like we did in Sandersville, or Columbus, or all over Alabama right now, the press doesn’t write about that—things that would have made front-page stories 10 years ago.”

The last time an old-style campaign got both headlines and results was in 1969, when SCLC joined with union organizers in a 113-day strike to help poorly paid Charleston, S.C., hospital workers win collective bargaining rights. SCLC—including King’s widow, Coretta Scott King—defied state and local police to march and kneel in prayer in the middle of the street. And Abernathy, in best Old Movement fashion, spent 21 days fasting in Charleston jail.

It’s not that SCLC’s reduced cadre of field workers aren’t still manning the trenches in civil rights backwaters. It’s just that their work rarely is treated as news. Few newspaper readers, for example, may realize that:

  • Last August, a black man was found, bludgeoned to death, in the trunk of a state patrol car in Ayden, N.C. The patrolman driver was transferred to another part of the state, but not prosecuted. SCLC field worker Golden Frinks led ensuing protests; he and 175 rural blacks were arrested in two days of marching, in one instance having to dodge a police car which charged into the line of march.
  • A black girl, 19, was killed last September when a white man drove his car into a civil rights march which protested the firing of black teachers in Butler, Ala. Though charged with murder, the white driver was released the same day on a small bond. Abernathy and some 300 local blacks went to jail for two days in the ensuing protests, while SCLC Board Chairman man Joe Lowery negotiated a nondiscriminatory hiring agreement with the Butler, Ala., power structure.
  • SCLC spent about $200,000 of its $900,000 budget in 1971 on a little publicized “War on Repression,” which included welfare marches in Nevada and Wall Street, and a mule train march in Washington on Moratorium Day, in conjunction with other peace groups.
  • It backed a march in Daytona Beach, Fla., to protest the low pay of domestic workers there.
  • SCLC helped Sandersville, Ga., blacks win a majority on the city council last November, and in the 1970 elections was instrumental in the election of black governments in Greene County, Ala., and Hancock County, Ga.

These events were noted by occasional reporters, but outside the immediate localities (and sometimes even there) the stories rated no better than inside-page coverage. Gone were the battalions of TV cameramen who filmed the clubbing of voting-rights marchers on Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, or the fire-hosing and police dog attacks on public accommodations petitioners in Birmingham.

With SCLC’s lower public profile has come a lower budget.

SCLC raises its money strictly through private donations. It owns what is considered the best mailing list of liberals in the country: some 200,000 names, mostly of whites. It steadfastly resists efforts of other organizations to buy the list, but it recently tested the potency of the list by mailing an appeal for Angela Davis’ defense. In three months’ time, it brought $47,000. The postage cost alone, however, was formidable.

It has shied away from federal grants and foundations.

“They always have string attached,” Andrew Young explained, “like no political activity.” SCLC donors must be especially devoted because their contributions are not tax-deductible.

In the times of the Selma March (1965); the March on Washington, when King delivered his “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial (1963); and of King’s assassination (1968), SCLC’s receipts soared to $2 million each year (non-taxed). Last year’s $900,000 income, although less than half those peaks, hardly suggests a moribund organization.

Shifted emphasis of goals, less dramatic tactics, and lower levels of publicity also have wrought internal changes. Of necessity, the lower budget brought staff reductions. (Not that SCLC pay ever was lavish. Example: The Rev. James Orange, a burly, highly effective field worker who looks utterly at home in dungarees, after nearly 10 tough years in the Movement, recently received a raise to $6,500 a year—plus, presumably, free soul food almost anywhere he goes.)

Many volunteers and some of the old staff are gone because the old glamor is. New recruits and those who remain have accommodated to the new rhythms.

Dorothy Cotton, who has been at SCLC so long she “can’t even remember my life before the Movement,” summarized it: “The hectic days of living and working with Dr. King—wow! It was exciting, beautiful, moving. But it was also killing. You just can’t live at that pitch constantly. One year you can run down the street shouting ‘Freedom now!’ But after a few years, you’ve got to put some flesh on that skeleton. I guess this leads to a more coat-and-tie approach.”

Young, always a coat-and-tie man, left day-to-day work with SCLC first to run for Congress and later to plant his roots more solidly in Atlanta soil with the Community Relations Commission. He remains a member of the SCLC board.

Coretta King also is a board member, and occasionally makes appearances for SCLC causes, but her general absence from the scene continually inspires reports that she and Abernathy are at odds. Both deeply resent these allegations.

