Jan. 1, 2002
There is a road that wends its way through the heart and soul of black America. Sometimes it is called a boulevard, a drive, an avenue, a street or a way, but it is always named Martin Luther King.
It happened without grand design but with profound, if unrecognized, consequences. Together, the circumstance of segregation, the martyrdom that made Martin Luther King Jr. the every-hero of a people, and the countless separate struggles to honor him have combined to create a black Main Street from coast to coast.
Better than 500 streets are named for King in cities and towns from one end of the country to the other, with more added every year. Map them and you map a nation within a nation, a place where white America seldom goes and black America can be itself. It is a parallel universe with a different center of gravity and distinctive sensibilities, kinship at two or three degrees of separation, not six.
There is no other street like it.
The idea for a journey along Martin Luther King was born some years ago on a reporting trip through the Mississippi Delta. In town after town, directions to the black community had the sameness of a blues refrain: Just head on down to Martin Luther King.
Over the course of two years, a reporter and a photographer have done just that — headed on down to Martin Luther King streets of every size and description.
Our only mission was to see where a journey along these streets of a single name would lead. And we discovered that they lead to every facet of black life, politics, thought, belief, culture, history and experience.
We journeyed along King in Jackson, Miss., and on the south side of Chicago, the respective prime source and major destination of the great black migration north. We traveled King in Selma, Ala., and Atlanta, each in its way a mecca of the black freedom struggle.
We started one trip on Juneteenth in Galveston — where that celebration began, marking the day when, 21/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, word finally reached slaves in Texas that they were free. We zigzagged halfway to Canada through East Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas — 19 King streets in all, encountering black communities that one to another were still struggling to make good on that late word of freedom.
We journeyed to the rough-hewn Martin Luther King Boulevard amid the lush land and lean times of little Belle Glade, Fla., and to the most showy and celebrated Martin Luther King Boulevard of them all — 125th Street in Harlem.
And in two West Coast outposts of the African-American diaspora — Oakland, Calif., and Portland, Ore. — our tales of our travels were welcomed like news from home.
Stretches of many King streets have a ragged, wasted quality to them. Comedian Chris Rock famously advised, “If a friend calls you on the telephone and says they’re lost on Martin Luther King Boulevard and they want to know what they should do, the best response is, ‘Run!”’
But pause on King, begin talking to folks, and you are transported beyond the sometimes battered facade into a black America that, with astonishing welcome, reveals itself. It’s not only more separate and self-contained than imagined, but more tightly interconnected, more powerfully whole.
This black America is not hidden. But as the Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston wrote in 1950, in a piece titled “What White Publishers Won’t Print”: “For various reasons, the average, struggling, non-morbid Negro is the best-kept secret in America. ... His revelation to the public is the thing needed to do away with that feeling of difference which inspires fear, and which ever expresses itself in dislike.”
And so we journeyed.
From the sultry rush of freshman week at Morris Brown College in Atlanta to the snow-wrapped funeral of the Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks.
From the ecstatic trombone shout music at the United House of Prayer for All People in Harlem to the furious throb of the Bay Area rappers RBL Posse, whom we encountered in Portland.
From the country-quiet MLK in Jasper, Texas — on which James Byrd Jr. was walking when he climbed into a pickup truck, to be dragged to his death — to the prison on MLK in Oklahoma City where Wanda Jean Allen lived until, the week before King Day 2001, she became the first black woman executed in half a century.
Everywhere along the way, there are barber and beauty shops, fast-food chicken franchises and slow-cooked barbecue joints with sweet iced tea and standing fans. There are the brilliant colors of murals paying homage to King and other heroes. There are churches beyond counting. And there is endless, ardent talk about what it means to be African in America.
A very few big King streets — beginning with Chicago and Atlanta — were dedicated within months of King’s assassination. In the nearly 35 years since, the grass-roots efforts to name streets for King have gained momentum in the face of substantial inertia and resistance. It is a movement with no national organization, no national attention, not even self-knowledge that a movement is what it is — as if the transcontinental railroad had been built piecemeal by folks unaware of one another.
These are streets united by struggle and circumstance, by history and happenstance. One leads to the next and next and back again.
Many black people have moved beyond the neighborhoods where King runs (though there are now King streets in new black suburbs), but few live beyond the reach of the sounds, sentiments and stories rooted on King.
And for many, a street sign that says Martin Luther King heralds a home away from home.
When Dock Jackson, the park director in Elgin, Texas, arrived in Oklahoma City in need of a haircut, he simply headed down to Martin Luther King and found Robert Gates’ barbershop. When Gates travels to a new place, he does the same. “When I don’t know where I’m going,” he says, “I’ll find MLK.”
The more communities that have one, the more a black community without one wonders why not. This often means a rousing fight, right up to last year’s naming of a street for King in Waukegan, Ill., and the failed campaigns to do the same in Toledo, Ohio, and High Point, N.C. In 1987, voters in San Diego rescinded the naming of their city’s MLK, and polls indicated that voters in Portland, Ore., would have done the same in 1990 had the courts not intervened.
Businesses don’t like the bother. There are always some folks devoted to the history and significance of the old name. But in the hundreds of battles one also catches a glimpse of deeper white resistance and of the real King, the man with edge and meaning and not simply the dreamy King of grammar school coloring contests.
The biggest sticking point in these debates is usually whether the street named for King extends beyond the black community.
In Belle Glade, Harma Miller, who was on the city council at the time, said whites wanted the MLK to end before it reached their “beloved Elks Club.” “I said, ‘No,’ and made a big fuss about it,” and the whole of Avenue E now also bears the name Martin Luther King.
But when they did some street repairs in 1999 and replaced a few signs, Miller said, the print on the MLK signs was shrunk so small you had to stop and squint to make it out. That fall, when she became the first black mayor with a black majority on the council, the first thing she did was replace those signs.
Dock Jackson tells us that Elgin lagged 13 years behind the neighboring Texas cities of Bastrop and Smithville — dedicating its MLK on Juneteenth 2001 — because proponents wanted both the white and black ends of the street to bear King’s name. Finally, he said, they settled for the black half alone.
It might have been the same story back in 1975 in Austin — just west of Elgin — were it not for J.J. Seabrook, an elder statesman of the black community, who suffered a fatal heart attack while imploring the city council not to treat King like that. He died and won. Austin’s MLK crosses racial lines and borders the state Capitol complex.
The dedication on King Day 1993 of a Martin Luther King Boulevard in Americus, Ga., came after a year of ugly arguments, threats, protests and the memorable suggestion by a deputy fire chief that half the street be named for King and the other half for James Earl Ray, King’s convicted assassin.
Occasionally, King streets turn up in unexpected places: a busy thoroughfare in Salt Lake City, a squib of a street in Newcomerstown, Ohio — a bucolic dot on the map midway between Columbus and Wheeling, W.Va., that was home to Cy Young and Woody Hayes. Sometimes there isn’t one where you might expect it, like Philadelphia.
But for the most part, King streets are exactly where you would look for them: the densest swaths in the Deep South, from East Texas to Florida. Mississippi alone has at least 65, and King’s home state of Georgia has the most, with upwards of 70.
At times the journey along King is like a pilgrimage along the stations of the cross for the martyred hero.
In 1958, Martin Luther King was stabbed while signing books on what is now MLK in Harlem. He led the 1965 marches in Selma beginning from Brown Chapel on what is now MLK there. Days before his own death, Malcolm X came to that same church to express his solidarity with King, who was then in a Selma jail.
Martin Luther King was tear-gassed in 1966 on what is now the MLK in Canton, Miss., on the Memphis-to-Jackson march along which Stokely Carmichael, tear-gassed as well, first roused a crowd to chant “Black Power.”
The mule-drawn caisson carrying King’s casket in 1968 rolled along what is now MLK in his hometown of Atlanta as it passed the Morris Brown campus, coming within shouting distance of the modest home where King lived and his widow still does.
And for many years, Olivet Baptist Church on King Drive in Chicago took its address from its side street because the pastor, now dead, was such a bitter rival of King’s in national black Baptist circles.
At times, we come upon the wholly unexpected on King.
Just a block south of Olivet Baptist in Chicago is the stately Griffin Funeral Home, where they buried Jesse Owens and Elijah Muhammad and where, each morning, they raise to half-staff a Confederate flag. It is a practice begun by the late owner, Ernest Griffin, when he learned that his mortuary stood on the site of Fort Douglas, a prisoner-of-war camp where more than 6,000 Confederate soldiers died, and where his own grandfather enlisted in the U.S.
