MLK’s Atlanta and the Earth Goddess

13th day of the Omer —yesod sh’b’ gevurah

Yes, I’m traveling yet again. Since the beginning of 2016, I have been to California twice, to Hawaii, to Spain, and now to Atlanta. I have the travel bug! Life is short and there is so much to see and learn.

I arrived in Atlanta late last night for a long weekend with Judi, my rabbinical school roommate, and her husband Stan. I have wanted to come here for quite some time to visit the historical sites associated with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights era. Originally, I had also hoped to make it to either Birmingham or Montgomery for more of the history of the segregated South and the civil rights era, but realized, especially after the intensive touring I just did in Spain, that I would have to do Alabama another time in a separate trip.

What has been most unexpected by my first day here in Sweet Auburn (the name of the historic black neighborhood where MLK grew up and where he returned to co-pastor with his father) was how much crying I would do! It’s been an emotional roller coaster ride, both with the heart-piercing reminder of the cruelties of racism and segregation that are still rippling in our society today (read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow for more on this) as well as the uplifting, but nonetheless tear-provoking inspiration, legacy, and prophetic vision of King himself.

I spent several hours visiting the different sites which comprise the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, which President Carter established in 1980 to preserve the places where Dr. King was born, lived, worked, worshipped, and is buried. (President Carter actually established dozens of new historic sites, national parks and conservation lands during his presidential term).  The MLK, Jr. National Park Service Visitor Center had wonderful displays and films. Then I took the tour of the King family home;  visited the Ebenezer Baptist Church where MLK’s father was pastor and where Dr King returned as co-pastor after a 6-year stint in Montgomery; visited the King Center which has three separate rooms, one each dedicated to the legacies of Mahatma Gandhi (who greatly influenced Dr. King’s positions on non-violence), to Coretta Scott King,  and to Rosa Parks (whose refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery bus so that a white man could sit down, ignited the successful bus boycott and a movement).

Outside the King Center, Dr. King’s speeches were playing over a loudspeaker, so as I walked down the freedom walkway along a reflecting pool to his (and Coretta’s) tombstone, I heard his voice. I was so overcome by emotion at that point, that a Park Ranger came over to me and asked me if I knew what my tears signified. “Yes,” I said, really bawling at this point, “they signify my unrequited desire to work whole-heartedly for justice and and the world is so broken, and there is so much to do!” He just listened as I babbled, pointed at my heart, and said, “Your tears signify that you understand. Now go out and tell the world.”

So I’m telling you: The world is really broken and we HAVE to work harder to heal it. For me, Martin Luther King is truly an inspiration in how one moves from despair to action. I don’t want to live with despair or cynicism in my heart — I want to live with the belief that the seemingly impossible IS possible and that mountains can be moved by virtue of our will to move them. So let’s start pushing!

In front of MLK's childhood home with Doug, the guide

In front of MLK’s childhood home on Auburn Avenue with Park Service guide, Doug. When MLK was growing up here, the Sweet Auburn neighborhood was the wealthiest black neighborhood in the world. But wealth or profession didn’t insure respect or justice in America. MLK got an early education in racism at age 6 when his best friend, a little white boy whose parents owned the candy store across the street, “unfriended” him because of the color of his skin.

The Promenade behind the Visitor Center. The flagstones on the two outer paths feature footprints of civil rights leaders

The Promenade behind the Visitor Center. The flagstones on the two outer paths feature footprints of civil rights leaders

Footsteps of Ambassador Andrew Young

Footsteps on the Promenade of Ambassador Andrew Young

Tombstones of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King

Tombstone of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King. It is placed on a little island in the middle of a long pool of water.

One of my brasher the acquaintances -- Jerry, originally from the Bronx, who comforted me during one of my crying jags

One of my bashert acquaintances was with Jerry, originally from the Bronx, who comforted me during one of my crying jags on the Freedom Walk

Judi picked me up at the end of the day and we had a quick bite at Krog Street Market, an upscale food market where we debriefed our respective days (hers included officiating at a funeral, and besides what you read here, mine included speculation about whether Dr King would be for Hillary or for Bernie if he were alive today. BTW, none of the park rangers would/could engage me on this question).

We then went for the evening to the botanical gardens where Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures were featured throughout the landscape. Though exquisite works of art which were (mostly) tastefully placed to enhance the experience of nature, what really stole my heart was the “mosaiculture,” a 20-foot tall, humungous living sculpture called the Earth Goddess. She is changed seasonally with different plants (I bought a postcard of her in reds) and trimmed weekly. She weighs more than 29 tons and is created from more than 18,000 individual plants. I fell in love!

Me and Judi with both Chihuly and the Earth Goddess in mosaiculture

Me and Judi with both Dale Chihuly glass and the Earth Goddess behind us

The Earth Goddess. Note the water flowing from her hand

The Earth Goddess. Note the water flowing from her hand

Dale Chihuly glass amongst the plants.

Dale Chihuly black-and-white glass amongst the plants

Tomorrow I will visit Atlanta’s Civil and Human Rights Museum. And then it’s Shabbos!


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