A more accurate reading is that Mrs. King is occupied—even preoccupied—with raising her four school-age children, and seeking funds for the Martin Luther King Memorial Center, an ambitious four-block complex of research, meeting and museum facilities planned in the neighborhood of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was co-pastor with his father. These commitments, plus a protective secretary, make her almost inaccessible to reporters. (Even after three weeks’ attempts to reach her for this article, she was “not available.”)

“Dr. King used to say we had a team of wild horses,” recalled Tom Offenburger, a white journalist who left U.S. News & World Report to answer King’s clarion. “They could go off on their own thing, but then he could pull it all together again.”

Most of the “wild horses” have left the corral, and gradually—often subtly—SCLC is becoming Abernathy’s organization.

The Rev. James Bevel drifted out of SCLC and was heard from most recently urging a Gov. George Wallace-Rep. Shirley Chisholm ticket.

The Rev. T. Y. Rogers died in an automobile accident.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, often cited as Abernathy’s most potent rival, resigned a few months ago in a much celebrated flap when Abernathy and the SCLC board attempted to curb Jackson’s near autonomy in the organization’s Chicago operation. The handsome, dynamic young Chicago minister promptly established his own black rights organization, PUSH (People United to Save Humanity).

Hosea Williams, most flamboyant and controversial of all the “horses,” was bypassed last spring when young Stoney Cooks, who has less seniority, was named executive director. Williams was placed on leave of absence, made a trip around the world (with funds raised from churches), and returned to write a book. Although Williams was never especially noted for his piety, Abernathy recently ordained his as a minister. Despite their differences, Williams rejects any criticism of Abernathy’s leadership:

“You must be kidding! Abernathy is the most unsung hero in the movement. Dr. King never made a decision that he didn’t consult Ralph David Abernathy. And if Ralph said no, you could bet your bottom dollar that was a dead idea.

“Ralph is not as intellectual as Dr. King, but he’s no dumb man. Everybody knows the guts Ralph’s got. And they know Ralph cannot be bought out. Ralph is able to relate better to the masses than Dr. King was. Dr. King tried. He’d put on some old boots and go down to the pool hall and shoot pool. And they’d accept him a little bit. But as soon as he’d open his mouth—there was something about that man—they’d back away and want to put him on a pedestal. And you’d see ’em looking at him, just wanting to touch him. He was something particular.

“Ralph’s different. Ralph couldn’t do that if he wanted to. There ain’t a bum in the streets won’t say, ‘Hey, Abernathy,’ and throw his arm around Ralph. But that’s the type leader we need today. Black people have developed to the point today that they no longer need a leader they can look up at. They need one they can look at!”

UnKingly though Abernathy admittedly is, and fragmented as the black rights movement is into militants, moderates and separatists, a recent Lou Harris survey showed that black Americans rank Abernathy their most respected leader—a position once held by his friend and predecessor, King.

And as much as some externals have changed, SCLC retains some of its original essences. It is still more a force than an organization, more an idea than a bureaucracy. Mail may still go unanswered, phone calls unreturned, timeclocks unpunched, appointments tardy or unkept.

The slightly shabby headquarters of the Movement that helped change America remains in that focus of black Atlanta, “sweet Auburn,” a soul stew of churches, high-booted prostitutes, “Jesus Saves” neon, billiard parlors, old men in a barber shop, pushers in rakish hats, soul-food lunchrooms, and the prestigious, black-owned Atlanta Life Insurance Company.

It is appropriate that SCLC is there, in the Prince Hall Free & Accepted Masons Building, rather than in the other focus, the West Side, with its Atlanta University complex and $50,000 homes, for SCLC’s strength remains with the poor and troubled.

“You can’t get too poor, and your house can’t be too run down for SCLC,” remarked Thomas Gilmore, whom SCLC helped elect the first black sheriff of Greene County, Ala. (Black officeholders in the Old South have risen in number from about 100 in 1965 to 873 today. Many received SCLC assistance.)

“SCLC is at its very tops out in the Perry Counties, Choctaw Counties, Wilcox Counties,” said a long-time U.S. Justice Department official, a close observer of the civil rights struggle for more than a decade. “They’re the best out in the field working with the regular folks as community organizers.”

“I’ve got 30 people who can ‘turn on’ any county in the South,” claimed Stoney Cooks. “We are the organization that can turn people on. (State Rep.) Julian Bond ain’t got nobody but himself, his wife and children.”

This ability to talk the language of the people not only influences the kinds of projects SCLC undertakes, but also carves a niche distinct from other civil rights organizations and from labor unions.

