Monday, January 20, 2014

A Birth Story of Martin Luther King Jr - written with love after visiting his birth home

The Birth of Michael King Jr
Auburn Street in Atlanta, Georgia
Son of Michael King Sr and Alberta Williams King
Grandson of Reverend Williams and Jenny Williams
January 15, 1929

Birth home of Martin Luther King Jr in Atlanta, Georgia

Reverend Williams stared out the window of the study at the Ebenezer Baptist Church.  It was the kind of January morning that allowed you to dream of spring even if the calendar still said it was winter; an eager bird, a swelling bud on a low hanging branch, children playing outdoors. He used his early morning walk down Auburn Street to his church to take notice of and reflect on his community. He settled into these quiet hours of contemplation with a tender satisfaction that allowed him time to work on Sunday’s sermon, read the paper and still be home for breakfast.
 He had learned to leave his home quietly, not disturbing the growing number of family and friends who slept beneath his roof. In segregated Atlanta, the minister was expected to host out of town travelers. In addition to himself and his wife, Jennie, there was his daughter, Alberta, her husband, their young daughter, his wife’s sister Lila and Joel, his son in laws younger brother.  A smile crossed his face as he counted them; a smile that grew when he thought of the soon to be arrival of his second grandchild.  With this baby there would be seven around the dining room table for evenings prayer.

It was cold that January morning; clear and blue. He imagined the angels shaking out the sheets above him, singing some fine morning hymns as they did their chores and covered those on earth with hope.  It was his job to pass that hope on to others.

Running his hands through his hair, he searched for the words that might provide him with the substance of his sermon.   Often he found himself wanting to urge his congregation on to greater equality and not to accept what Atlanta so reluctantly provided the Negro children of Atlanta. It was this place where the message of Jesus and the earth’s injustices came together that he was most often drawn to. When Jesus said to suffer the little children, surely he meant all the children of the earth. Still he knew these sermons could scare his congregation and he would have to be careful with his words.  His congregation enjoyed a new found security and hope in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood.

 Yes, here in Sweet Auburn, African-Americans were safe and respected and the children did not feel the daily sting of segregation. Still they were part of the city of Atlanta in the state of Georgia and the laws of that land did not protect a man, nor his wife and children if their skin was dark.  Beyond the streetcar stop at the corner of Auburn and Boulevard there was a different world. He tried to protect his church and his family from that world but he, of all people knew it existed.

He had been here for the riots of 1906 when angry mobs had burned their community and killed their people. It would be naive not to think it possible again.  It was easy enough to rest on the progress that had been made but without an equal education and laws to protect them Atlanta’s negroesNegroes could never really be free.  Or safe. 

 Frustration with the Atlanta school board was growing.  The leaders of the Negro community knew that without an education, the young people of Auburn could never fully overcome the nagging legacy of slavery. How to write a sermon that would provide comfort and hope while striving for social justice? He knew they came all dressed up more than often to meet their neighbors and show off a new hat. They wanted to feel Jesus’sJesus’ joy and promise; not his call for justice. They loved the singing led by his wife’s choir. He smiled thinking of his wife, Jenny. She would be waking up now, singing as she walked down the stairs to start breakfast. Singing from the time her feet first touched the floor and all the day till she shut her eyes again at night.

The words of his sermon began to take shape. With just three sentences on his page, there was a knock at his door and Joel, breathing hard from the run down Auburn Street came in.  His wish to be respectful of his brother’s father-in-law was set asideset-aside in his excitement. He could not sit down or dwell on the normal greetings common to a well brought up boy.

“Reverend Williams. Excuse me. Reverend Williams.  Mrs. King is having the pains of birth. I filled all the fireplaces with coal and chopped some wood and now they sent me for you. Mrs. Williams said you are to say some prayers and then come to the house. Your daughter wants you there in the house with her.”  Joel stopped and took a breath as he picked up Reverend Williams’ coat and handed it to him. 

 “Ah Joel, you know birth is no place for us men. Why don’t you stay here with me and we’ll go on up after the baby is born.”  

ReverandReverend Williams pulled out a chair and offered Joel a seat. He was a tall boy; almost as tall as his older brother and yet he was only twelve.  Good nutrition was what the public nurse said.  Good nutrition would grow the next generation taller and stronger. 

Joel continued to stand, twirling his hat in hands, rocking back and forth. 

“We have to go, ReverandReverend Williams.  ItsIt’s my job to bring you back to the house.  The baby is coming and we have to go back home. Michael said he doesn’t want to be the only man in the house.  We have to hurry.”

 ReverandReverend Williams laughed a deep, reassuring laugh and took up his coat.

“Well, then lets not keep this baby waiting .waiting.

His long, strong arms slid easily into the sleeves of his coat. Grown or not, Alberta Christine was still and always would be his precious baby daughter.  Her first child, his granddaughter had been born too soon and too small. She had used the drawer of the chipparo for a bed.  But this time they’d be ready.  

“We have a house to fill with prayer and thanksgiving.”

“And to keep warm.  The coals stoves are my other job” Joel reminded him.