Colored Infantry during the Civil War.
On every new King we visit, we learn more about the last King we left, new threads in the tapestry.
Gwendolyn Brooks is waked at the same Chicago funeral home where they waked the hideously bruised and bloated body of the teen-age Emmett Till, killed while visiting Mississippi in the summer of 1955. In Jackson, we meet Charles Tisdale, who was a reporter for the Chicago Defender at the trial of the two white men acquitted of Till’s murder.
And on the MLK in Oakland, we meet Lillie Luckett, who saw the famous photo of the murdered Till in Jet magazine and said, “That family always had trouble.” Growing up in Mississippi, Luckett picked cotton on the land that Till’s grandfather oversaw in the Delta.
Every step of the way, King streets are not just our destination but our guide.
We go to Oklahoma City to visit the well-kept women’s prison where convicted murderer Wanda Jean Allen had been on death row.
But no sooner have we arrived than we stumble into the Miss Black Oklahoma pageant being held at a tumbledown hotel a few miles down King. The pageant is under the indomitable leadership of 78-year-old Clara Luper, who in 1957 took a group of black youngsters to Harlem to perform her play, “Brother President: The Story of Martin Luther King,” an experience that began the Oklahoma City sit-ins the following year.
We go to Lanier High School on MLK in Jackson to see Robert Moses, who commutes every week from Boston to teach, part of the national Algebra Project, which he created to free black young people from the modern serfdom of math illiteracy. We also meet his assistant, Jolivette Anderson, “the poet warrior.”
More than a year and a half later we are with Anderson in Harlem as she performs at the annual Show and Prove of the Five Percent Nation, a group that, teaching that each black man is God, is influential in the worlds of hip-hop and prisons.
That same weekend, on a radiant June day by the beach in Coney Island, Anderson performs at a numinous ceremony of remembrance of the black lives lost in the Middle Passage from African freedom to American bondage.
Lives are lived from one King to the next.
Almost every year, Charles Bolden, a truck driver in Oregon, drives his 1993 Mustang the 3,000 miles from the MLK in Portland to the MLK in Harlem — 10 hours a stint, 31/2 days, 12 tanks of gas. On his arrival, he parks the Mustang at his sister’s house in Brooklyn, and then it’s into Harlem to hear “the drums” of black consciousness, which he says sound too faintly in his adopted hometown.
Shawna Holbrook, who owned the now-defunct Indigo Shack, an African arts shop on MLK Way in Oakland, used to spend summers with her grandma, who lives just off the MLK in Jackson.
The Rev. Daniel Stafford, pastor of Peaceful Rest Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Jasper, is also pastor of Starlight Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Drive in DeRidder, La.
Dolores Cross was president of Chicago State on King Drive before becoming president of Morris Brown on Atlanta’s King Drive. She grew up in Newark, N.J., graduating from Central High School on what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard.
“It’s haunting,” Cross says.
NFL linebacker Ray Lewis led the Baltimore Ravens to a 2000 conference championship playing on the MLK in Baltimore, was the most valuable player in the Super Bowl played on the MLK in Tampa, Fla., and spent the early preseason on trial on Atlanta’s MLK for murders committed in the hours following the previous Superbowl. (He pleaded guilty to obstructing justice.)
Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, formerly known as H. Rap Brown, was arraigned in the same Atlanta courthouse on King, charged with the murder of a sheriff’s deputy who went to Morris Brown.
When Al-Amin was captured in the Alabama countryside to which he had fled, he called the legendary attorney J.L. Chestnut, who on our Sunday in Selma presided over First Baptist Church on MLK, and whose law office is on Jeff Davis not far from its intersection with MLK.
A few blocks up King from First Baptist is the home of Marion Tumbleweed Beach, the gloriously cantankerous old woman with the beautiful garden, the black liberation flag and the lawn sign for Joe Smitherman, the white mayor defeated by James Perkins Jr., his black challenger. Beach knows Al-Amin as well. Back in 1990 he spoke at the funeral of her daughter, Carolyn Delores Beach Foucher, a former Black Panther in Chicago.
On Selma’s King, we also meet Emmanuel ben Avraham, the Trenton, N.J., community activist (like many others, in town to help Perkins) who led the effort to name the MLK there and in his native Newark, N.J.
Earlier, on a visit to Belle Glade for King Day 2000, we had met Angela Williams, just moved onto MLK there from Trenton, where she had lived near that city’s MLK. “Same damn street,” she says with an ain’t-it-a-shame scowl.
“Give a black man a black street in a black neighborhood?” she asks. “That’s not the purpose. The purpose is to honor him.”
But Annie Williams (no relation), who lives and works on Belle Glade’s MLK, managing the Sudsy City Laundromat, disagrees. “Got to keep it black, got to keep this black, Martin Luther King got to be black,” she says.
That’s the way it is and ought to be, in her view, and not just in Belle Glade but in all the other places with MLKs — and that, she knows, is a lot of places, because every place she goes, she looks. “Every town,” she says, “got a Martin Luther King.”
More than she knows, she’s right.
Chicago and Jackson, Miss.: Heart and Soul
January 1, 2002
The Martin Luther King drives in Jackson, Miss., and Chicago are about as different as any two King streets in America.
In Jackson, it’s a big old country road, one that meanders a bit and doesn’t seem to accomplish a lot, at least in terms of getting you anywhere other than where you already are. You drive by the Drummer house just once after being gone a year and a half, and when you finally get around to dropping by, Beola Drummer says, “I saw you were in town.”
King Drive in Chicago is colder in every way. It’s a big, broad, bricks-and-mortar straight shot as far as the eye can see. Stretches are grand. Patches are worn. But if it angled just a hair west and kept on for another 749 miles, it would run right into King Drive in Jackson.
And then the truth would become apparent: The two streets are connected by everything but tar and macadam, connected like before is to after, “what about” is to “you don’t say,” motherland is to colony and soul is to everlasting soul.
“We are not a tribe, we are a nation. We are not wandering groups, we are a people,” the Chicago poet Haki Madhubuti, who teaches on King, wrote 30 years ago.
If Madhubuti’s nation has a heart — a throbbing, vital center for its politics and pulse — it is Chicago, the chosen home of Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, of Ebony and Jet. It is the poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ “I Will city ... ripe/roused/ready.”
And the soul of black folks has got to be somewhere in Mississippi. It has the highest percentage of black people in the United States. Black life and culture everywhere in America are rooted in the South, and this is where the roots run deepest.
“I’m used to hard times,” says W.L. Stokes, a man with a face of abiding eloquence, who grew up picking cotton “from can to can’t, from can see to can’t see,” and now spends his days trading stories with the old-timers at Brown’s gas station on Jackson’s King.
These men, however, lived their lives along the arc from can’t to can. They came of age at a time when “nothing and nothing could stop Mississippi,” as Brooks put it in a poem about the death of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy who was visiting his uncle in Money, Miss., when he supposedly whistled at a white woman and ended up shot and drowned.
Stokes served in the segregated military. Johnny Mack Brown was a Pullman porter when that was about the best job a black man could have. Wardell Catchings fled the Watts riots figuring, “If I got to fight, I’d rather be home.” The very day he returned to Mississippi he became one of the first two black men hired to drive a Jackson city bus. Quincy Brown, proprietor of Brown’s Highway Service, marched for freedom.
They saw it all, survived it all, somehow intact, strong and sweet.
They play checkers at Brown’s on a well-worn red-and-white board.
“I wouldn’t do that if I was you,” Stokes, cigar clenched in his mouth, warns Catchings, who is gently sliding his piece along.
“I didn’t see that,” says Catchings.
“You saw it,” Stokes replies, raising and slamming his piece — snap, snap, snap, snap — a quadruple jump. “You’re just playing the wrong person. You know who I am, don’t you?”
Charles Tisdale, owner and editor of the Jackson Advocate, now in his 70s, knows everybody. His career in black newspapers took him from Chicago to Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson — which, the way he makes it out, is like tumbling down a flight of stairs. “Mississippi goddamn,” Tisdale says in his sonorous rumble, quoting singer Nina Simone. “Why did I come here? I am confused. Anybody who could escape should do so.”