In a few rural backwaters, where the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 still encounter bitter-end resistance, SCLC projects resemble those of the old days. But increasingly, they are economic and political. Hosea Williams summed it up:

“We’ve got to get the movement out of the streets and into the banks, the chambers of commerce, the college classrooms. We’ve got to stop running to the white community. We’ve got to develop our community. We’ve got to change the slums from a dungeon of shame to a haven of beauty. And then, hell, the white folks’ll be trying to move into our neighborhood.”

SCLC’s major program theme this year is “Politics ’72.” It includes voter registration drives, now rolling at Atlanta University, in parts of North Carolina and Mississippi, and in the Alabama Black Belt. It will support sympathetic candidates in key congressional districts around the country (notably Georgia’s Fifth District, where Atlanta’s Andrew Young will be taking his second shot at the seat).

Abernathy probably will lead a delegation of demonstrators to the Democratic National Convention in July in Miami Beach to apply public pressure to black delegates. SCLC played an important role in organizing black students who elected Shirley Chisholm delegates at the Fifth District Democratic Convention last month.

A formidable propaganda apparatus undergirds SCLC’s politicking. Hundreds of thousands of leaflets, flyers and posters will be distributed to explain voter registration. (One sample, affixed to a wall in the SCLC lobby: “This house is 100% registered to vote. Is yours?”)

SCLC also distributes a half-hour taped radio program to more than 150 black radio stations each week. Called “Martin Luther King Speaks,” it is aimed at devout blacks for whom the Promised Land and the struggle for equal rights are one and the same. Programs often include King’s voice. “Luckily, we taped every speech he made,” Offenburger sighed.

In the area of citizen education and government—as contrasted with politics—SCLC also operates workshops through a tax-exempt Southern Christian Leadership Foundation, which spent $300,000 last year (one-third as much as SCLC’s entire budget but not part of it).

The recession of the late Sixties and early Seventies has handicapped SCLC’s efforts to upgrade jobs for blacks. The organization has been most effective in protest situations such as the Charleston hospital workers’ strike. In 1970, when 500 black and white steelworkers struck in Georgetown, S.C., SCLC helped coordinate their protests into a successful strike. Currently, two SCLC field workers in Birmingham are girding for a re-run of Charleston: More than 2,000 employes from three hospitals already have signed pledge cards asking for collective bargaining.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has been involved in voter education and politics far longer than SCLC. The Urban League has more seniority in solving employment problems. And labor unions would seem on the surface to have enough experience in union organizing to get along without SCLC’s help.

Has SCLC then become a fifth wheel, a drain on the diminished resources of black-rights causes?

If SCLC has a raison d’etre, it lies not in staking out exclusive projects, but in its special ability to talk to and “turn on” poor blacks. NAACP, no slouch at such organization, is more oriented to litigation. Urban League tends to operate more through established channels of power.

As for union support, Abernathy said: “We can get into these hospitals very easy. We speak the people’s language, and they believe in us. They’ve never been in a union before. Once they are organized, they choose the union; we don’t. Soul power and union power are a winning combination.”

“The black American is in the church,” Hosea Williams added. “His whole being is in the church.” Anent his own new preaching role, he explained: “You got to go where the people are before you can take them where they ought to be.”

SCLC’s fate is directly related to the faith it can instill in its constituency. Can that faith survive without the charisma of King? Without the drama and headlines of monumental, all-troops confrontations?”

Four years should be long enough for some sort of answer. Abernathy has found his.

In the first months after King’s assassination, he recalled, trying to operate SCLC was “kind of like being a widower, being the father and the mother to the movement. We had always been together, even in jail.

“The thing I miss most, now I don’t have anybody to laugh with.”

Abernathy lived long in King’s shadow, though he says that people who attempt to compare him with King “are not sincere supporters of the Movement.”

The turning point for Abernathy was a religious experience.

“When ‘d leave the office late at night, I used to walk up to the (King) tomb and listen for his voice. But the tomb never said anything. One night last year I got home from a staff meeting about four in the morning. We had had terrible disagreements, and I didn’t know what to do.

“I looked at Dr. King’s picture in my hallway, and I said, ‘Martin, I’ve done everything I know how. What can I do?’ You may not believe this, but I know he talked to me . . . an inner voice. He said, ‘Ralph, don’t look to me. I don’t have the answer. Look to the Cross.’

“I got back in my car—and drove down to my church and sat in a pew for about an hour. The Cross is always illuminated. Finally, I realized I would no longer find the answers in Martin Luther King. He was a great spirit. He lived. But the answers must come from Christianity.”

Maid in Atlanta: Tara is behind her. But it’s a long road to where she wants to go.

