To grow up in Atlanta is to be always aware of Martin Luther King Jr. and how his story intertwines with your own fate.
I was born in 1978 less than a mile from the Atlanta house where King grew up. As a schoolchild, I visited Auburn Avenue — the street where King was born, worked, died and is honored. To see King's neighborhood let us children know that he was once young like us, wrestling with classes and playing with siblings. We went to the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King declared, "If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice," and to the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization he led until his death in 1968. We visited the King Center built by his widow to spread King's nonviolent doctrine and saw the eternal flame that burns near his tomb and reminds us that his work endures.
My grandparents — native Floridians who first came to Atlanta as college students in the late 1930s — and my mother tried to shield my brother and me from the indignities they suffered during the era of Jim Crow. They did this mostly by giving us a better life; I seldom spoke to them about the racism they endured. But the living history was everywhere in Atlanta.
And when I became a journalist, I found myself gravitating toward telling the stories of black people and the civil rights movement. As a college student, I got my first reporting job at the Atlanta Daily World, a black newspaper first published in 1928. The office was on Auburn Avenue. By taking on civil rights as a beat in Atlanta, I not only had a front row seat to history but the ability to ask those who lived it how they felt about current-day racial struggles. It was an extraordinary opportunity.
Even though I have left Atlanta, I carry all this history with me. This fall, almost a half-century after the enactment of the federal Civil Rights Act that King supported, I spent a few weeks in Ferguson, Mo., as a reporter for Fusion, a television and digital network, covering the Michael Brown shooting and the ensuing protests.
From the day I arrived, the parallels between the context of Ferguson and the context of King's struggles were everywhere. I still found neighborhoods in Ferguson so divided along color lines that I thought I had stepped into those black-and-white TV images of the 1960s I had seen. In the same way Bull Connor referred to protesters as "outside agitators" in Birmingham, authorities and some residents in Ferguson referred to "outsiders" and the "negative influence of the media." The way the police deployed tear gas, dogs, smoke bombs and riot gear certainly reminded me of stories I'd been told by people like John Lewis, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who would go on to represent Atlanta in Congress.
The rallies both in Ferguson and around the country were full of young people — much like those during the civil rights movement. But there were important differences. Unlike the masses who rallied around King in Alabama, there was no single leader of the protests I covered in Ferguson night after night. And while the protesters on West Florissant Avenue were mostly peaceful demonstrators, there were some who would have disappointed King — looting, committing arson, firing guns.
There are some who think of the events in Ferguson as isolated, as simply a moment in time. To me it seemed like part of the continuum in the struggle for progress in our country. When I interviewed King's aides, they were always quick to mention that the civil rights movement didn't die with King. And we still have far to go before we achieve full equality among America's citizens.
Errin Whack is a journalist whose articles, essays, and interviews have appeared in numerous outlets. She currently serves as vice president of print for the National Association of Black Journalists and lives in Washington, D.C. She wrote this article for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square (www.zocalopublicsquare.com).