I have been to the King Center in Atlanta maybe once or twice. But I cannot recall from memory how it looks or how large the haunting mausoleums of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, stand in the sea of buildings. I cannot describe the landscape of King's beloved home. I cannot even say when I last visited the national historic site.
Still, when I reflect on my trip to the King Center, I remember the somberness surrounding the museum and the quietness invading the landmark. The gift shop — permeating with audio books, mugs, key chains and calendars — maintained a translucent loyalty to King with his face affixed to nearly every item. His voice carried the spirit of the store. As the crusader of the Civil Rights Movement, King spoke eloquently, recognizing the gravity and desire for the movement to transcend social and political ties and break the fundamentals of racial division in the South.
Like my experience at the King Center, I have no true personal connection with King besides my dad’s infatuation with the coolly composed preacher and visionary. King’s booming voice calmed a generation heavy with grief and restlessness, and it struck a nerve with despondent and disengaged watchers of the civil rights movement. I know of him as the most influential proprietor and skilled craftsman of racial dialogue in the twentieth century.
My visits to the King Center have prompted me to identify the importance of locality. In every historical movement, there has been something to be said about understanding a people and granting them a space to flourish and become proprietors of land. King was a champion of place. His speech, "How Long, Not Long," describes desolate valleys, a meandering highway and faces burned from the sweltering sun. Selma and Montgomery — both racial battlegrounds in Alabama — cannot be separated from the civil rights struggle of African-Americans. These cities were the centers of a movement in which people marched in the streets no matter rain or shine, enduring hatred from others in surrounding neighborhoods. King redirected the concourse of these racially divided cities, using scripture and nonviolent social change to reinvent the experiences of colored people in the American South. His attention to place was based on personal connection — a feeling that never leaves but follows wherever one goes. A native of Atlanta, King truly valued and acknowledged the importance of place in revolutionizing social and political change.
In every chapter of this country’s history, it is impossible to separate the narrative of African-Americans from the narrative of the United States. The two are one and the same. In 2017, place cannot be based solely on geographical location. It is controlled by the universal human desire to belong to a society that recognizes its failures but continuously strives to create a respectable environment for all. My dad, a Ghanaian man, often recites King’s speeches with great appreciation and thankfulness to the curator of the civil rights movement. One of King’s most poignant lines, “How Long, Not Long,” stays with me in every place. The quote is short, but its meaning is deep and far-reaching.
When we trust the places we call home and challenge the oppressive and closed minded, the march to justice and freedom might be burdensome but is indeed not long. Though the King Center is situated in Atlanta, the spirit of the movement pervades each part of the United States. We recognize pioneers like Eugene Perry and Glenda Phillips, the first black students to attend Elon University, who laid the groundwork for change. It's important as a community for us to remember that our place at Elon is not trivial, but rather an opportune moment for us to daily uphold decency and respect for each other. King’s vision of unity among all people is an ever-present beacon of hope that will continue to inspire us all over campus.
This column appeared in the January 18, 2017 edition of The Pendulum. Columns are written by ENN staff members and represent their informed opinions. Columns and other opinions content are separate from news coverage.