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Anne Rivers Siddons Maid in Atlanta 1971 Atlanta MagazineThis article was originally published in our November 1971 issue.

Late spring. Long shadows on a vast velvet lawn. White columns shimmering deep in a twilight cave of sweet new green. Banjo music, soft and aching, from somewhere behind the big house. A warm fog of fragrance from the kitchen, from the Cape Jasmine bushes, from the magnolias, incandescent in the sea-green, underwater dusk.

A heavy, middle-aged black woman in starched white trundles ponderously after a streaking, sleep-querulous small blond boy, capering across the lawn. She scoops him up, scolds him softly as she bears him, wriggling, back to the house.

“I’m gon’ skin you alive if you do that again. What your mama gon’ say? You a trial to me all my days.” She kisses him. Pauses to listen to the sounds of adult laughter on the lanterned veranda. To watch the ridiculous jeweled peacocks fanning on the grass. To think about the narrow white bed in the small, neat house behind the big one.

Gone with the Wind? Song of the South? No.

Habersham Road, Atlanta, 1971.

The banjo is in the teenager’s room upstairs. The fragrance may be jasmine, may be pot. (“Wonder do they know he smokin’ that stuff? Should I tell Miss Sally?”)

The laughter is from some 50 tennis-tanned adults, drinking scotch and water at a pay-back cocktail party. The black woman made the canapés; she will serve them after she tucks the toddler back in bed; she will wash up after the last “Glory, Glory to Old Georgia” is sung, and the last guest is borne off by his tight-mouthed wife. It will be late when the black woman crawls into the white bed in her room over the garage. (“Dear Lord, just listen to them sorry peacocks. Sound like souls in hell. Wonder did I forget to feed ’em?”)

On her Sunday and Monday off she stays with her sister across town in the Southwest. But she hasn’t been home in three weeks. May is party time on Habersham Road…

The maids. Minnie, Fannie, Rosie, Annie. (Why do all maids’ names seem to end in “ie”?) Laughing, crowing, jostling (“jollyhopping,” they call it) in black, solid shoals at the corner of Broad and Walton downtown every morning at 8:30, waiting for the maids’ buses to the Northside. Patient in late-model Buicks and Oldsmobiles outside Westminster and Lovett every afternoon when school is in session, waiting for the rangy children they have diapered and swatted and bathed and fed from babyhood. In supermarkets. In small yards off Piedmont, and in Morningside and Druid Hills, sweeping walks and pinning up laundry, one practiced eye on scabby-kneed children. Walking down the green canyons that sprout off Peachtree Road, stolid in sensible flat shoes and accoutered with the inevitable shopping bag and umbrella.

Bones, flesh and spirit of one of the sweetest, most cherished and last-to-die myth-realities that sustain the Old South—the mystique of the devoted, wise, child-like and supremely contented Southern maid.

Anne Rivers Siddons Maid in Atlanta 1971 Atlanta MagazineThe song is ending. The Mammies of Gone With the Wind and the Calpurnias of To Kill a Mockingbird are not very real any more—if they ever were. The maid of the South, the patient, loving black woman who literally raised so many of us, who worked for our mothers in somnolent small towns and sheltered suburbs was real—her body, her hands, her toil, her ties to us and ours. But it was romantic fiction, largely—fiction and economic necessity—that supplied the relationship with its idyllic contentment and gaiety and simple, sunny charm.

That book is closing. Another is opening.

Excerpt from the new book: In Washington, D.C., an angry black woman tells a meeting of the National Committee on Household Employment that of the nation’s 1.7 million domestic workers, two-thirds are black, 98 percent are women, and median income is about $1,800 a year—$600 lower than President Nixon’s proposed minimum for the unemployed. The woman knows: She is a maid.

Chapters are being written in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and New York, the only three states to include domestic workers in minimum wage legislation. Written by newly formed domestic workers’ organizations which are straining and slashing at yoke of inequities: no job security, no paid vacations or paid sick leave, no workmen’s compensation or unemployment benefits, and no pensions, since many domestic workers are paid to little that they are not covered by Social Security.

(Not so oddly, perhaps, many maids who do earn enough to qualify for Social Security don’t want their portion of the quarterly payment deducted from their wages. Security at age 65 may seem academic to a woman who can’t pay the rent now. But the law does provide coverage if she earns above a certain amount per quarter. And if she does, her employer must file a quarterly report, complete with a check representing 10.4 percent of the total wages paid to her each quarter. Many employers, knowing their maids’ financial straits, are willing, even happy, to pay the entire 10.4 percent, in addition to their maids’ full wages, and do not withhold from their salaries the 5.2 percent that represents the employees’ half.)