Tisdale is not confused. He is ornery, his newspaper’s office a frequent target of attacks over the years. “If they hadn’t tried to run me off, I probably would have left.”
High up along an elegant expanse of King Drive in a part of Chicago’s South Side known as Bronzeville is a beautiful statue dedicated to the great northern migration of black folks from the South. It’s of a man both sad and jaunty, his back to Mississippi, arriving with a satchel tied with string, wearing a suit made up of shoe soles.
“When I got off at the train station, I saw all the lights and things, it was like entering paradise,” says Rose Marie Black, who arrived in 1946 at age 12 from Summit, Miss.
Black is a vision in black and white — thigh-high boots, skirt up to here, hat out to there, all made by her own hand. When we first encounter her, we are driving south on King Drive and she is about to board a northbound bus. She must be used to the sound of screeching brakes, the swiveling salute of turned heads. She is Racetrack Rosie, the Bronze Temptress — at 66, Chicago’s oldest stripper.
(‘‘The one with the hat out to there?” asks Jack Bennett back at Brown’s in Jackson. After playing Negro League ball, he spent the shank of his life working for the post office in Chicago before coming home to Mississippi.)
Black’s longtime boyfriend, Aaron “Stoney Burke” Johnson, is a Democratic precinct captain. On Election Day 2000, he was the dapper impresario greeting the faithful outside a polling place near King, an old church that looks more Mississippi than Chicago. (Johnson is the superintendent of transportation for the Chicago Post Office, and Jack Bennett knows him, too.)
When Johnson delivered his precinct’s tallies to Congressman Bobby Rush’s office on King, Al Gore beat George W. Bush, 352 to 10.
It is poetic justice, Chicago-style, that Gwendolyn Brooks’ very last public act — the last time she left her home before she died — was to vote in 2000. And, says Haki Madhubuti, “she didn’t go out to vote for Bush.”
Madhubuti is a professor at Chicago State University, a mostly black public college on King Drive. He saw to the creation of a Gwendolyn Brooks Center there with an annual writers conference, a hall of fame for writers of African descent and a professorship for Brooks.
“What does a son do for a mother?” asks Madhubuti, who says Brooks saved and softened him.
Madhubuti is also the founder of two Afrocentric schools — a public charter school and a private school — and of Third World Press, begun in a basement apartment and now occupying a former Catholic rectory with the quiet and class of some well-appointed Ivy League foundation.
He is a prolific and popular poet and essayist, “an interpreter and protector of Blackness,” in Brooks’ words, emerging, when he was known as Don Lee, as one of the sharpest figures of the black arts movement of the 1960s. His 1990 book, “Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?” has remained a best seller in black bookstores.
“He was into that black stuff and he was as light-skinned as a piece of golden corn on the cob,” he wrote of himself 15 years ago. So light-skinned that, in 1974, he decided to take a name as black as his consciousness — Haki, which in Swahili means “just,” and Madhubuti, “precise” or “accurate.”
In the years since, Madhubuti has become as profoundly influential in black America as he is invisible to white America. He is polite, reserved and deeply secure. He has presence — or, as we find traveling on King, omnipresence.
In 1989, when students occupied the administration building at Morris Brown College on MLK in Atlanta, they called Madhubuti for advice.
In 1995, Madhubuti brokered a peace between Louis Farrakhan and Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, that was publicly sealed at the Apollo Theater on MLK in Harlem. It was broadcast to a closed-circuit audience around the world.
A month after the 2000 election, Brooks died, Madhubuti by her side. She was buried in snowbound Chicago after a wake at Rayner and Sons Funeral Home on East 71st Street, a block and a half off King.
Rayner’s most famous wake was in the summer of 1955 for Emmett Till. His grotesquely mutilated body was shipped back to Chicago, and his mother decided to leave the casket open for the world to see. Over three days, thousands filed by.
Jackson’s Charles Tisdale, then with the Chicago Defender, was in Mississippi for the trial of the two white men who were ultimately acquitted. “We stood under under a tree because they wouldn’t let us in the courtroom at that time. Every morning the sheriff would come by and say, I think in his most benevolent tone, ‘Good morning, niggers.”’
The Malcolm X Center in Jackson, a small, dark fortress of a building next to Lanier High School on King, was begun 10 years ago in the wake of protests over the police killing of a black man trying to clean drugs out of a local housing project. “We didn’t choose the street because it was Martin Luther King, but we’re happy that it was Martin Luther King,” says Chokwe Lumumba, the revolutionary nationalist attorney who founded the center.
Lumumba arrived in the early 1970s as part of the Republic of New Afrika, a movement to create a black nation out of five Southern states, beginning here.
Later, after sojourns in his native Detroit, Chicago and New York, Lumumba returned to Jackson in 1988. Mississippi is the blackest place, he says, the place he is most at home and most challenged: “It is the center of the problem. If you can crack the nut here, you have done it.”
The Malcolm X Center is a place for classes and lectures, for summer camp, for the New Afrikan Scouts — a national group whose first president was the late rapper Tupac Shakur, whom Lumumba represented in one scrape after another, most famously at a preliminary hearing at the courthouse on MLK in Atlanta when Shakur was charged with shooting two off-duty Atlanta police officers. The charges later were dropped.
The Malcolm X Center is also home to the Jackson Panthers, the very successful basketball team. And every spring, Lumumba runs a Black History Classic tournament for teams from throughout the South.
“I’ve reclaimed my interest in sports since I’ve been down here,” he says. “Back in the ‘70s, I wouldn’t have been bouncing no basketball. I would have been at the rifle range.”
In the wake of Sept. 11, Lumumba, as head of the New Afrikan Peoples Organization, expressed his sympathy with the victims, but suggested that America must also be held accountable for its history of terrorism, at home and abroad, a view he says resonates in the barbershop talk of black America.
“The only thing that’s changed is that for the first time in my life I’ve seen fear in the eyes of white folks,” Haki Madhubuti says of the impact of Sept. 11. “For black folks, nothing’s changed.”
Lu Palmer concurs: “I don’t think of anything that might be different.”
Palmer is revered in black Chicago — for his writing, his newspaper columns, his radio show, his willingness to quit or be fired whenever one of his various employers over the years tried to shut him up for being too outspokenly black.
Palmer made a career of smiting white folks with his words. He was the “Panther with a pen.” But he is an old man now, 78, and barely able to see.
He lives with his ailing wife, Jorja, in a 40-room castle where Chicago’s King Drive intersects with a street named for himself. The castle — turrets, howling wind and all — is broken up into apartments, but renting them is a losing game.
For almost 12 years, Palmer had his own radio show — “Lu’s Notebook,” a five-minute commentary sponsored by Illinois Bell on all four black radio stations in Chicago. It was in the basement of his castle that Palmer and a handful of others persuaded the reluctant Harold Washington to make the run that led to his election in 1983 as Chicago’s first black mayor. The same morning that Washington announced for mayor, Illinois Bell canceled “Lu’s Notebook.”
“They said, ‘You have been too outspoken in pushing Harold Washington,”’ Palmer recalls. “So they fired me.”
From 1983 until his retirement in January 2001, he did talk radio. He rang in the 2000 election results denouncing both Bush and Gore.
There is something both heroic and forlorn about Palmer, devoting himself so wholly to his people. He considered himself a disciple of Martin Luther King Jr. in King’s lifetime, but now believes King was wrong about two things — nonviolence and integration.
Palmer is campaigning to get black schools to quit having proms at white-owned hotels, but says, “These kids and their parents would rather die before they would hold a prom in their own gym.”
Chokwe Lumumba’s Black History Classic and Jackson’s Lanier High School prom — being held at the Crowne Plaza downtown — are the same weekend in April 2001.
While the prom is all black, the tournament has a few white players. There are white Panthers.
“We’re nationalists, not separatists,” says Lumumba, who embroiders a little black nationalism into a pep talk mostly intended to encourage the players to stay on top of their academics.
At Beola Drummer’s house just up King from the high school, her daughter, Jessica, is getting ready for the prom.
A piece of paper taped on the front door says, “No Public Restrooms. Don’t even Ask!!!!!!!”
It’s a joke of sorts. People are constantly in and out of the house, children dropped off and picked up. On our last visit, a woman sat on the porch enjoying a long drink of iced tea. When she left, we asked who she was. Drummer just shrugged.
