I experienced an unexpected personal ritual the other day. I had been in Atlanta, Ga., overseeing the installation of a sculpture. Everything went well and I found myself with two extra days and nothing to do. So I decided to visit the Martin Luther King Memorial, which is located on the east side of the downtown area of Atlanta on Auburn Avenue, a long street that drops slightly downhill through a predominantly black section of the city, underneath the I-85 expressway and then slightly uphill into a forest of skyscrapers.
I was not prepared for the feelings I would encounter, triggered by my first view of Ebenezer Baptist Church. I recognized it as I turned off Edgewood Avenue onto Jackson Street, which gives a full view of the back of the church, an unfamiliar view. It was like catching someone unawares, not in formal wear, but in everyday attire. Two sides of the church are surrounded by a parking lot, with a chain-link fence and a side door into the basement, where a Saturday bake sale was in process.From the front, the church was familiar from the TV images of the 1960s - the two square spires, the faded blue neon sign topped with a white tin and neon cross, Papa King's church, the funeral of his son, Martin Luther King, the crowds of restless people filling the TV screen.
These were the patterned images, the ones that fit my past perspective. I had not expected the back of the church to make such a profound impression - it was like coming in the back door and finding an unexpected reality staring you in the face, suddenly jostling long-formed impressions of how things are.
I spent two days on Auburn Street - "Sweet Auburn," as it was called by the people who lived here in the days of strict segregation. I sat for a couple of hours alone on the corner of Jackson and Auburn, just watching people and observing my feelings. I admit that I was a bit scared at first, being alone and a minority in a largely black neighborhood. A long-nourished instinct kept warning me to keep one hand on my wallet and to expect the tires to be gone off the car if I left it for too long. These feelings bothered me and I struggled with them.
Several times, I walked the two short blocks between Ebenezer Baptist and the cream-colored, two-story house with brown trim further up on Auburn where Martin Luther King grew up in his grandpa's house, living there with his parents, his older sister, Christine, and his younger brother, Alfred Daniel ("A.D."). I went on a brief tour through the house with a young black tour guide and a group of about 15 black people - a couple with a stroller, a family with teenagers and an older couple. I began to ponder the roots of fear.
I grew up in a small, almost totally Mormon, totally white Utah community, with no personal experience of black people - until the eighth grade, when at the Junior High Track Invitational at Brigham Young University I high jumped against a tall, black kid from one of the Salt Lake schools. He had on a yellow track uniform and his blackness intimidated me a lot. I fell out of the competition at 4-feet 11-inches, a fair height for a scrawny eighth-grader, but I remember that he went on to win. I retained a strong image in my mind of him on the grass opposite me warming up, a mildly terrifying image, actually, which until last week I had never really confronted for what it signified.
I walked around in the backyard of King's home, pictured him playing there, climbing in the trees by the back fence and meandering into the house before suppertime to taste his grandma's cooking. I read about his confusion shortly after starting school when suddenly it wasn't OK anymore to play with the two white boys who lived across the street, and how he learned that there were people to avoid and places he could not go.
I had never really understood the mountain of collective pain that lay behind Rosa Park's refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. I had never lived in an environment where the lines were so clear cut. But subtle prejudices, formed at a distance, are often more dangerous than overt ones. Not so close to the line of conflict, it is easy to take easy positions.
On one occasion Martin Luther King put it very well. He said: "Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they do not know each other; they do not know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated."
The perceptions I confronted on Auburn Street were not easy to define or categorize. They were easy to recognize, however, because of the aura of fear surrounding them. Overt prejudice is easy to spot because its face is openly revealed in the blatant injustices it precipitates. But subtle prejudice is difficult to recognize because it masks itself so well in piety.