Chapters are being written in Alexandria, Va., where SURGE—Services United for Responsible and Gainful Employment—has evolved from a Labor Department-funded training program for domestics to an employee-owned corporation.

And in the South, which employs 54 percent of the nation’s domestic workers; where, in many states, prevailing wages are as low as 50 cents an hour, more chapters in the new book are being drafted. The Domestic Workers of America, formed in 1968 and piloted through its organizational phase by the Atlanta Urban League, now numbers about 3,000 members from the ranks of Atlanta’s 30,000-plus domestic workers.

To the average worker, demands of these new groups seem elementary, basic. They are the things taken for granted in even the lowest-paying of most jobs: insurance coverage, workmen’s compensation, unemployment benefits, a basic living wage—in the words of Mrs. Edith B. Sloan, executive director of the National Committee on Household Employment—pay, protection, professionalism.

The Three Ps. But behind the Three Ps, the col statistics, the neatly drafted demands for tangible, workadays benefits, is the cry for what hasn’t been in the kitchen with Dinah for all these years…respect. Dignity. Simple, garden-variety humanity.

Charles Stinson Jr., director of community services for the Atlanta Urban League, knows the territory: He helped inaugurate the infant Domestic Workers of America in May, 1968.

What these women are fighting—have fought all along—is a lack of basic awareness that they’re highly skilled workers, human beings of dignity, productiveness and standing. Until they’re spelled out, their employers usually don’t stop to assess the skills they have—and neither do they. The maid’s a capable human being, working for a living like you and me, and she does her job like nobody on earth.

“She cleans and cares for a big house, every piece of fine furniture and porcelain and silver in it. She’s a chauffeur—and a good one. She knows how to take care of expensive clothing and fabrics, she runs sophisticated appliances, she cooks large meals, sometime gourmet meals. She serves at parties and does a mountain of dishes afterwards. And she does everything for those children, from seeing that they’re safe to applying emergency first aid, to listening to their homework, to disciplining them, to helping them make moral and ethical value judgments.

“You think that doesn’t take skill and sensitivity and dedication? Would you do it for seven or eight dollars a day and no protection or job security? Because, until 1968, that’s what an average Atlanta maid earned.

“But you still hear women saying, ‘Why is she always asking for money? Why does she fuss about working a little later some days? She just doesn’t want to work. Mother’s maid wasn’t like that.’

“I’ll give you an example. Back when the union was first organized, and were getting a good bit of publicity, this guy call and he says, ‘Look, I’m good to my maid, but I want to tell you something. Her husband picks her up after work, and sometimes if she’s not finished, he pulls a few weeds for me. Well, I always give him a nice plate of something, a nice meal—same thing we eat—whenever he does. And now they’re both mad at me.’”

Stinson laughed softly, helplessly, in angry defeat.

“‘A nice plate of something.’ Does his boss dock his salary on payday because he took him to lunch the day before? When people start really seeing their domestic employees, seeing them as people earning a living in the same world and paying the same prices that they themselves do, instead of thinking of them the same way their parents and grandparents did—then it will come, all of it. The money, the working conditions, the respect. But not ’til then.”

Slowly, ponderously, to the accompaniment of a litany of frustration, things are changing, thanks mainly to organization and perseverance.

A domestic workers’ union in New York State won inclusion in the state’s minimum wage legislation. In Massachusetts, a group successfully pressed for inclusion in the state’s labor laws. Domestics in the Charlotte, N.C., area won shorter hours and higher pay. A bill before Congress includes domestic workers under the Federal minimum wage, but it is still wrapped in the tendrils of committee bureaucracy.

In Atlanta, public awareness has grown, and with it, the pay scale has risen from $7-$8 a day to the current average of $12 (lower than their hoped-for $15), but little has been done in the way of legislation. [Editor’s note: $8 in 1971 is about $51 in 2019. $12 is about $72. $15 is about $95.]

A bill proposed by state Sen. Leroy Johnson in February, 1969, to establish a minimum wage for domestic workers, was defeated. A carefully drawn training program, in which 25 domestic workers were to be recruited and trained every eight weeks in all phases of domestic work, was drafted in a proposed contract between the Urban League and the U.S. Department of Labor, but was turned down for funding because there was, at the time, a pilot domestic training program in progress in Washington, and the Labor Department wanted to evaluate it before funding new projects. The tabling of the training program was especially painful to Lyndon Wade, executive director of the Urban League, who believes strongly that sophisticated training is the most workable answer to the domestics’ employment dilemma.