When Drummer won big at bingo, she bought two large plastic swimming pools for the neighborhood kids to splash in. She provides a running commentary on life. She strips a tree branch and offers a lecture on the glory of switches. She has four children, three of whom have already graduated from Lanier.
Jessica — nicknamed Jessy — is in her room primping. The sign on her door says: “Keep out! Aja & Jessy only. Keep My Door Closed, my TV off. Do Not Sit on My Pillows (if I let you in). If I ain’t here you shouldn’t be here neither. RESPECT my property as you would yo’ mammy!”
Aja is Jessica’s baby daughter. Jessica’s sister, Melissa, has a baby with W.L. Stokes’ great-grandson, who is away at medical school. The baby’s grandfather, Kenneth, is the city councilor responsible for getting this street named for King, and for the King Day parade that ends as it passes the Drummer front porch.
As she irons Jessica’s powder-blue satin prom dress, Drummer is going on about “the laziest dog in the world,” the one that put its paws over its eyes to avoid the light, that had to be dragged on its walks, that would give you this look like, “if you want that damn stick you better get it yourself.”
“This dog was lazy!”
Outside, Mississippi is spread wide against the night but inside, the house is tiny, cramped and worn. The Drummers are poor, and fortunate. Here, in the soul of black America, Beola Drummer is a good soul.
“Life’s too short to be sad,” she says. “I enjoy life.”
Figuring Out What It Means to Be Black in America
January 1, 2002
(UNDATED) At 73, Marion Tumbleweed Beach is small and, in her pigtails and little African hat, at once captivating and ferocious. Few people have lived a life so sinuously intertwined, so passionately engaged, with the black American journey across the 20th century — as a teacher, writer, poet, reporter and editor, as an activist and intellectual. Her roaring, riveting recounting of her life comes fast and furious, with lyrical, spiky abandon. She is Miss Jane Pittman on speed.
So, how to explain that her home is the only one on Martin Luther King Street in Selma, Ala., with a red-and-white Smitherman lawn sign, advertising her support for the white mayor who has been frustrating black electoral ambitions since King himself marched here?
One hundred seventy-eight miles away, on Martin Luther King Drive in Atlanta, Kedist Hirpassa, a freshman at Morris Brown College, is by definition African-American. She was born in Ethiopia and raised in the United States. But her first semester at a black college has been a twisting trek through the maze of her own relationship to blackness.
“It has helped me realize that I am black,” she says.
But, after recalling the times her way of speaking or taste in music has been dismissed as “white,” or remembering some irritating inefficiency at Morris Brown, she is back in the maze. Sometimes, she says, “being in an all-black school, I don’t feel like I’m black. I feel like I have more in common with a white person than a black person.”
The talk of Martin Luther King streets inevitably turns to what it means to be black in America. Marion Tumbleweed Beach and Kedist Hirpassa are living proof of just how tight the black community is, and how encompassing.
If that sounds like a contradiction, it’s not. Like America, black America is endlessly, kaleidoscopically diverse.
“Wait until you see a congregation of more than two dark-complected people,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston in 1937. (She lived on streets in Harlem and in Belle Glade, Fla., that now bear the name Martin Luther King.) “If they can’t agree on a single solitary thing, then you can go off satisfied. Those are My People.”
The notion of a community speaking with a single voice is an invention of convenience. It comes from a broader nation and media that want to know what this separate piece of America is thinking and feeling, and it works backward from certain evidence — blacks preferred Al Gore to George W. Bush — to provide a quote-box of explanation.
What unites the black nation along King is a shared terrain, a sense of place and predicament. After that, anything goes.
About the only thing that all black folk in America have in common is contending with being black in America, figuring out what it means to be black in America. That turns out to be enough.
Marion Tumbleweed Beach, who defies the sense of the black community intuited from afar, who cannot quite be explained off King, makes sense, perfect and absurd, on King. And it’s on King that Kedist Hirpassa can most freely, deeply and safely examine and cross-examine her own blackness.
When we first meet Tumbleweed — it’s the name that suits her and sticks — it is September 2000 and she is storming toward the National Voting Rights Museum, citadel of civil rights history and gathering spot for out-of-town folks in Selma to help defeat Mayor Joe Smitherman. She’s coming up the street from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, one of the movement’s sacred sites, where two white women from New York stand sentry with signs telling passing motorists that “Joe Gotta Go.”
“Yankee go home!” she screams. “Yankee go home!”
“You’re outside agitators,” she says with a sneer. “You going to go back home and brag about how you freed us?”
Tumbleweed was born March 27, 1927, the 113th anniversary of the massacre of her great-grandmother’s people, the Creek Indians, by Andrew Jackson. Her great-grandfather was a free black man from Mali who had been told by his father that his destiny lay beyond the African stars. He made his way by salt caravan and silk ship to Mobile, Ala., arriving just after the end of the Civil War.
“I was supposed to die,” Tumbleweed says of her birth — she was early and sickly — but her Creek great-grandmother said, “No, she’s a tumbleweed.”
She lived most of her adult life in Chicago, an activist in both the black and American Indian communities, godmother to other writers and artists.
Her late husband, Roscoe Beach, was a teacher and jazz musician. She was very involved with the DuSable Museum for African American History, founding its writers workshop and, after King’s assassination, its annual Martinmas Day celebration of King’s life. She worked at the right hand of museum founder Margaret Burroughs, with whom she maintains a fire-and-ice relationship.
“We’re not speaking, but that’s OK,” Tumbleweed says. “We would die for each other.”
This is a woman with more feuds than most people have friends.
“I’ve caught more hell from blacks than I have from whites,” she says. “I’ve lived with blacks. They had a chance to kick my ass.”
In 1965 Tumbleweed returned briefly to Selma to help King find places to stay for the “outside agitators” then swarming into town to support the voting rights protests that, washed in blood and redemption, were in retrospect King’s crowning moment. Never before and never again was the American public more moved to stand so wholly and powerfully with the black freedom struggle.
“Confrontation of good and evil compressed in the tiny community of Selma generated the massive power to turn the whole nation to a new course,” King said after leading marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and on to Montgomery.
Compressed is right.
Selma seems in many ways a sleepy Southern town where they keep time by the train whistle. But the carbon of black-white conflict has been compressed so long and so hard here that the place is a gleaming, hard diamond of racial antagonism.
Selma is a city of 20,000, 70 percent black. It is located in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt, so named for the color of the rich earth, but also the stretch of America with the blackest population. They are always commemorating battles fought here, whether King’s or the Battle of Selma, where Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was routed and the arsenal of the Confederacy fell, presaging the rebellion’s end.
Selma has remained a mecca of the civil rights movement. Kedist Hirpassa made the pilgrimage in high school, on a Freedom Ride tour organized by C. Delores Tucker, head of the National Political Congress of Black Women and a friend of the King family. Tucker is best known for her campaign against gangsta rap, one in which she enlisted Hirpassa, who nonetheless admits a soft spot for the late Tupac Shakur.
Hirpassa decided she wanted to try a black college, and when the tour headed to Atlanta, she knew where she wanted that college to be.
She was born to parents of two different, warring Ethiopian tribes — her father’s urban, light-skinned and with European features; her mother’s rural, dark-skinned, despised by her father’s people. She came to the United States at 5 and grew up at a succession of boarding and later public schools, finishing high school in Washington’s Maryland suburbs. Some in her Ethiopian circles considered her choice of a black college quite odd.
We meet her in August 2000 during freshman week at Morris Brown, which straddles MLK and is part of the Atlanta University Center of black colleges that adjoin it. In the late morning, Hirpassa, 18, is by herself in the nearly empty stands at Morris Brown’s Herndon Stadium as the football team scrimmages and the cheerleaders thrust and shout in the pounding heat.
“I’ve never felt so much positive energy in my whole entire life from African-Americans,” Hirpassa says, and freshman week does pulse with what seems a deep and instant camaraderie and delight.
But she also notices right off that students at the other AUC schools — Morehouse College, Spellman College and Clark Atlanta University — “frown down” on Morris Brown as the “ghetto” school.
Morris Brown has its own distinction. While the other AUC schools were founded by whites for blacks, it was founded by blacks for blacks. Only a few years after they laid the cornerstone at Brown Chapel, the church that became home to the Civil Rights momement in Selma, the African Methodist Episcopal Church founded the Atlanta college, named for the same AME bishop. It prides itself on taking students as it finds them.
