Thursday, January 27, 2011

What was Vine City like in 1966?

If you can't tell in the picture, from left to right it is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Corretta Scott King, and two other residents walking the streets of Vine City on February, 1 1966. Accessed:

You may be asking a few questions about the details of this picture, and what the meaning of it is, and why it is on the Vine City blog today. Note: Since it is about history this post is a little longer than normal.

(1) Why is Martin Luther King Jr. walking the streets of Vine City in 1966?
Well, to start with he lived in Atlanta, but had only lived in Vine City for a year at the time. He and is family moved in from the 4th Ward in 1965. But specifically on this day he was walking the neighborhood after his attention had been drawn to the neighborhoods slums; in particular, the Markham St. apartments. During a cold spell in January 18 people died and froze to death in the neighborhood slums. King and other activist attention had been drawn to the neighborhood slums by various neighborhood local advocates from the Vine City Civic Council that had initiated a rent strike and were fighting slumlords that were profiteering off of housing 5 families in an apartment room for gouged rates, in unsafe housing units with no heat.
On this particular day, the women to the far right are holding signs protesting the arrest of community resident, activist, and organizer Hector Black. Black had been instrumental in organizing the rent strike, advocating for living wage, rent control and renters rights. Later, King would bail Black out of prison, and he took over the rent strike and further organized it with other civil rights leaders of the time.
(2) So, who is Hector Black?
Well, I have two answers here. First, he was a Vine City neighborhood resident from 1965-1968, a community activist, graduated from Harvard as a social anthropologist. He was a Quaker, pacifist, and Gandhian-non-violent-pacifist-Christian, and move to the neighborhood because he was working as part of a tutoring program. Second, he was the first strategic neighbor, living out his faith by moving into the neighborhood. (for further definition of a strategic neighbor)

(3) So, why do I think this is an important part of Vine City's history--and the story of God's presence in the neighborhood?
Well...where do I begin. When I first looked into moving into Vine City in 2006, before I even prayed about it, I Googled it. I don't think this is the purest example of relying on Christ in my decision-making, but it led to further sparking my curiosity about the neighborhood I felt He had placed on my heart.

I found these facts about Hector Black and his faith-motivation when excavating my own heart and the history of the neighborhood, as I felt God leading me to the neighborhood. I think I came here thinking I was going to be a part of some monumental social change, till I found that was really pretentious, so I got humble and decided this neighborhood just needed good neighbors that could be available and present, caring about the neighborhood and wanting to be apart of cultivating community within it's geographic boundaries.

Little did I know, Vine City had a rich legacy of strategic neighbors, i.e Hector Black and even Dr. King. I mean, I didn't really realize it, but Dr. King was a strategic neighbor and I don't think that is something that I really knew about him, how his attention was first drawn to Vine City, and how it was critical to him living out his faith and pursuits of social justice.

(4) So what do I mean by this "Dr. King was a strategic neighbor" ?
King's attention was captured by the impoverishment in Chicago and seeking to live out his faith and views of social justice; he moved up there and was beaten, had bottles thrown at him, and so he moved back down to Atlanta. King felt the pressure by others, his father in particular to move to the suburbs where it was "safe". But he didnt, he chose the city because he wanted to be engaged in relationships in the city and with the poor, working class of Atlanta.
In 1966, he had his attention captured again--this time by Vine City and the Markham St. apartments. He organized a full on rent strike and then a year later he moved into the neighborhood. I always imagined him living in Vine City and it being this glorious place, like a halo around the head of saints in pictures; but instead the roads weren't even paved until after 1966--the neighborhood had pockets of middle class affluence in the African American community; but also severe poverty interwoven.
His son Dexter recounts in his auto-biography "Growing up King" that Vine City was for "plain folk" and that after his father's death in 1968 it began to turn into the "hood"--experiencing crime, violence, etc. While the flight of African American middle class families began due to increasing violence and crime, the King family continued to live there.
This is the place where King developed and lived out one of his most famous ideas and lived realities "Beloved Community". That was what all the struggles for social justice were about, living in relationship with each other, where God's peace and presence was among us through the relationships that we had with each other.