“People have said to me, ‘Why bother with domestics? Why don’t you design training programs for future bank presidents, high-potential people who can really contribute to society?’ The training of domestics, though, is something that in a short time can make a lot of people employable. It’s logical, it’s feasible. It could really raise salaries. It could be done here and now. We want to concentrate on this area because the future bank president can and will get his training somewhere else. But who’s giving these people a hand?”

In a tiny, cluttered, mercilessly fluorescent office at 5 Forsyth Street, a soft-voiced, steel-spined dynamo of a woman is giving them a hand…and heart and soul and every ounce of energy and time she has. Mrs. Dorothy Bolden, former maid, longtime president of the Domestic Workers of America, and the most vocal champion of the Southern maid, has taken their cause to the public, via TV, to city officials, to MARTA officials, to Washington, as a delegate to a domestic opportunities conference (“And do you believe it? I was the only maid there.”), to the state legislature, to a spate of local, state, and federal agencies; to utility companies, rental agencies—and to towns and cities the South over, where she helps other domestic groups to organize. (“I need to do a lot of work in some of those places, but I figure my mouth ain’t gonna make it any cooler for the maids there. I’ll go when the time is right.”) In addition, she operates a domestic workers’ placement agency, strictly within the new guidelines of the union.

“I have three rules for ladies hiring a maid. And the first is, I don’t want to see any maid down on her knees. Maids have been exposed too long to bad weather and cold water. They have arthritis so bad they cannot bend their knees and legs and feet. Once that woman is down on the floor, she can’t get up. I have arthritis in my knees because I’ve stayed on my knees on scrub pads all my life. And those pads were so thin that the water came through. No, honey, I been on my knees. And so have those women. No more.

“The second rule is, she doesn’t wash windows. Those ladies don’t carry insurance on their maids, in case she falls. No paid sick leave, either. You’ve got to realize, most maids are heads and sole supports of their household.

“And third, I don’t want her to reach up way over her head. She’s got arthritis in her arms and shoulders, too. People who hire maids just don’t think about things like arthritis. If you live on the Northside and you got arthritis, you didn’t get it from scrubbing floors.”

Like a sweet-voiced bulldog, Mrs. Bolden will tackle every inequity that confronts her flock. And at this point in time, she believes that the right tack for her union is heightened public awareness of domestics’ rights, instead of truculent militance—awareness and independence.

“We organized this union ourselves, because who knows our positions better than we do? Female domestics fear outside organizations, big unions. I did. We know we have to do it on our own, not merge with any other national union. A lot of unions have been bugging me to merge. But who can tell the truth about these women, who can honestly represent them, but maids themselves? No outside could know.”

Probably not. These placid, self-contained women are so much a part of the furniture of our world that it’s easy to take them for granted. They are not given to talking about their problems. Or ours.

“Maids are dignified women,” said Dorothy Bolden. “You don’t see them participating in unrest. They go through town on the way to their jobs, and they mind their own business. If they jollyhop, they jollyhop on the bus with each other. This is the way they get along. They stick together. They may think old Mary up there at the front talks too much, but they don’t throw her off the bus.

“Something that has been overlooked for a long time is the act that maids have more integrity than most people. A maid will not betray a confidence, I don’t care what she sees or hears. A lot of her times, her lady is waiting when she comes in the door, to tell her everything about what Mr. John did to her. And the maid consolates that lady. She says, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad.’ She does not go back and tell her friends what her lady said. And she won’t tell her employer her problems with her money, or her kids, either.”

On a clear fall night recently, a group of maids met in Dorothy Bolden’s tiny office—and they did talk about their problems. Like an ageless, resigned, Greek chorus, punctuated with flashes of soft, matriarchal, mordant humor, sparked with low, musical, indulgent laughter at “Miss Sally,” they talked—and the timeless agonies and frustrations came clear: neglected families. All had children of their own. No other adult guidance. All were divorced, or widowed, heads of household, sole wage-earners. Niggling, day-to-day indignities. And never, ever enough money.

Mrs. Lovett: “It’s kind of hard to be away from your children all day. There are so many things you could be doing for them, you’re doing for a white lady’s children instead. But you just learn not to fret about it, or you’ll be crying all the time you’re taking care of her kids. And then she’ll say you’re too sad to be around the children.”

Mrs. Evans: “I won’t leave my child at a day nursery. Way we do it, we pay a little something to a neighbor, or there’s an aunt or grandmother, or sister. We help each other with our children. It just works that way. You leave your own with your own.”