The Saturday night of freshman week, students from the AUC schools are brought together for an Olive Branch ceremony intended to dampen inter-school rivalries. Afterward, they march, thousands in all, to a party in the Clark Atlanta stadium on King, chanting their loyalties along the way: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. You got to be a Morehouse man to party like us.” The Morris Brown reply is simple, direct. “We start it. We end it. MBC.”
To be part of this dazzling parade of black youth, stretching as far as the eye can see, must be a nearly religious experience, though the soundtrack at the stadium is more Mystikal (the rapper) than mystical: “Shake ya ass. But watch ya self. Shake ya ass. Show me what you’re working with.”
Diagonally across King, 20,000 fans fill Herndon Stadium for a high school football double-header. The 440-strong Southwest DeKalb High School band is wailing brass, thundering drums. In the distance, the Atlanta skyline is set off against heavens of charcoal, blue and black. The intersection of Sunset and King is ablaze in light and motion, alive with the crosscurrent sounds of rap and football, of cruising and greeting, of Saturday night in a safe, happy, entirely black world.
King’s funeral cortege marched past here. A few blocks up Sunset is the modest home that King, amid his Selma travails, bought in 1965 for $10,000. Coretta Scott King, his widow, still lives there, within distant earshot of the revelry.
On Sept. 12, 2000 in Selma, James Perkins Jr., the black candidate making his third run, defeats Joe Smitherman. The instant the news breaks, the streets are plunged into a delirium of celebration that lasts until morning.
Tumbleweed’s phone starts ringing with excited calls from friends around the country. When she tells them she was with Smitherman, they are dumbfounded. She had, after all, been one of the organizers of artists and writers for Harold Washington, who in 1983, in the most triumphant political moment in black Chicago history, was elected that city’s first black mayor.
Smitherman grew up poor, raised by an aunt who was the head waitress at the Splendid Cafe, where Tumbleweed’s mother was the chef. “You noticed he talks black,” Tumbleweed says. “He doesn’t talk like a white man.”
In recent years, Smitherman, a chain smoker, a bit overweight, had taken a daily health walk past Tumbleweed’s house. She’d be sitting in her chair under her sun umbrella and he would stop, sit. They would talk. It became his routine.
There came a time in Chicago, Tumbleweed says, when she voted for a black candidate over a better white candidate.
“It felt wrong,” she says. “I’m bored with race.”
Tumbleweed returned to Selma to live after her daughter, Carolyn Delores Beach Foucher, known as Polly, died of cancer in 1990. Polly had been a Black Panther in Chicago and at the funeral, former Panther Bobby Rush, now a congressman, read from Corinthians; Margaret Burroughs delivered the eulogy; and H. Rap Brown spoke. (The latter, now Jamil Al-Amin, is on trial at the Fulton County Courthouse on King in Atlanta, charged with the murder of a county sheriff’s deputy, an alumnus of Morris Brown.) Tumbleweed’s good friend, the poet Sterling Plumpp, read a poem he had written, “Panther Finder (for Polly).”
“Them old blues you got tumbling from a Tumbleweed.
“A wind song jumping from a hurricane.”
With the wind song gone, the hurricane blew back to Selma.
In Atlanta, Hirpassa’s freshman year is a whirlwind of activity. She throws herself into the middle of everything but remains a loner, reserved, observing — the calm in the storm of her own life.
She is elected freshman class president, but when the runner-up challenges the results, the election is left unresolved. She is Morris Brown’s entry in the Miss AUC Freshman contest. She writes for the AUC Digest, a campus newspaper. She interns at the governor’s office. She is the youngest and only black member of a socialist group that meets at Georgia State University. During her winter break, she works at C. Delores Tucker’s office back home, providing the Bush administration with the names of black women qualified for top federal appointments.
At Morris Brown, she is intermittently enthused and exasperated. She loves the mix of black people and has come to appreciate black styles that once bewildered her. But she is also frustrated by “how things never get done.”
In the fall of 2001, she transfers to Georgia State. But, even as she moves to a majority-white school, she starts a new organization with a few students from the various AUC campuses. It is called African Brothers and Sisters. They plan to create a magazine, to read to kids in the projects along King, to agitate for reparations.
Less than a month after Selma’s election, a monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general and founder of the Ku Klux Klan, suddenly appears on public land and the city is again consumed in conflict. On Martin Luther King Day 2001, protesters lasso the monument and try to pull it down, to no avail.
Tumbleweed thinks it would make more sense to place some sturdy wrought-iron benches next to the monument so people could sit and talk about it.
“Most of the people in Selma, white and black, have never had a conversation with each other,” she says. “All people have to have their heroes and symbols. To attempt to take them away is to make an enemy.”
At the end of February, with one white councilor crossing racial lines to break the deadlock, the council votes to move the statue to a private cemetery.
The trouble with her people, Tumbleweed says, is that they are both too bothered by other people’s symbols and too readily beguiled by their own, like the Martin Luther King Street she lives on.
“All those damn streets are in the black neighborhood,” she says. “No matter where you go in this country, there’s a Martin Luther King street or drive or place or avenue. I say they still get us with trinkets. We go cheap. I resent it.”
Still Straining to Hear That Late Word of Freedom
January 1, 2002
Juneteenth is a bittersweet holiday. It commemorates the day in 1865 when blacks in Texas finally learned that they were free — 21/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and three months after the surrender of Robert E. Lee.
The news was delivered in Galveston, and that is where our road trip begins, June 19, 2001, where Martin Luther King Boulevard meets the beach at the Gulf of Mexico.
For two weeks, we drive 1,100 miles up the nation’s midsection, visiting 18 more MLKs: East Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas. Over to Oklahoma and up to Kansas.
We have a date in Leavenworth with 89-year-old Rosetta Stone, whose name — evoking the ancient rock whose inscription unlocked the mysteries of Egyptian hieroglyphics — leapt from a directory of the city’s little Martin Luther King Drive.
There are stops that test the limits of irony: Emancipation Park along the MLK in Huntsville, Texas — prison town and execution capital of the United States. Or the MLK in Jasper, Texas, on which James Byrd Jr. was walking when he climbed into a pickup truck, to be dragged to his death.
To name any street for Martin Luther King Jr. is to invite an accounting of how that street makes good on King’s promise or mocks it.
There is certainly irony that a man viewed as an apostle of integration should have given his name to a vast network of streets that define the contours of a black nation still so separate.
But you can’t live on irony, and the people we meet on these MLKs don’t. They struggle in a world that exists every day in a Juneteenth twilight, straining to make real that late word of freedom.
GALVESTON, Texas — Craig Bowie ran two parades through Galveston last Juneteenth. His first marched in the oppressive midday heat across Martin Luther King Boulevard. The second, in the blessed relief of evening, came striding down MLK to the gulf. It was led by a funky, second-line funeral band with a saxophone, sousaphone, snare drum and fat man with shiny black shoes and an umbrella.
The early parade has become tradition. Bowie added the later one to draw folks down to the beach for his first-ever Juneteenth fireworks, another of his efforts to rouse Galveston to what he imagines was the jubilation of that original emancipation day.
“They say on Juneteenth, they danced in the street,” Bowie says.
With the last liberating starburst of fireworks, Bowie, lean and boyish, jumps back on his heels, rears his head and exhales whispered affirmations of joy, thanks and relief.
But by the next morning, he is back to worrying.
“I try to stay focused on the concept, the purpose, on spreading the word,” he says of Juneteenth. “The deficit that I’ve seen is the children don’t know what it really is, they don’t know it’s about freedom, they don’t even know they’re free.
“Man, some of them, this is all they’ve seen. They are so small and they see all this junk around here and they ain’t never been across the causeway so they just think this is the world, and this island don’t have to be like this. Not this island, not this island.”
And so here, in one of the poorest corners of America, Bowie has created a shimmering, shoestring oasis, laying claim to space with the bright colors and black themes of his joyful, expressive folk art. In his big, bare-bones storefront his wife sells shoes, his daughter sells snow cones and he runs what amounts to one-room schools of entrepreneurship and performing arts, both named for Howard “Stretch” Johnson, a tap-dancing communist who during a brief sojourn in Galveston became Bowie’s mentor.
