American History

Sweet Auburn

I visited the United States a lot in the nineties and early noughties, and in those days tended to let my curiosity run away with me so that I might suddenly find myself in the wrong part of town. This was, on occasion, an uncomfortable experience. But one day when I was in Atlanta, Georgia, I gave free-rein to my exploring instincts, to the most magnificent effect.

It was Tuesday 21st November 2000, and the disputed Bush/Gore presidential election had just taken place with its outcome still hanging in the balance. I was staying with a friend in suburban Atlanta and, as he and his partner were at work on the day in question, I took a train downtown to have a look around. As I was walking about the city centre, I became aware that large numbers of African-Americans were gathering and heading in a particular direction. The atmosphere was peaceful and celebratory. I went into a shop and asked what was going on, to be told that the funeral of a prominent civil rights activist, Hosea Williams, was taking place in a nearby inner-city area known as “Sweet Auburn”. I did not think twice before joining the crowds as they surged eastward along Auburn Avenue.

Though I had long been an admirer of the civil rights struggle of the nineteen-sixties, I must admit to not then having heard of Hosea Williams. I know now that he was a close associate of Dr Martin Luther King Jr., and that he had led the attempted march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery in 1965, on a day that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday”. This demonstration in favour of African-American voting rights (generally denied to them throughout the south), was trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma when it was attacked by armed police. The peaceful marchers, including Williams himself, were gassed and beaten. And this wasn’t the first racist violence that Williams had endured. On returning from the Second World War in Europe, Williams, a decorated soldier still in uniform, was beaten so badly that he was left for dead by a gang of whites. His offence had been to drink water from a “whites only” fountain at a Southern bus station.

I was swept along by the crowds to eventually reach a building called the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Again, I did not know this at the time, but this was where Dr King and his father pastored in earlier years. I remember that mine was one of the very few white faces to be seen thereabouts, apart from some belonging to officers of the Atlanta police, as appears from this photograph I took outside the church:

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The funeral itself was underway, and was being held in the new Ebenezer church building across the road. This was full to overflowing, as appears from my snapshot:

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But, when I summoned up the courage to step through its doors into the old Ebenezer church, I found out that live coverage from across the road was being shown there on a screen. The hall was pretty crowded, though a welcoming usher showed me to a vacant space along a bench towards the back. It was thus my good luck to see and hear several of the impassioned speakers live, who included Dick Gregory, Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young. Dr King’s widow Coretta was there, along with a roll-call of civil rights campaigners. Reaction to the speakers pulsed around the church, and those around me frequently voiced responses, and frequently stood up and sat down again. Far from feeling like an outsider I found myself thoroughly buoyed upon the cresting waves of emotion, sometimes fighting back tears. Someone gripped my shoulder and someone else squeezed my arm. Everyone beamed at me, and soon I was responding vocally to the speakers myself, and getting up and down at climactic moments alongside everyone else.

I particularly remember one speaker, apparently Williams’ old friend James “Alley Pat” Patrick, puncturing the solemnity of his predecessors by stating that he intended to talk about “the real man” that he had hung out with “after midnight.” This was received with whops and hoots of knowing laughter. Apparently it’s well-established that, like Dr King himself, Williams was no stranger to secular indulgences of various sorts. “Alley Pat” treated us to a catalogue of delightful stories that lit his deceased companion in a less-than-sanctified light, all of which were greeted with great enthusiasm.

When the service was ended we all cleared the hall to observe the procession, which was then mustering around a simple mule-drawn waggon bearing the flag-draped coffin back into town. Williams was said to have often dressed in simple dungarees, and many of the mourners turned out in likewise fashion:

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I climbed a wall to take this shot of the procession, showing Jesse Jackson walking behind the waggon with his hands on the coffin:

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I was also much taken with these cowboy-hatted procession outriders:

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On returning to my friend’s home in suburban Atlanta I excitedly recounted the events I had observed, and revelled in the extraordinary happenstance that had landed me in downtown Atlanta on that particular day. My friend’s partner regarded me with an expression of mock-concern and said, “We’ll have to put you under close supervision next time you’re allowed out and about.” She meant this humorously, but it did say something to me, nonetheless, about the continuing ruptures in American society. It’s sad that a white suburban American would regard attending such an event as something slightly alien, dangerous even, for someone like her to do. For myself I loved every minute of it, and felt blessed to have been there.

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