They shut the door of the Ebenezer Church. A strong oak door made from the great forests of Georgia.

As they walked up Auburn Street, he put a friendly arm around Joel’s shoulder.

“No more babies sleeping in the chipparo.”

No more children born into slavery and God willing ,willing, no more children born into the legacy of racism.

  His mother had raised him on his birth story; a story she said he should be proud of; a story to live ones life for.

He had been born on the very last day of slavery. The very last day! He often thought about that. Born the very day before the Emancipation Proclamation became law. He was a slave, a tiny baby slave for one day. His grandmother, the midwife for the plantation had caught him and whispered, “Tomorrow you’ll be free. A free little baby boy in America.” At least that’s what his Mamma had said she said. They hadn’t buried the placenta in that land of slavery like they usually did but burnt it and threw it into the River. “Like the River Jordon, his grandmother said. “Your life will take your people to the freedom land.” 

His own father had ministered to the slaves and he, as a child, was always asked to
officiate at the funerals of pets that had died on the plantation.  He recalled his own mother and his decision to leave share cropping and come to Atlanta. He allowed his mind to drift for a moment before noticing Joel’s eager gaze beside him.

The iceman stopped, excited to tell him that things were moving along at his house up on Auburn Street.

“I knocked on the door with the ice and they shooed me out and then they called me back again and then they shooed me out. Then the midwife came down the stairs and said she’d carry the ice. That they might need some for the birth. They were all busy in there. Bowls of water being carried upstairs and well, I could hear Mrs. King and she was sounding like, well like a person deep in conversation with the Lord…”

The Reverend Williams smiled and shook his head in amazement..

“ Thanks for the report… and the ice.”

  He gave the man an extra tip and continued his steps up Auburn. Word spread fast in Sweet Auburn. How could it be happening so quickly? The first baby, Christine, took a good day and she’d been sleeping when he left this morning.  The on going mystery of women.

The men in the firehouse were out washing the fire engine on the corner and waved him good morning. The streets were lined with shops and professionals.  He felt a satisfied pride in the industry and determination of his neighbors as he walked up the hill to his home.

He was inclined to let his thoughts drift but Dr. Johnson was sitting on his porch waiting for him with his black leather bag beside him.

It had been his idea to have Dr Johnson at the birth. He was a prominent African –American doctor with an office in Sweet Auburn. His wife and daughter had shaken their heads at the idea of having a doctor at a birth but said he could come along if he didn’t get in the way. Why some people were even being born in hospitals.

Even if they had considered a hospital, they were segregated and no one wanted this baby to begin his life in a segregated hospital.

“My baby isn’t starting life in a segregated hospital.”  Insisted his son-in-law, Michael as he smiled at his wife who he lovingly called Bunches.

Once he had asked Michael why he called his daughter Bunches and he said, “Why she is just bunches of goodness.”

The Reverend Williams had felt a tenderness for Michael; a young country preacher who walked by his house every day just hoping to get a glimpse of his only daughter. His wife had seen promise in Michael. He could court their daughter but he’d have to finish high school and go to college first. But it seemed that there was no stopping these two and here they were about to have their second baby. 

Ruth, the midwife, was coming down the stairs as they entered the house.

 He knew Ruth well and considered her part of his family.  She was a member of his church and one of the strongest voices in his wife’s choir.  She was president of the Women’s Club and worked on issues of public health and hygiene in Auburn. She even led the midwives group that met in the church once a week. She was the best of Atlanta and maybe all of Georgia.

 Dr Williams laughed and said, “I don’t mind being in the kitchen with you Reverend Williams. She’s been catching babies a lot longer than I have. Maybe I’ll learn something.”

 Jennie smiled appreciatively.  “You’ll be sitting at the kitchen table eating pie unless we need you, which we won’t.”  She could not imagine having any man watching her have a baby. She would be surrounded by the women in her life; her mother and Ruth, the midwife and her Aunt Lila.  Ruth had caught almost every baby she knew come into this world.

Some doctors, fresh out of medical school, were starting to say the midwives weren’t clean or trained. Dr Johnson suspected they just wanted the business and the money.  Most of the people the midwives helped didn’t have any money. They were just as likely to send you away with a chicken or a new quilt. No, he didn’t mind the midwives keeping their rightful place in the community. He had plenty else to do.

The two men lingered on the front porch. The dried hydrangeas from summer had not been picked off yet and Reverend Williams automatically reached out to pinch the dried purple bloom. They would need to do that if they wanted flowers in the summer. He loved summers on the big wrap around porch and my, he loved his hydrangeas. And this summer there would be a new baby for his lap. This image took away the grandfathers fears. He opened his lace-covered front door and taking a deep breath, tentatively entered a home transformed by birth.

“There you are.” his wife said as she hurried by him. “Remember your job is the job of prayer and keeping the house warm.”

Reverend Williams decided the kitchen was a good place for prayer and took his seat at the small kitchen table. He ran his hand over the cool checkered oilcloth. The doctor and Joel sat beside him and they began a prayer.

