Where would Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. be today, if he hadn't stepped onto his balcony at the Lorraine Motel in the early evening of April 4, 1968?
Chairing a presidential campaign against racism? Delivering his 10,000th sermon at some huge Baptist church, comfortably settled in as its senior pastor? Would the fire of righteous outrage burn high, or would decades of racial division have damped his spirit?
We'll never know, because he did step out onto that Memphis balcony. A drifter in a rooming house across the street fired a rifle, ending King's life before he could prepare his Poor People's March on Washington. Like the man who inspired his nonviolent protests, Indian activist Mohandas Gandhi, King was murdered by a man who didn't share his dream of unity.
Three decades later, the fiery orator and controversial philosopher has become a face on a stamp and the name on a national holiday. You can visit civil rights memorials, see videos of soul-stirring speeches, stand in front of his marble tomb and hear the gentle flickering of its eternal flame.
But to know why King marched through bottles, taunts and rocks, to know why he went to jail as often as some of us go to the gym, you have to follow his footsteps.
I spent a week driving around Alabama to places where King made a difference. I stepped gingerly through the Birmingham park where police dogs had bitten black protesters, some of them children. I saw the Selma bridge where state troopers had clubbed peaceful marchers.
I stood outside King's Montgomery church and looked up the hill to the Alabama Capitol, where Gov. George Wallace vowed "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" I ended by driving to Atlanta, where I walked through King's boyhood home and the once-prosperous neighborhood of Sweet Auburn.
Black-and-white newscasts I'd watched as a child, hardly realizing that parts of the United States were becoming police states, came sharply into focus. I set out in admiration; I came back in awe.
A full King pilgrimage would include Memphis, Tenn., where a civil rights memorial has been erected despite his tenuous connection to the city. (He'd flown there to help sanitation workers organize.)
It would go as far afield as Chicago, where his march against housing discrimination drew the most hate-filled response he ever encountered. It would take in Albany, Ga., where white moderates defused protests without giving in, handing King a rare setback.
But folks with limited time and limited budgets (like mine) should stick to four key cities. Here's what to see and do there.
The city once called "Bombingham" has come to grips gracefully with its scarred past. Start in Kelly Ingram Park at Sixth Avenue and 16th Street North. Pigeons waddle on the swath of green where the commissioner of public safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, turned fire hoses and German shepherds on black protesters in May 1963.
"Ministers Kneeling in Prayer," a statue by Raymond Kaskey, shows three solemn men, one looking up to heaven. Behind them, four broken pillars represent girls murdered Sept. 15, 1963, by a bomb at 16th Street Baptist Church.
Like all black churches, that square, red-brick building was the center of dignified activism before the civil rights movement had a name. To reach it, circle through the park past sculptures of snarling police dogs, two children waiting to enter a jail cell, a cop in sunglasses shoving a black teen who is struggling to keep his balance.
Why bomb this church? Because 1,000 youths had been arrested there during a May 2 protest, hauled off in school buses and paddy wagons to fill jails and clog courts. Because people who faced Connor's dogs and hoses came out of that church. Because King had blacked the eye of white Birmingham, his test-case city for segregation, with a successful march on Washington on Aug. 28, delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech.
If you tour the humbly handsome sanctuary, note the stained-glass window donated by the people of Wales, in which a black, Christlike figure in agony pushes away oppression with one hand and asks for (divine?) forgiveness with the other. The real memorial is downstairs, where a small lobby commemorates the four dead girls and other church history. As you wander through, remember the Sunday-school lesson on the day of the bomb: "A love that forgives."
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, at 520 16th St. N., uses jukeboxes, classrooms, bus seats, even a replica of King's cell in the Birmingham jail to summon up the city's history over the last century.
We see the rise of the black middle and upper class before and during the Jim Crow era, when it established a thriving community with its own colleges and baseball team (the Birmingham Black Barons, who discovered Willie Mays).
A civil rights time line encompasses cities all over the country, including Rock Hill, where demonstrators began a "jail-in" after being arrested at McCrory's lunch counter. Illegal poll taxes, unfair literacy tests, phony citizenship requirements -- all the white dodges meant to frustrate black voters -- line a wall of shame.
This chronological approach is the best way to absorb the key events in an hour. Don't leave before entering the last room, which is devoted to human rights around the world. It'll make you feel lucky to be an American but ashamed to belong to a species that kills troublesome labor leaders and arranges marriages for young children.
P.S.: If you've read King's inspired "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," you may be tempted to visit the spot where he wrote it. Don't. The lobby is in a gray brick building in a municipal complex at 501 Sixth Ave. S. You can see the white stone facade of the old detention area at the back; a surly guard will admit King was kept there in 1963, but you can't get in.
If televised mayhem in Birmingham prompted President Kennedy to sign the Civil Rights Act in 1963, events in Selma two years later encouraged President Johnson to push the Voting Rights Act through Congress. (He finished his speech introducing it with the words "We shall overcome.")