Johnson, a “Buffalo Soldier” in World War II, was a Harlem blend of raconteur and activist. He performed with Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater on 125th Street, which is now also known as MLK Boulevard. He leafleted outside Yankee Stadium in favor of integrating baseball. Before Galveston, he lived in Hawaii, where he played a lead role in establishing a state Martin Luther King Holiday. He died at 85 in 2000.
“Stretch was a radical,” Bowie says. “He taught me how to lead.”
Not many years ago, Bowie was collecting garbage in Galveston. Before that, he did five years in prison, mostly in Huntsville. Before that, at 25, he was shot in the face with a 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun. He lost his left eye.
“I ain’t always lived like this,” he says.
On these streets, Bowie’s history of tough times is both his credential and his inspiration.
“I want to create a miracle,” he says.
HOUSTON — The weekly Black Reality Class at the Shrine of the Black Madonna Book Store and Cultural Center on MLK Boulevard is canceled, but the writer Walter Mosley is reading the next night, so we stay an extra day.
The Shrine and the Pan-African Orthodox Christian Church next door were founded in Detroit by the late Albert B. Cleage Jr., who later changed his name to Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman. The address may be MLK, but the spirit is Malcolm X. As Cleage wrote in 1972, “Dr. King’s entire approach was a mystical kind of idealism which had no roots in objective reality.”
Mosley quotes Malcolm telling a Harlem audience “you have been bamboozled” by America. Blacks are not the only ones bamboozled, Mosley says — just the most alert to it.
“Black history is the only real history people should be studying in school because that’s how we can learn how to overcome oppression,” he says.
HUNTSVILLE, Texas — Juneteenth is celebrated here in Emancipation Park, founded by former slaves on what is now Martin Luther King Drive.
Across MLK live two sisters whose father had been conceived, but not yet born, on the first Juneteenth. Next door is St. Luke United Methodist Church. Florine Woods, president of the usher board, lets us in.
Woods, 73, short and sweet, has a bullet shell from an AR-15 military assault rifle on her keychain. It was a going-away gift when she retired at 62 after 10 years as a prison guard in the picket tower at the Ellis Unit, a few miles out of town. She had three weapons — the AR-15 for distance, a 12-gauge shotgun for up close and a .357 Magnum for in between. She never fired a shot. Sometimes inmates in the yard would signal her to look alert, the warden was coming.
“I miss it,” she says.
Abd’Allah Muhammad-Bey doesn’t miss his days as a prison guard back in Wilmington, Del. Muhammad-Bey — who lives in the housing project on MLK (the neighborhood kids call it the “‘jects,” “the p.j.s” and “the bricks”) — knows the ins and outs of imprisonment.
By the time he was 11 he was in a juvenile facility in Wilmington. He was released into the custody of the Black Men’s Development Center of the Moorish Science Temple, the forerunner of the Nation of Islam, which first sought to connect black Americans to Muslim roots. He served time more recently, a few years ago, in the county jail in Houston when his now ex-wife was busted for crack. He was driving the car.
These days Muhammad-Bey brings a Muslim substance abuse program into the prisons around Huntsville, and is working to develop a Muslim “whole-way house” for released inmates in Houston. He is studying toward his master’s in counseling at Sam Houston University. In 2000, he persuaded his fellow student senators, in a school where criminal justice is the leading major, to support a death penalty moratorium.
He is also the imam of a mosque he started in a tiny geodesic dome not far from his home. He has come to embrace a non-racialized Orthodox Islam, “like Malcolm X,” he says.
Like the Galveston activist Craig Bowie, Muhammad-Bey seems unhardened by hard times. Like Bowie, he is on a mission to liberate the thinking of black folks.
“Most people here got a slave mentality,” he says.
JASPER, Texas — The sky is a rich blue swept with creamy clouds, the countryside a lush green, the day warm and bright, but the simple sign, “Jasper Pop. 7160” sends a cold shiver down the spine.
Many hundreds of people were lined up along Martin Luther King Boulevard for James Byrd’s funeral; Greater New Bethel Baptist Church was filled to overflowing.
The pastor, the Rev. Kenneth O. Lyons, has deep roots here. His great-great-great-great grandfather was Dick Seale who, as a slave, founded New Bethel’s mother church. The family history recalls a day when the sickly infant Seale was crying in his mother’s arms in Alexandria, Va., waiting for a parade to pass. A man on a white horse pressed a coin into her hand and told her to buy the baby some chocolate. The man was George Washington.
Lyons runs a serious church.
A sign on the wall carries the adage, “A child brought up in Sunday School is rarely brought up in court.” The church bulletin advises parents to teach children “strategies to deal with racism and the negative feelings about being black that racism incurs.” However, it says, “It is not necessary, nor is it advisable ... to bring up race at every turn.”
SAN AUGUSTINE, Texas — The MLK here seems nothing but a residential rural road in the heart of the piney woods. Then it turns 90 degrees to the left, and the street sign indicates that this is the intersection of MLK and MLK, something we have never seen before. Remarkable. We are excited.
So is a woman watching us from her front lawn. Dressed in her Sunday best, she yells at us to get off her street and out of her neighborhood, right now.
We explain our mission. “Martin Luther King had nothing to do with two white boys,” she says.
We point out the uniqueness of her intersection — MLK and MLK. She looks at us with disgust. “And that’s interesting?”
As we drive away, she is writing down our license plate number.
CENTER, Texas — Clyde Lister has “closed the lid” on some 4,000 black folks in his 50 years at Hicks Mortuary on MLK in Center. We have come to Lister in hopes of gaining passage to Africa, where he lives.
Africa, Texas, is close by, but along an unmarked dirt road. For about a century it has been home to 20-some black families. The heart of Africa is the simple white St. John Baptist Church. Behind the church is a graveyard alive with fresh flowers.
Lister and his good friend, Eddie Logan, a deacon of the church, figure maybe this place was named Africa because, in the whippoorwill solitude, a black man could imagine himself back in the homeland he had never seen.
Lister spies a cottontail hopping between headstones. “They tell me if you take a bite of rabbit and chew it up and lay it on something and come back the next morning, it’s a ball of hair,” he says.
Logan gives Lister a long, wide-eyed stare. “Oh no,” he says.
“I never did try it,” Lister says. “I always swallowed mine.”
They burst into the loud laughter of longtime friends.
SHREVEPORT, La. — We have come to Shreveport in search of the statue of King that stood briefly at the head of Martin Luther King Drive, a major thoroughfare with an abandoned quiet to it.
The city commissioned the 1,500-pound bronze for $40,000. But the statue — in which King links supernaturally extended and contorted arms with a man and woman on either side of him — was bitterly attacked by some who were disturbed by its abstractness. The last we had read about it, the work had been removed and put up for auction on eBay, where no one had bid more than a few thousand dollars.
But, we discover, the bronze MLK has found a good home.
“I woke up one morning and the Lord told me to call the mayor and buy the statue,” says Bishop Floyd Caldwell.
Sight unseen. He paid $15,000, raised in cooperation with a restaurateur who gave contributors catfish coupons.
At 7, Caldwell says, he watched as his grandfather burst into his home and killed his abusive father. By 1971, Caldwell — junkie, drug dealer, pimp — was set to kill himself when he saw Billy Graham on television and turned to God. He now has one of the largest congregations in Shreveport and a worldwide radio ministry.
The King statue stands in a garden between Caldwell’s Greenwood Acres Full Gospel Church and the church’s Family Life Center, the latter with state-of-the-art health club, bowling alley, gleaming basketball courts, elegant restaurant, witty Afrocentric reworkings of classic paintings, board room and offices in elegant ash wood.
Caldwell says that what black folks want and need is “money and lots of it.”
“The white man knows he owes us reparations. He’ll never give it to us because he’s mad. The white man is mad because Negroes are no longer slaves, and the Negroes are mad because the white man once had them as slaves.”
Instead, he says, “the aim in America is to give every young black a felony.”
IDABEL, Okla. — “You’re not a local yokel, are you?” Raeshanda Andrews asks as we purchase four newspapers from her at the E-Z Mart.
As we explain what brought us here, her eyes light up. “You’re taking the trip I want to take,” she says. “I was talking with a friend about this last night. Why is it always in the ‘hood? Martin Luther King is always in the ghetto.”
Andrews was born in the housing projects on what is now Idabel’s MLK.
