Shirley Cherry is a force of nature to be reckoned with. A petite, brilliant, African American woman, Cherry talks a mile a minute as she gives us a tour of the Dexter Avenue Parsonage, the church-owned home where Dr. King and his family lived in Montgomery, Alabama.
Cherry is a master teacher who knows how to engage us, challenge us and pass on great wisdom with humor and surprise. She gives these tours because, as she says, “Dr. King changed my life. He taught me to love the hell out of people.”
Cherry grew up in a time of Jim Crow in a home without electricity. She knew her place and never looked white people in the eyes. Her mom worked in a laundry where Klansmen took their robes to be cleaned and ironed. She says she was able to go to Tuskegee Institute because her mom pressed KKK robes. Think about that.
She went to a school called Cherokee County Training School, north of Atlanta. She asked her mom and teachers, “Why do blacks go to training schools? What are we being trained to do?” Serve. She was part of the effort to get the name of that school changed.
Before our tour of the parsonage, Cherry shows us some of her personal treasures. One is a photo of her with a white woman named Deborah, who confided that her father was the police officer who arrested Rosa Parks. Imagine carrying that shame for a lifetime. Cherry’s take on it: “Martin Luther King, Jr. lived and died so that Shirley and Deborah can be friends.” And they are.
Cherry asked to meet Deborah’s father. He said he doesn’t like publicity. He didn’t talk to Oprah, but he met and talked with Cherry in the Dexter Avenue Parsonage at the very same dining room table where King and others plotted to change the world and formed the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC). Deborah’s father says he’s a Christian, too. He has regrets, but he recognizes that arresting Rosa Parks actually helped make the world a better place.
As we stand outside the parsonage at 309 Jackson Street, Cherry points down the road to the large home of Vera Harris, who was married to a Tuskegee airman. She says that Harris still comes out and sits on her porch waving and welcoming people to the neighborhood. Harris owned the Deen drug store, one of the alternative bus stops during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. And she housed freedom riders in her home.
Past the Harris house is the barber shop where Nelson Malden still cuts hair today. He gave Martin Luther King, Jr. his first haircut as minister of Dexter Avenue Church, and the last haircut before he died.
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was a fascinating place. It was where Montgomery’s most elite black families went on Sundays. The minister prior to King was a man named Vernon Johns who believed that “if you see a good fight, get into it.” He admonished his congregation by saying, “This isn’t a church; it’s a fashion show.” In other words, pay more attention to your spirit than your appearance.
Johns was a Greek and Latin scholar who preached economic independence as the pathway to equality for blacks. He used his pulpit to speak out about the conditions facing most blacks in Montgomery and challenge the relative comfort of his parishioners who took pride in their own achievements. One of his sermons that got him into trouble was entitled, “It’s Safe to Murder Negroes in Montgomery.”
He was fired from his post for being a radical. When Dexter Avenue called MLK, Jr. to take his place, they thought they were getting a mild mannered minister. MLK arrived in 1954, at age 24, with his wife Coretta. They moved into the parsonage, which would become a welcoming place to church members, Montgomery Improvement Association organizers, even panhandlers.
I don’t mean to deify a man we all know was profoundly human and flawed, but it is deeply humbling to pass through his front door and walk on the floors he paced at night, to see and imagine the sounds from the piano where the musically gifted Coretta played and sang, to touch the chenille bed spread and bed he shared with Coretta, to stand in his study where he listened to jazz records, wrote sermons and read Gandhi, to see the telephone that rang with 30-40 threatening phone calls a day, the bathroom where King shaved, took 666 cold medicine (“that will kill you or cure you”), the bassinet where the King children slept as infants.
Perhaps most moving was the kitchen table, which Shirley Cherry tells us is “as close as you’re gonna get to hallowed ground on earth.” Here’s why:
It was January 27, 1956. The phone rang about midnight and an angry white male voice told King that if he didn’t call off the Montgomery Bus Boycott, his house would be bombed in three days. King sat at the dining room table as his beautiful wife and children slept in the next room. He thought about packing them up and getting the hell outta town to protect his loved ones. He prayed for courage. He told God he was scared. He heard God speak directly back to him, by name, telling him he wasn’t alone. It was an epiphany – a defining moment for him.
On Jan 30 1956, while King was at a meeting at his friend Ralph Abernathy’s church, a white terrorist bombed the parsonage. Luckily, the family was in the back of the house and wasn’t hurt, but clearly shaken. King rushed home and a crowd of several hundred angry and armed black folks gathered outside to confront the police. The street was seething and people wanted revenge. King held up his hand and quieted the crowd and asked everyone to go home in peace.
“He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.”
Here’s what I learned about MLK from Shirley Cherry. King was a closet smoker. His favorite brand was OPB: other people’s brands. The closest he ever came to spanking his kids was when they hid his cigarettes. Coretta was more of the disciplinarian in the family, not surprisingly since she virtually had to raise the kids alone.
Standing at the piano, Cherry told us that King said, “Everybody is significant on God’s keyboard from a treble white to a bass black.”
Cherry says MLK taught her that you must, “forgive everyone for everything and lose your fear of death. Life is not about how long but how well you live.”
Julie Drizin, Silver Spring