'Growing Up King,' By Dexter King

In terms of the black/white so-called race relations, Atlanta has always been just smart enough to be smarter than most. I don't know if it's because of what happened during the Civil War, General Sherman burning it down. Since then Atlanta had the sense to recognize it needs to be peaceful, though there have been lynchings of blacks and bombings of Jewish synagogues here and there; there have also been efforts to stem the tide of hatred by being civil in that southern, intimate way, by being "down home." The raw, murderous violence of Alabama and Mississippi didn't seem to cloak Atlanta. But in my youth, it was rigidly, bitterly segregated.

Before the '60s, before the Civil Rights Movement and social reformation, "Negroes" in Atlanta — never "blacks," not then; calling somebody "black" back then would get you a look, maybe even a punch in the nose — weren't as affected by the segregation dooming the poor in other places; in Atlanta, "Negroes" had infrastructure. It was by comparison small and circumscribed, but it was there, not rich compared to the Augusta Country Club and the riches that spawned it. But "Negroes" did have social clubs, financial institutions, schools, churches, some land, so in that respect there was hesitation with change; there was a risk of losing what little you had. You felt like you finally had acquired something you didn't want to lose.

Blacks in Atlanta weren't as downtrodden as in the Mississippi Delta, or in Lawndale on the West Side of Chicago, or in the rice paddies of the Sea Islands off the Carolina coast, or in the black belt of south-central Alabama, where my mother's parents lived, or other places South and North. "Negroes" in Atlanta were not as anxious as they were in other places, where people were trying to gain access, rights, a crust of life, because they didn't have anything to lose, they were trying to get a little something. In Atlanta, "Negroes" already had a little something; in some cases they had nice somethings. This made it more impressive to me, later, to realize that my father, in spite of his privileged position, would take up the civil rights struggle, battle against the system of segregation. Because he really would have had it made, relatively, in old Atlanta. Could've gone with the flow, succeeded Granddaddy as pastor at Ebenezer, conducted weddings, funerals, encouraged generosity from the Ebenezer flock, attended National Baptist conventions, risen to be an H.N.I.C....Head Negro In Charge of what little we had, and we had a nice if not an idyllic life.

I don't know how it was in Daddy's mind. I've been asked many times, as have many if not most other black people, "What do you want?" I can't answer for him. He was, if nothing else, a man of his own conscience. The '60s were idyllic to me. How they were for him, I don't know. He could've limited his battles to Ebenezer, local politics, as my grandfather did. But he didn't; wasn't that kind of a man. Greatness was thrust upon him, and for some internal reason or external destiny, he did not turn away. Because he was the man that he was, I was born six weeks premature.

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