Mrs. Reese: “I didn’t put mine in a nursery. An elderly lady kept him for me. Somehow or another, it look like he turned out pretty good.”

Mrs. Bolden: “You all are being too easy. Look at your boy. He’s swamped with women. There’s his mother. She’s everything to him—mother, father, wage-earner. Then, he goes to school and he’s got a woman teacher. His counselor is a woman—when he can get to see her. Usually there’s 10 kids ahead of him. Do you wonder why, when the man on the street corner says, ‘Hey, you wanna turn on?’ he’s willing, even anxious, to do it? That man may be the wrong kind of male figure, but he’s the only one that boy has.”

Mrs. Bolden: “Low pay is the worst thing, of course. Let me explain this to you. Some of these women want a maid to work, but they don’t want to pay her. Honest to God, they know better than to pay their maids so bad. But it’s a marketplace. Any woman’s going to shop for a bargain, and that’s how she’s going to shop for a maid. They shop through bridge clubs, through garden clubs. I got a letter I could show you, I got from a woman back during Maids’ Honor Day. It says, the going price on this street is eight dollars. Going price! For a human being!”

Mrs. Beckham: “It’s bad when you’ve got a family that’s not concerned about Social Security and things like that. Because then, what are you doing to do when you’re retired? I wish people could understand that if you can’t manage on what you are making, you might as well not work. Almost enough just isn’t enough.”

Mrs. Evans: “I had to tell a lady not long ago that I was sorry, I just couldn’t work for eight dollars and car fare, because I have to support my family. I don’t have any income but what I work for.”

Mrs. Bolden: “$12 a day is average; it’s what we established in 1968. And it ought to be at least $15. But we still have people making five, eight, ten dollars a day—and no car fare. But if you think that’s bad, think about this: There are people out in Fayette, Coweta, counties like that, making seven or eight dollars a week. Why do they stand for it? Who in that county is going to pay them more?

“Let me tell you something else about money. It’s not only that they don’t pay their maids enough. It’s that they don’t pay them often enough. What happens to that maid when Miss Sally is on vacation for three, six weeks? I’ll tell you. She hurts. I placed a maid once in one of the most beautiful houses in this city, and those folks would go off all summer and leave that woman without anything. She and her sister were buying a home over on Boulevard, and then her sister got sick and couldn’t work, and that woman didn’t have anything coming in ’til her folks got back. They’re living in Capitol Homes now. Lost their house. Well, I finally got that maid five days a week somewhere else, and you know? That first woman called up and raised cain with me.”

Mrs. Adams: “Another thing: A maid sees this low utility bill come in to this white lady’s big house. She thinks, ‘This lady runs everything in this house all day and all night long. Why is her bill so low? Mine’s $40.” [Editor’s note: $40 in 1971 is about $253 in 2019.]

Mrs. Bolden: “I figured that one out, honey. That meter reader isn’t going to walk ’way round your house to read your meter if you aren’t home to make sure he does. He’ll estimate. And then, you can see for yourself how those maids’ houses are wired. The heat’s going out the cracks and the cold’s coming in. You huddle together to keep warm and you pay more. I once asked the gas company to let some of us retired maids read those meters. Well, they say, they don’t discriminate against anybody. I haven’t stirred that up yet, but I’ll get to it.

“It makes me so blue. People say, ‘She don’t manage her money right. She don’t shop for bargains.’ When is she going to shop for bargains? She’s just got time to run to the closest store when she gets home, and that’s the one that’s charging her an arm and a leg. Sure, she’d do better at Richway. How’s she going to get to Richway at seven at night with no car? From one loan office to another, that’s how she lives, and you know what those interest rates are.

“But the thing that really gets me boiling is when they say, ‘Look at her, she’s got two TV sets in that little old run-down house of hers, and yet she doesn’t fix up that house decent. I’m tired of hearing that. Does that maid go out to dinner, does she go to the theatre? Does she go to the movies with her husband? She hasn’t got the husband, and she hasn’t got the money. What else is she doing to do but watch TV? She knows what her house looks like. But that house is clean.”

Mrs. Evans: “You wouldn’t believe what some ladies’ houses are like. They’re filthy. You go in, and those dishes been piled up all weekend, and they look like somebody spit in ’em. And some of ’em got dogs, and you got to get up that dog hair off everything. It takes all day to get dog hair off a good carpet.”

Mrs. Bolden: “Another rule I have, and that is that no maid has got to clean up dog and cat droppings. We’ve been treated too much like animals ourselves. Some of those ladies think more of their dogs than they do of their maids. I’ve worked in a home myself where they fed the dog off a plate and I ate off a napkin. And I’ve seen the time that the dog got the steak they had for dinner while I ate a baloney sandwich.”