Historians call March 7, 1965, "Bloody Sunday." That's the day marchers set out from Brown Chapel to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a 54-mile walk to Montgomery -- before state troopers battered and tear-gassed unarmed marchers in front of news cameras.
Brown Chapel (Alabama's first AME Church, now closed to visitors) and the bridge, both in need of paint, still serve this sleepy city. (So does Mayor Joe Smitherman, who held that job back in 1965.)
Ambiguous plaques in both spots pay careful tribute to the marchers, downplaying Selma's history of racism and brutality: Sheriff Jim Clark, a minor-league Bull Connor, had a moment in the media sun when he billy-clubbed 53-year-old Annie Lee Cooper.
Cooper still lives here and likes to talk to school groups. They reach her through the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute at 1012 Water Ave., a block from the bridge in a building once owned by the White Citizens Council.
The museum organizes Heritage Weekends around the famous march, which finally did reach Montgomery in the week after Bloody Sunday.
A shoestring budget doesn't allow for opulence, but the museum has divided history into rooms: A Memorial Room for the dozens who died in the cause, a Footprints to Freedom Room that has casts of the marchers' feet and pictures of the triumphant procession to the capital, a Reconstruction Room to remind us that blacks (many from the Carolinas) served in Congress before Jim Crow paralysis set in.
Don't neglect the hallway, where you can see the electric cattle prods and chains deputies applied to black backs. Don't miss the corner that tells about Claudette Colvin, a Montgomery teen who refused to give her bus seat to a white man in March 1955. Black leaders decided Colvin wouldn't inspire civil rights activists, so they quietly paid her fine and made a test case nine months later out of Rosa Parks.
The best thing about the museum? People who marched on that fatal Sunday lead the tours. Joanne Bland, secretary to the board, took me through, telling stories of the South 35 years ago: "I still remember how disappointed I was when I sneaked my first drink out of a 'White' fountain. All that came out was water! I could get that from a 'Colored' fountain. I expected Sprite at the very least."
You can stand at the birthplace of the Confederacy -- the steps of the Alabama Capitol, where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated in 1861 -- and look down on the birthplace of the civil rights movement, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where King coordinated a 1955 bus boycott after Parks' arrest. (It's now Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.)
Or you can stand at the front door of the church, looking up the hill to that gleaming white building, and be forgiven for feeling you are gazing up from slave quarters to Massa's pretty white mansion.
Start at Dexter and Bainbridge streets, climbing the restored capitol's elegant curving stairway. The Confederate States of America came together in the Senate Room on Feb. 18, 1861. In the rotunda, murals painted in 1930 depict the state's history. White masters ride horses in the antebellum painting titled "Alabama's Golden Age." Mysteriously, there's no mural depicting the Civ -- I mean, the War Between the States, nor the black congressmen during Reconstruction.
Come down to earth a block away at Dexter Avenue church. Upstairs, in the old wooden pews of the sanctuary, you can almost hear echoes of young King's ringing baritone. Dig the stained glass windows, which look like Piet Mondrian's cubist paintings.
You can watch a 15-minute video narrated by former Georgia legislator Julian Bond, explaining the church's pre-boycott activism. It's shown in the basement, where Southern Christian Leadership Conference members met to plan the drive for equality. A mural links dozens of civil rights figures; this must be the only painting to encompass King, Gandhi, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee head Stokely Carmichael (later a Black Panther) and J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI chief who spied on King to smear his reputation.
Drive by King's house at 309 S. Jackson Ave., bombed in 1956 and now closed to visitors, and the Ben Moore Hotel at Jackson and High streets. The first Montgomery hotel to serve blacks is shut and decayed; King got his last haircut here at Maulden Bros. Barber Shop and planned strategy in the roof garden.
End the tour with the most moving stop on the entire trip: the Civil Rights Memorial at 400 Washington St. Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, outdid herself with this noble place. Water cascades down a black granite wall and over a free-standing, black granite tabletop tapering to a base. The water echoes King's vow not to rest "until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."
On the tabletop are carved 53 entries chronicling the movement, from the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision desegregating public schools to the 1968 death of three students in Orangeburg, S.C., where highway patrolmen fired at protesters. Pamphlets in a glass booth provide a one-volume compendium of American civil rights.
The mother lode for King-dom. His boyhood home and last church are within two blocks of each other on Auburn Avenue. So are a National Park Service center and an institute for peace founded by Coretta Scott King, his widow. Skip the side trip to Morehouse College, where he graduated at 19; there's nothing to see but a King statue. The rest is required viewing.
Start at King's birth home. Though it's free, you must reserve a ticket at the Sweet Auburn Fire Station three doors down -- and do it early. After 11:30 a.m. on a weekend, the day's tours are full.
