With little more than 100 days left of our posting to America’s Deep South we embark on a flurry of adventures… with unexpected serendipity.
The Sunday following Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday we take our children to Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn Historic District, birthplace – and resting place – of Dr. King.
The 11:30am service at Ebenezer Baptist Church is our first taste of African-American worship. I wear a special outfit for the occasion – a gift from another military spouse who is downsizing to an idyllic-sounding retirement in Florida. Rita bought the tartan ensemble (below) in the mid 1970s when her husband, Mike, was stationed with the American Infantry in Berlin…
“If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it.”
These are the familiar words of Ebenezer Baptist Church’s guest speaker, the charismatic activist, minister, and two-time presidential candidate nominee, Reverend Jessie Jackson.
Mr J and I are bowled over.
Jackson was with Martin Luther King on the day he was fatally shot in Memphis, Tennessee. When asked how he got to work so closely to the civil rights leader, Jackson’s answer is simple: his salary was $33:50, and he had a good chance of being thrown into jail! Essentially, he concludes with mirth, there was not a lot of competition for his job with the SCLC!
Unlike Mr J, I have actually heard Jessie Jackson speak before – at a Stop The War rally in Hyde Park, London in 2003. As a military spouse, I make no apology for my peace-loving nature…
The Reverend is older now of course, and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease last year; this does not stop him, however, from a brief shimmying dance during a musical interlude.
Slavery is not a much-talked in the Deep South, but Jessie Jackson does not shy from the topic. He states that the only thing worse than slavery is to “adjust” [to the status quo]. The congregation is invited to stand if they have a loved one in jail. A number stand up. Then Jackson invites the congregation to stand if they have experience of foreclosure (on a home), or have student debts… (I writhe guiltily in my pew; in my day higher education in the UK was free.) Many, many more stand up. Jackson cleverly illustrates to his congregation their modern-day shackles.
It is hard to recall everything that the Rev. Jessie Jackson touches upon, but faith and politics are intertwined: voting is a moral duty and an expression of emancipation. Afterwards, I buy a CD of the sermon, hoping that one day our children will gain a greater appreciation of our visit.
Mr J and I leave ‘America’s Freedom Church’ with a spring in our step – not just because of the stirring sermon but because, as Jessie Jackson turns to leave with the Rev. Warnock, he reaches out to us and shakes our hands…
Just two week’s later we chance to meet another character indelibly linked with Martin Luther King Jr.
We are in Florida on a whistle-stop trip, in which we cannot decide what is more amazing: watching the Falcon Heavy launch from Cape Canaveral, paddling with dolphins and horseshoe crabs in the shallows, or meeting ‘Gunny’ Gundrum…
Let me introduce you to Gunny Gundrum:
He may look like your typical Florida ‘Snow Bird’, but according to the Emmy award-winning journalist, John Gray, Gunny is the ‘most interesting man in the world’.
On 28th August 1963 Gunny Gundrum was a U.S. Park Service ranger on “podium duty” at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Gunny was one of the very few white men on stage that day. As a former Marine he stood guard over Martin Luther King, even adjusting his microphone at the beginning of his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech when the crowd couldn’t hear him.
Whilst incredibly modest about his role in the March on Washington, Gunny has lead an incredible life and is enthused to share with us ‘declassified’ tales of his time cold war USSR. In the late 1950’s the young Marine was sent to Moscow to protect military attachés. On one occasion he was relieved of his camera by an angry mob on the streets shouting, “Spy,” in Russian.
Was he a spy?
…. I wish we had more time!
These days Gunny is coping with widowhood with a remarkable zest for life and a full schedule. Having missed our morning coffee invite (“8:30-9:00am” really meant 8am) we eventually track the octogenarian down to the golf course. At the ‘funny photo‘ request from our children he poses playfully in his maintenance overalls.
We leave Mr Gundrum with an invite to impose on us in England…
I leave you, dear reader, with words from Martin Luther King’s speech made on 3rd April 1968, the day before his assassination:
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
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