“Dear Lord, thank you for this home….”began Reverend Williams.   

“And thanks to the Germans who made it…” Joel added.  “And thanks to them for leaving so we could live here instead.”

“We don’t thank the Lord for others misfortunes, son. One person doesn’t have to suffer so another man can be happy. Remember that.” But he could not be blamed if after the riots the Germans had left and he was able to purchase his home for only $3200. Some doors close and others open, he would always say, shaking his head remembering those days.

Aunt Lila, his wife’s sister, came in and interrupted them.  His first grandchild, Christine, was in her arms. Christine was crying and Lila was needed to help Jennie in the birth room.

“I’ve read that child every book I have but Ruth’s calling for me. The times coming close for her to be a big sister.”

With that, she placed Christine in his arms and went back up the stairs.

“Where’s Mr. King? He called.

“He’s right outside the door waiting on his baby. We told him to go down but he wouldn’t. “

“Maybe we should go up with him, suggested the doctor. Then I’d be near by if they needed me.”

A neighbor came by to get Christine and take her to play next door, so the two men tiptoed up the great staircase into the front hall where they found Mike standing outside the door listening.

“Shh. Don’t let them know I’m here.” He smiled, rocking back and forth from foot to foot.

Aunt Lila stuck her head out and handed them the coal bucket.
“Can someone go and get some more coal.”

The doctor took the bucket and went to the basement to fill it. “ I might as well be useful.” He laughed, leaving his black doctor bag by the door.

From behind the door, they could hear the midwife’s soothing words. They were like syrup dripping from a spoon. She called her every sweet word in the world. Sugar, honey. On and on with every pain. He could hear someone pouring water and wringing out a cloth and they could hear Alberta. . Hear both her silences and her moans. They didn’t know which worried them more. The silence or the moans.

Then Christine gave out a scream, and then a second later the two men heard a cry and then another and then a round of thank yous to Jesus and God and then to Christine and then to the baby.

 ML jumped up and touched the ceiling, his fingerprints marking the moment for years to come. The men cheering and slapping each other with excitement.”

Jenny opened the door and looked at them with reproach for their rowdiness.  A look that turned soft as she proudly announced,  “a boy.  We’ve got ourselves a new baby boy.”

“Christine? “ MJ asked.  “How’s Christine?”  He tried to look through the partially cracked door.

“She’s fine.”  The door shut as he turned smiling at the other men in the hallway.  Warm, winter sunlight joined them in the hall as they waited.   Behind the door the baby cried and the women laughed.  MJ paced wanting to go in.

When the midwife opened the door, the room was clean and neat with no sign of the birth.   Jenny left with her arms full of laundry.

Christine was sitting up in their bed with a fresh gown on and the baby snuggled up beside her.  ML came and sat beside them, reaching out to touch the small hand that readily grasped his father’s finger.

“He’s a strong one, Christine.”  MJ said. 

The baby looked up at them.

 “Strong and curious.  Look at him already trying to make sense of the world.”

 The women moved around them tending to the small tasks that were second nature in the world of birthing’s A drink of warm, sweet tea. A clean blanket.  A check for bleeding. Tending the fire.  One opening the curtains and another shutting them.  Smoothing the quilt.  Bringing a bowl of soup a neighbor made. 

 Revereand Williams, the doctor and Joel went downstairs for that piece of pie.     

Revereand Williams was no longer worried about his sermon on Sunday. He would talk about his new grandson. Michael King, Jr and the world the world they would build for him and all the children of Sweet Auburn.

In time, little Michael was successfully nursing and the midwife took the placenta outside to burn and bury in the backyard.  Reverend Williams watched her and thought, “Yes, this is a good place to plant a placenta. This is home; a place to grow up free.

The day had turned warm and the two old friends sat on the back steps admiring the sky and the entire world beneath it.

“You know they say that on the slave ships the women killed the babies that were born rather than letting them be sold into slavery. “ Ruth told him.

Reverend Williams looked down at his feet, shaking his head.

“You know, Ruth, my mamma always told me I was born on the last day of slavery.  The very last day before emancipation.  She said I was a slave for one day but that when I was born the midwife had said tomorrow you’ll be free. “

Ruth raised her head and stared at her friend,  “Why all these years you’ve known me and I never knew that story.”

“Mama said they never buried a placenta on the plantation during the slave days.  They burned them and threw the ashes in the river so we’d one day be free.  I recalled that sitting here watching you bury the ashes in the yard.  Thinking about my own Mama and the sharecropping and me leaving to come here and preach in Atlanta.  Thinking about a man’s life.”

Reverend Williams sat awhile after Ruth had gone back inside.  He thought about the midwives words and about all that had happened so far that day.  He could hear the laughter of the women who had come to help and bring food.  No use going back inside. He’d just slip on out and back down to his church.

 He had a sermon to write and besides he wanted to be the first one to tell all the neighbors that a grandson, Michael King Jr was born that day at noon on Auburn Street.  By the time he could crawl the Ash trees would be in leaf and the hydrangeas would be in bloom all up and down Sweet Auburn.


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