The ‘hood? The ghetto? Across MLK from her projects, three horses graze lazily on 60 acres of green pasture. The horses belong to Andrew Young, a 35-year-old of grace and power who hays the MLK acreage. He has a steer ranch nearby. A white doctor who took a liking to him helped him get this land, learn to work it and sell his first hay.
Young is also the county’s first and only black firefighter.
“It’s all pretty cool, man,” he says. “I always wanted to be a firefighter and I always wanted to be a rancher. I’m doing just what I wanted to do.”
For four hours in the slow fade of a luminous day, arrayed around the back of his pickup as the horses amble by for affection, we talk with Young and his brother Craig about life and fate and Idabel.
In 1980, William Henry Johnson, a 15-year-old black youth, was shot to death in the parking lot of a white nightclub across a fence from the mostly black projects. Young says that Johnson — “He was like a best friend to me” — was left hanging on that fence.
It’s the story that spread through the black community, says Maxine Moss, Raeshanda Andrews’ mother, who was living in the projects then. But Moss says Johnson actually was left lying where he was shot, where her brother found him.
Either way, there followed what the national press described as a race riot in which several more people died. “It was more like a black revolt,” says Moss, a staff sergeant with the Air Force Reserve and now a civilian employee at Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Ill.
Idabel, she says, is “one of those places, you get out of, you don’t look back — you might get stuck there.”
OKLAHOMA CITY — The men at the very mellow Zodiac Motorcycle Club on King say we need to meet Clara Luper, and that she is probably just down MLK rehearsing the Miss Black Oklahoma contestants.
The pageant is being held at a threadbare motel (it soon closes for good). Luper, who has run the show for 32 years, lifts it from the shabby dust of its circumstance by sheer force of will and dignity.
In 1957, she took a group of black youngsters to Harlem to perform a play she had written, “Brother President: The Story of Martin Luther King.” For the first time, they were able to eat in the same restaurant with white people. “It gave my young people a taste of freedom,” Luper says.
The summer after their return, they began sitting in at Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City — a year and a half before the sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., that history usually enshrines as the first. Theirs continued for six years until, in 1964, they prevailed. Luper has been arrested 26 times.
She built a Freedom Center on King, to honor the heroes of the struggle. It was bombed and mostly destroyed in 1968. She rebuilt.
Luper is loved; Luper is feared. She can be very funny, but in repose, her face relaxes into a scowl.
She schools the beauty contestants in civil rights history the week they are with her. At breakfast two days before the pageant, she announces she will give them each an oral exam on what she taught them. “The passing grade is 100,” she says.
Only a few miles up King from the pageant is the Mabel Bassett Correctional Facility for Women and the death row where Wanda Jean Allen passed her last days. Allen was sentenced to death for killing the girlfriend she met doing time in Mabel Bassett for killing her last girlfriend. Her lawyers argued, to no avail, that she was not very bright and that her original lawyer was not very good.
We meet the Rev. Vernon Burris, a radio preacher resplendent in a white suit, outside Mabel Bassett’s barbed-wire fence. Burris was Allen’s spiritual adviser the last 10 months of her life, though by the end, he says, she was the one keeping his spirits up.
He agreed to baptize her in the prison chapel waters, and when she brought along the other two women on death row — both white — he baptized them as well.
When Allen’s time came to die, she asked Burris to be her witness. “They asked if she had any last words and she quoted a Scripture that was used 2,000 years ago when Christ was on the cross, when he was about to be executed,” he says. “She said, ‘Lord forgive them, for they know not what they do.”’
LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — Rosetta Stone is her married name. She picked up the saxophone in her 60s after her husband died. Took one lesson, but when she found out her teacher was also taking lessons, she figured, how much could he know?
Instead, she prayed on it. “God taught me how to put the notes together to play a song. I wouldn’t know A-flat if I saw it walking down the street,” she says.
She adjusts the mouthpiece on Ragamuffin, her name for her beautifully tarnished sax, and begins to play her version of “Jesus Never Fails.” She says her air isn’t what it used to be, but the tone is rich, clear, smooth.
She mostly plays in her Pentecostal church.
But she also plays for herself. “If I don’t encourage nobody else, I can encourage myself,” she says. “I know how people feel when they’re singing the blues.”
What ’s Up, and What’s Coming Up
January 1, 2002
Martin Luther King Boulevard — 125th Street in Harlem — is the single most recognized and self-aware black street in the world.
You want to get the absolutely latest thinking on being black, just walk along 125th with your ears and eyes open. Listen to the street preachers. Read the posters plastered to every available space, demanding self-knowledge, freedom, action.
You want art so cutting-edge they call it “post-black,” go straight to the Studio Museum on MLK. You want analysis of how global capitalism is going to sweep blacks out of Harlem, you can buy “Harlem Ain’t Nothin’ But a Third World Country,” right on the street, sold by the author.
You want character? Harlem is laid out like a village, low-slung, great light, and even friendly in a hustling New York kind of way. Like Langston Hughes wrote in his 1950 poem “125th Street”: “Face like a chocolate bar; full of nuts and sweet.”
It is the Broadway of blackness. It’s what’s up.
But if you want to know what’s coming up, then you’ve got to go to the Martin Luther King Boulevard in Belle Glade, Fla.
That’s right. Think off-Broadway. Think off-off Broadway.
Lost amid the sugar cane and snapping gators along the shores of Lake Okeechobee in western Palm Beach County, Belle Glade has a primordial, in-the-beginning quality to it. Things seem to happen here first, and in concentrate.
Two months before the 2000 presidential election, black folks in Belle Glade were screaming about a stolen election, the one in which they lost their black majority on the city council in a community where blacks outnumber whites three to one. And, in November 2000, there were nearly enough botched butterfly ballots at the polling places on MLK alone to make Al Gore president.
And the muck — that’s what they call the ebony soil where things grow like Jack’s beanstalk — doesn’t just produce more sugar cane and sweet corn than any other place in the country. Glades Central High School produces more professional football players than any other high school in America. Right now, Glades’ Reidel Anthony, James Jackson, Willie Jones, Robert Newkirk, Johnny Rutledge, Jimmy Spencer and Fred Taylor are all playing in the National Football League.
BELLE GLADE, January 2000 — “You close your eyes, you’re going to miss it,” James Leonard, a hairstylist at Betty’s Beauty Salon on MLK, says of the Martin Luther King Day parade.
He’s right. The most impressive thing about the King Day parade here is that there is one; the next-most impressive thing is that there is an MLK down which to march. On first sight, Belle Glade seems to exist in a world before King.
“Ground so rich that everything went wild. ... People wild too,” as Zora Neale Hurston, who lived on what are now MLKs in both Harlem and Belle Glade, described it in her 1936 novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
It was the muck that drew successive waves of African-Americans, Jamaicans, Haitians and now Mexicans to Belle Glade in search of work.
At a church dinner after the parade, we meet Harma Miller, who despite a predilection to show up at St. John’s Baptist services in outfits so loud they could wake the dead, is nobody’s fool.
Miller picked vegetables until she was 12, the youngest of six daughters of a migrant crew chief.
That was then. Now, she says, “I’m a funeral director. I have a floral design license. I teach and train teachers, and I speak all of the Romance languages. All six of us girls went to college and all of us have more than one job. Four of us do real estate on the side. I made more money on my eight houses than I do teaching.”
She is also — at least until September, and that fateful election — mayor of Belle Glade. The mayor is picked from among the council and while Miller has served as mayor before, this is the first time the council has had a black majority.
It was a long time coming. Even though whites are only 14 percent of Belle Glade’s 15,000 people, the city held its local elections in September, when the migrant workers are away. The new black majority voted to move Election Day to March, effective 2002.
Miller’s husband, Henry, runs the family mortuary along MLK. It was he, along with other local members of King’s fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, who petitioned to have a street named for King. Harma Miller was on the council that approved it.
Belle Glade’s MLK is alive like Harlem’s, if not as well-lit.
You can happen upon the tambourine joy of a Jamaican revival meeting along the loading ramp where the migrant workers assemble before dawn, or a flatbed truck of strippers in the lot at Tiny’s liquors, advertising their Miami club.
You can buy skinned rabbits by the tree where the men play dominoes. When the cane fields are burned for harvesting, the breeze flutters with black ash and the rabbits sprint for freedom, where they run into men and boys who chase and beat them. Run rabbits, and football comes easy.
With darkness, people descend on King’s corners, like “dust,” says Lester Finney. “The police even got a term where they call it the street sweep, which is get rid of the brothers hanging on the corner.”