(5) So how is this relevant today?
Well for me it is critical because it shows me that me efforts to love God and my neighbor as apart of the Beloved Community here doesn't mean the neighborhood being all middle class, with perfect sidewalks and fresh coats of paint on all the houses, instead it means being a good neighbor and loving people the way that God loves me and gave his only son for me.
Also, I am in a long-line of predecessors that have done pretty amazing things; which is encouraging in spirit and deflating of ego. This is good medicine, so to speak. I mean, not even to mention Jesus--just within the neighborhood there have and are a lot people that are living out their faith and meeting people where they are. I am no Dr. King and I am no Hector Black (though he accepted my friend request on facebook! :) He is 86 and lives in Nashville, TN as an organic farmer now).

But of all of this, this is relevant to me because looking back at this photo, the story of Hector Black, MLK Jr, Jesus...I am blown away by their faith and trust that they had in God--but when it came to seeking his will, there was a cost. For Jesus, it was death on a cross; for Hector Black it was being mocked by Stokely Carmichael (he called him "white jesus"), being arrested for trespassing for passing out blankets, and being asked to leave the neighborhood in 1968-9 by SNCC. For Martin Luther King Jr., inside of the social justice world there were a lot of people against him because of his faithful convictions; and in side of the faith there were a lot of people against him for his radical politics and opinions--he too died living out his faith.

When I think about this stuff, I just feel overwhelmed and want to find a way to awkwardly change the subject. But, if I hang with it there are two sides to the coin. First, the heads up side is that, I don't want to over-dramatize being a neighbor. I will be honest, most days I just get up, go to school, work on my writing, and I just get to hang out with my friends and meet new people. This is not hard, its a privilege, and a ton of fun--I am not a martyr I wouldn't do anything else--except maybe own my own island in Key West and lay out on the beach all day.

But, on the tails side, there are these hard parts when I have to gut check my faith and say that I choose to believe God is sovereign and present in this suffering. I cannot deny or ignore the hard parts of living in the neighborhood. It is hard to witness a prostitute getting dropped off on the corner by a Lincoln Navigator outside my house, it is hard to see teddy bears on the street corner commemorating the latest murder victim on my way to the dentist, it is hard to listen and be speechlessly silent when a kid say they pray the shooting will stop, and sometimes God answers and it stops, and other times it doesn't and God doesn't answer. This is when it is hard--this is when I get discouraged.

And it is in those moments I come back to reality that the neighborhood has never been solely impoverished or solely affluent, it has always been a mix of both. Despite my warm and fuzzy feelings about the time of civil rights in the neighborhood, my vision of community and neighborhood is deeply flawed and inaccurate. However, there is something that was different than, and that is presence of the body of Christ and the church. I stand as a link in a chain, a long chain and rich legacy of Dr. King, Hector Black, Helen Howard, and other faith-motivated neighbors that prayed for the neighborhood, and sought to simply love God and learn what it means to love their neighbors.

So as I seek to live out my faith in tangible ways, I see these neighbors as saints. What they knew better than I, was that being the hands and feet of Jesus wasn't bound by class, race, or income; they knew what it was to be simply present, never seeing themselves as an individual but as part of a community--the church--the body of Christ. This was God's heart for the neighborhood, and through his saving grace, this is my heart for my neighbor.

This week this quote by Henri Nouwen has really summed up for me, he calls it "the ministry of presence":
“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems.

My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.”

– Henri Nouwen

This February 1st, I am going to just take an extra lap around the neighborhood, not with any answers or solutions racing through my mind--but just being present. Thank you Jesus for your mercy and being present with us.


Want more info on Hector Black and Vine City in 1966?--shoot me an email, i'd be happy to provide my bibliography.


Sarah said...

Thanks so much for sharing, Cheryl! This is a love of food for thought and feeling.

StephGob said...

There's a book I read in college that I somehow have managed to lose, but I did locate it at a few local libraries. I just know that I've been searching for the book for a while now.
I think you would enjoy reading it if you haven't already. It's called, "Race and The Shaping of Twentieth Century Atlanta."

Blogs like this one always take me back to that book! They are why I want to read it again, because the first time through I was too busy in school to really get it!