Sweet Auburn was one of America's most prosperous black neighborhoods when King was born in 1929. His father, known locally as Daddy King, was pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, following in the path of his father-in-law, Alfred Daniel Williams.
Until he was 12, Martin Jr. lived in this house with cream-colored wood siding and pink hydrangea. If he looked right from his front porch, he saw rich folks' homes; if he looked left, he saw the shotgun houses of the genteel poor.
Walking past the home's 14 rooms on the Park Service tour, you see the piano stool he broke to avoid lessons and the spot where he pulled the heads and arms off his sister's dolls. He emerges as a strong-willed, mischievous, smart, socially conscious boy with educated, strict, affectionate, prosperous parents. (King had an allowance of 25 cents a week during the Depression, when that would pay for a hefty dinner and a movie.)
Now enter the church where his funeral drew thousands of people in 1968. He and brother A.D. co- pastored under Daddy King here in the 1960s, and Martin Jr. preached his first and last sermons here.
Though the church honors him with everything from videos to souvenirs, the documentary shown in the sanctuary deals with Ebenezer's whole history of activism. And stained-glass windows, high above simple brown pews, depict not Martin but his father and grandfather .
The National Park Service Visitors Center pays tribute to the slain leader. Videos, set in quiet kiosks and accompanied by photographs, touchingly depict the South he knew and changed.
The story extends from King's youth, when his daddy yanked him from a shoe store because blacks had to try shoes on in the back, to the aftermath of his advocacy. You'll be spellbound by his oratory, horrified by TV footage, informed by comments from civil rights leaders who've since grown to prominence. Watch one minute of the first video, and you'll stand patiently through all half-dozen films.
The park service provides a gripping look at the public man. The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, across the street, reveals the private one.
Much of the center is off-limits. But upstairs in the Freedom Hall, you can see his property: a travel clock, a blue denim work shirt from Sears, his battered marching boots and suitcase. A creepy juxtaposition has put King's room key from the Lorraine Motel next to a well-thumbed book about Gandhi.
The Indian icon of nonviolence gets his own room, featuring his spinning wheel and sandals. Coretta King, herself a voice for civil rights, has put her effects in her husband's room, and a time line around the walls tells of their struggles together and apart.
Downstairs, you can see King's Nobel Peace Price from 1964. But his real memorial is outside: A white marble tomb mounted on an island, red brick like the churches he served, in a reflecting pool.
That pool sits at the low end of five terraces, down which water moves continuously. It rolls gently, not like the mighty stream of righteousness for which King longed. Maybe that's meant to remind us his work will never be done.
WHEN YOU GO ...
These four cities and their sites make up the essential Martin Luther King Jr. tour:
* 16th Street Baptist Church, 1530 Sixth Ave. N., gives tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays. A donation of $2 a person is requested. Call: 205-251-9402.
* Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, at 520 16th St. N. Call: 205-328-9696.
* General information: Call the Birmingham Convention Bureau, 205-458-8000, 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. weekdays.
* National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, 1012 Water Ave., is less than a block from the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays; by appointment on Sundays. Admission: $4; $2 for students (with ID). Call: 334-418-0800.
* General information: For details on visiting Selma, Selma/Dallas County Chamber, P.O. Drawer D, Selma, Ala. 36702; 334-875-7241.
* Alabama State Capitol, Bainbridge Street and Dexter Avenue, offers group tours. Otherwise, use the self-guided tours. Capitol hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays; weekend hours vary. Call: 334-242-3935.
* Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, 454 Dexter Ave.; open to the public for tours at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m. only on Fridays. No walk-throughs. Saturday tours are every 45 minutes, 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Walk-throughs allowed 1:30-2 p.m. Saturdays. Call: 334-263-3970.
* Civil Rights Memorial, Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Ave. The outdoor memorial is accessible 24 hours a day. Call: 334-264-0286.
* General information: Call the Montgomery Visitors Center, 334-262-0013.
* Free brochure: For details about Alabama sites strongly connected with African-Americans and the civil rights movement, request "Alabama's Black Heritage," a 28-page guide published by the Alabama Tourism and Travel Bureau. To order it -- as well as a map, details on accommodations and other Alabama attractions -- call 800-ALABAMA.
* Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, includes the Birth Home, Ebenezer Baptist Church, the National Historic District and Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
The Birth Home of Martin Luther King Jr., 501 Auburn Ave., is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Tours are offered every hour on the hour. Admission: free.
Ebenezer Baptist Church, 407 Auburn Ave., is open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. weekdays; Saturday hours vary; Sundays (for services, only) at 7:45 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. Admission: free. Details: 404-688-7263.
It is across from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, 449 Auburn Ave. King's white marble crypt is outside the center, in Freedom Plaza. Center hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; admission: free.
Historic Site details: 404-331-5190.
* General information: Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-ATLANTA.
* For a free brochure highlighting African-American events and sites, call 800- ATLANTA and ask for "The Atlanta Heritage Guide."
-- Lawrence Toppman