Mrs. Reese: “You haven’t heard the half of it. A lot of maids have to bring their lunch. A lot of people won’t feed their maids.”

Mrs. Adams: “I’ve often said that if I had to carry me a sandwich, I wouldn’t work there. I feel like if I work for you, you should feed me.”

Mrs. Bolden: “You always have been an independent soul. You started this protest business before this union ever got born.”

Mrs. Adams: “That’s right. I was getting up at four in the morning to catch my bus and get there in time to cook their breakfast by 6:30, and one day I just said, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore.’ Well, I think they respected me for that. You know, I worked for them for 30 years.”

Mrs. Bolden: “But I have had maids call me and say, ‘My lady doesn’t want me to touch anything in her refrigerator. What should I do?’ I try to find another place for that maid. But before this, there wasn’t much a maid could do if she was mistreated, except maybe try to stick up for herself a little.”

Mrs. Lovett: “And you smiled while you were sticking.”

Mrs. Bolden: “Well, if it gets too bad, a maid can quit. The word gets around; maids know who’s good to work for and who isn’t. Pretty soon that lady’s having a might hard time getting a maid. She’s going to be better to her next one. Maids are getting scarce. That one thing alone is going to make folks treat their maids better. I found out that nearly a million maids left their jobs last year, and there aren’t many young women going into the field. Why would they, if they can do something else? Maids are mostly older women who got to work. They’re widows, or they’re separated. The average maid is about 46 years old.”

Mrs. Beckham: “This young generation, they don’t have any patience. Most of them are looking to find the dollar and cut the time. They go to factories. To be a maid, you got to be able to love that lady’s children. I know I nursed children for 25 years, and I had time left over to love my own children. This younger generation, look like they don’t even love their own children.”

Mrs. Bolden: “Another thing that’s changing, everybody wants a live-in maid. But they’re not getting live-in help much any more. I know, all the ads in the paper are looking for live-in. But I’m not placing them. A person’s leisure time is her independence; she’s got to be with her family some time. Those weekends off, lots of times they turn into half a day, or Sunday, and when is she going to do her shopping? There’s a high city official right now, you couldn’t get much higher, and he’s looking for a live-in maid. He’s going to have a hard time.”

Mrs. Evans: “But it’s mainly a question of respect. I left a job not long ago because a lady was trying to make me get down on my knees with a brush to scrub the floor, instead of using a mop. And I told her I was sorry, but I got on my knees for one thing—to pray—and then I used a pillow. And I took off that uniform and left. I wasn’t making but $7, anyway.”

Mrs. Bolden: “That’s right, honey. Some women just like knowing they’ve got the power to get another woman down on her knees. Well, that’s going to change. It’ll be slow, but it’s going to change. You know, this union doesn’t serve me. I don’t get paid. But it’s serving these sisters of mine, and so it really does serve me. I see, I know the pride that maids can take in their work, if people will let them. And as I tell them, if I fall dead tomorrow, this must stand.”

This article was originally published in our November 1971 issue. Inflation rates calculated here.

Ivan Allen and the Stadium

In this cover story from August 1964, now-legendary sports columnist Furman Bisher projected the impact that the new stadium would have on Atlanta’s economy and reputation. Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. was spearheading the venture—although the city had yet to be granted a franchise. No worry, asserted Bisher. Allen and the “Atlanta Whatachumacallits” would give the city “an entirely fresh image throughout the country.”
 
A Major League Boost for the Economy
There’s a cavernous concrete oval rising like an elevator on the edge of town, and Ivan Allen Jr. has staked a piece of his political future on his ability to fill it with mayor league ballplayers and playing customers. What will it mean for the city?
By Furman Bisher
 
Say the San Francisco Giants, featuring the incompaorable Willie Mays, are in town to play the Atlanta Whatachumacallits in a weekend series of National League games.
 
On a Saturday morning, 400 festive excursionists will climb aboard a train in Chattanooga, Tenneseee, and the train will point its snub nose in the direction of Atlanta.
 
In Jacksonville, Florida, a charter airline will pack eighty passengers aboard on a Sunday morning and take off for Atlanta. That afternoon, the eighty Floridians will watch a doubleheader, have dinner in local restaurants, then fly home that night.
 
Private planes will lift off runways over the whole South and their piots will aim them toward some haven near Atlanta at intervals over the same exciting weekend. All bunched together, they will provide Willie Mays with another appreciative audience.
 
 

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