Finney makes T-shirts in his grim-looking edifice on King with its street-side mural of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, both shot dead in their 20s in seeming fulfillment of the thug life they rapped about. He personalizes the designs freehand while his homemade chicken-wire-and-spit dryer creaks and squeaks the freshly silk-screened shirts along.
He’s the neighborhood paladin, guru, herald and pal, his shop a sanctuary, safe and warm. He is also, as Muhammad Lester Finney, the Nation of Islam’s man in the muck, donning a gray suit and bow tie to sell the Final Call on King.
After high school, Finney left Belle Glade on a football scholarship to McPherson College in Kansas. “I didn’t want no part of Belle Glade,” he says.
But he came back. “I don’t care who knows that I helped somebody,” he says. “I’m just here to see the results.”
HARLEM, January 2001 — They celebrate blackness every day in Harlem. There is no Martin Luther King Day parade, but the Krispy Kreme at the corner of MLK and Frederick Douglass offers free glazed doughnuts for the holiday.
Upstairs is the Sweet Home Harlem church of the United House of Prayer for All People, founded in 1919 by a Cape Verdian immigrant, Sweet Daddy Grace, a charismatic, faith-healing revival preacher. Today there are 132 congregations and all the church properties are bought and paid for, says Malcolm Barksdale, an active member. Barksdale also deals in Harlem real estate.
The church is known for the ecstatic, rafter-shaking, soul-lifting music of the trombone shout bands that infuses its worship. Here in Harlem, it is the McCullough Sons of Thunder — nine trombones plus trumpet, tuba, cymbals and drums — led by Elder Edward Babb, lean, lithe and very cool. He is a bus driver.
On the Sunday before King Day, the Sons of Thunder wail like heaven’s house band. When a woman rises, sways and twitches into a fit of reverie, trilling in tongues, her church sisters in starched white uniforms coolly move in to steady and comfort. In the rear of the sanctuary, 30 young Japanese women on a “Soul Tour” of Harlem watch in rapt stillness.
“Harlem’s known around the world, people want to come to see Harlem,” says Sikhulu Shange. Shange has owned the Record Shack below the church on 125th for 22 years but says that, like others who sustained the street during lean times, he is now “up against the wall” of gentrification.
At 6 foot 4, a Zulu in African dress, Shange is a man of regal bearing, by turns polemical and playful. His r’s roll elegantly off his tongue. His long, narrow store is barely wider than he is tall. He first came to New York to perform on Broadway as part of a South African theater troupe. He refused to return to apartheid.
Not far up MLK from Shange is a site mostly unremembered. In 1958, a black woman, a domestic worker up from Georgia, stabbed Martin Luther King Jr. as he signed books at Blumstein’s department store. “You’ve made enough people suffer!” she screamed, plunging a letter opener into his chest, barely missing his aorta.
Later she told police she thought his name was “Arthur Lucer King.” From his hospital bed, King said he felt no ill will, only concern “that a climate of hatred and bitterness so permeate areas of our nation that inevitably deeds of extreme violence must erupt.”BELLE GLADE, November 2000 — At the annual Muck Bowl against neighboring Pahokee, there is a moment of silence for Juran Seider, a 17-year-old defensive tackle for the Glades Central Raiders, shot to death over the summer while watching a dice game in an empty lot next to Lester Finney’s. He was just killing time until his girlfriend, who was having her hair braided, was ready to be picked up.
The call came to the Seider home just after midnight.
“I just fell on my knees,” recalls Cathy Seider, Juran’s mother. “I told that boy that those corners going to still be here when he’s dead and gone.”
Even so, Seider loves Belle Glade. “My mama raised 10 kids here. The oldest one is in Atlanta. I think he’s moving back here,” she says. “I wouldn’t trade Belle Glade for nothing.”
Nearly 2,000 people came to her son’s funeral, which was held at the high school. Miller Mortuary buried him. Finney made memorial T-shirts.
Finney has cut a CD, “Message to the People.” When some young women stop by, he plays a song, rapping along with it. “Hey you, pretty little girl, you slow down now, you’re growing up too fast. Like to get attention in the way that you can, even if it’s the attention of a full-grown man. Hey you, pretty little girl. Let’s slow it down now. Don’t grow up too fast.” A couple of the girls join in harmony.
The Muck Bowl is on the Friday after the 2000 election. The next Monday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson leads a march and rally in West Palm Beach to seek a recount or a revote. With Jackson is Harma Miller, by now the defeated mayor, who has filed a suit claiming that her white opponents stuffed the ballot box to oust her and another black woman in the Belle Glade election two months earlier.
“There is a direct line from Selma to Florida,” Jackson declares, linking the 2000 election dispute to the voting rights struggle of the 1960s.
HARLEM, November 2001 — Thanksgiving weekend, the Rev. Al Sharpton, broadcasting his weekly radio show from his headquarters just off MLK, talks about the recent deaths of black folks — killed in crossfire, killed for a gold chain — by other black folks.
“We have been fighting the wrong enemies,” Sharpton says. “Say that again, slow. Call somebody you know, tell them to turn on the radio, someone you know been fighting the wrong enemy. Somebody in the beauty parlor, come out from under the dryer, you need to hear this. Dry later.”
In the worst day in recent Harlem history, in December 1996, a black street vendor walked into Freddy’s, a white-owned clothing store on MLK, and shouted, “All blacks out.” He set the store ablaze and opened fire, killing eight people — white, Hispanic and black — himself included. He apparently acted in solidarity with ongoing protests against Freddy’s, which was threatening to evict its subtenant, Shange’s Record Shack.
Five years later, Freddy’s is back in business as Uptown Jeans, and Shange — now dealing directly with agents of the United House of Prayer upstairs, which owns the building — is again facing rent increases he says will put him out of business.
First, the Harlem USA mall, with its giant HMV music store, moved across the street, and then, over the summer, Bill Clinton moved into an office building a couple of blocks in the other direction. On the day the ex-president arrives — a white man becoming the most famous person on the most famous black street in the world — Shange can only shake his head. “The jig is up,” he says.
Allan Katatumba, a young man from Uganda who has just moved into an apartment across from Sharpton’s headquarters with his wife, a white woman he met while living in Idaho, comes by to offer Shange his support. He calls Shange “chief.”
For hours, they argue African politics. Shange has raised money to rebuild a school in his home village and returns frequently to bring supplies. The poverty there is beyond American comprehension, he says, but the source of that misery is, in his view, the same as that which threatens his future on MLK — “capitalism.”
“We’re about to be hanging by our own bootstraps,” he says.
Upstairs, in the House of Prayer cafeteria, Malcolm Barksdale, who is writing a book on Harlem’s history, observes that “Harlem has always been owned by whites.”
Barksdale loves Harlem. “It’s real townie, and yet it’s a ghetto.” But, he says, there is nothing fixed about it being black. The space is just too prime, and Clinton’s arrival only boosted already booming property values. “I’m happy Clinton is here,” he says.
Of course, Sept. 11 has cast a pall over any clear calculations of Harlem’s future, as it has on everything in New York.
At a firehouse on MLK (none of its crew was lost on Sept. 11), passing schoolchildren swarm around the firefighters, thrusting notebooks upward for autographs. “I feel like a Yankee,” says firefighter Joe McCarney.
At the military recruiting station on King, Sgt. First Class Eric J. Vidal says business is great. Since Sept. 11, when he goes to the projects he gets, “Hey, Private Ryan,” “Hey, MacArthur,” the thumbs up.
But few flags fly along Martin Luther King Boulevard, and lots of posters express doubt. “Chickens come home to roost,” says one. “The sad truth is that America has killed more African-Americans than Osama bin Laden Ever Will,” reads another.
BELLE GLADE, November 2001 — Lester Finney reports that two guys from the corner shot and killed each other over the summer. “They were both my kids,” he says.
Glades Central defeated Pahokee in the Muck Bowl, again, and this year Finney’s Muck Bowl T-shirts carried the legend “Collard Greens, Wild Rabbit, Fried Gator. That’s What It Takes To Be A Raider.”
And, of course, the town was all over the news just after Sept. 11 when it was reported that Mohamed Atta, believed to have piloted one of the jets into the World Trade Center, had been in Belle Glade at least twice in the months before the attack. He came to inquire about crop dusters.
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