This is the script of a piece broadcast on From Our Own Correspondent this week:
CUE: Fifty years ago, in the era of Martin Luther King, black-led Baptist churches were at the heart of the civil rights movement. They played a crucial part in reshaping the United States, and continue to attract millions of African-American adherents. On his first visit to the American south, Andrew Whitehead joined worshippers at what was once Martin Luther King’s church, in Atlanta:
‘Fried green tomatoes – it was a great film, not so great to eat. Catfish is edible only in really spicy breadcrumbs. Avoid grits for breakfast – though shrimp’n’grits is good for lunch. And go to a Baptist service: If you are courteous and friendly you'll be welcomed and it’s truly an astonishing experience.’
A friend’s emailed advice when he heard I was heading to Atlanta, my first experience of America’s deep south. He was right on the shrimp’n’grits – wrong on the fried green tomatoes – and I steered well clear of catfish however cooked.
And going to church? Well, I’m a non-believer, I don’t go to church.
Not entirely true. My wife once said, a touch accusingly: for an atheist, you spend an awful lot of time in churches. They are often so magnificent. Their doors open. Such a good way of communing with the past.
More than that. Faith is so tied up with identity, community, you can’t be interested in today’s world and uninterested in the public expression and private meaning of religious practice.
There’s a personal back story too. In the north of England mill village where I grew up, the Baptist church once loomed large. It was where the mill owners worshipped. A squat Victorian edifice - still black with soot stains.
Both my grandmothers went to church there; my uncle was a deacon; my father attended the Sunday School; my parents married there in the Coronation summer of 1953. There must be a bit of Baptist in me. Strange to say, though I grew up a short stroll away, I entered the church for the first time only a few years ago – as part of my personal communing with the past.
At the time Gildersome’s Baptist church was being built, in the mid-1860s, Atlanta was burned to the ground. The most emphatic aspect of the pro-slavery south’s defeat in the American civil war. Atlanta rose from those ashes. It is now the premier city of the southern states – home of Coca Cola and CNN. The site of the 1996 Olympics - and of the grave of America’s most renowned Baptist, Martin Luther King.
My first morning in Atlanta – jet-lagged and up much earlier than makes sense on a Sunday – I stumbled across the city to the district once known as ‘Sweet Auburn’. City guides say that in the 1930s, when Michael King - as he was born - was growing up here, this was the richest black locality in the world. Solid, respectable, and deeply religious.
The Ebenezer Baptist Church was at the heart of the community. Its founding pastor had been born into slavery. The old church, the one where both King and his father preached, is now largely a tourist attraction. The new church across the road, opened fourteen years ago, is vast and impressive. Where the older churches were a touch dark and enclosed, this one has space and light.
As I walked in the lobby at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning, it was full of activity. Outreach stalls. Mission stands. A service underway in the main auditorium. I craned through the glass doors. I hadn’t intended to go in – it feels an intrusion if you are not there for worship. But an usher - besuited, bow tied - opened the door and beckoned me in.
It was the early service, the church wasn’t full, though there would have been perhaps four- or five-hundred present. I didn’t spot another white face. The pastor was delivering his sermon – persuasive oratory about the church's new mental health ministry, tackling stigma and providing support.
The choir was magical, even for someone usually unmoved by gospel music. Twenty or so men, middle aged or older - in matching suits, and striking pale yellow ties - swaying as they sang.
If I thought that sitting at the back I could be inconspicuous, that's not how this service works. I want you to turn to the person next to you, said the pastor, and say: have you welcomed Christ into your life? The woman to my right grabbed my wrist, smiled and asked just that. ‘I can’t honestly say I have’, I said, and posed the same question back. "Yes, I have", she replied.
The final hymn, the congregation all held hands, swaying to the rhythm, and in the final verse, we raised our arms aloft. There was an energy, a joyfulness, which I found moving, and humbling.
I can see why the church looms so large in the lives of the congregation. It has helped take them from darkness to a better place, it does that - after a fashion - every Sunday.
This report prompted an email from David Newton, which I post here with his permission:
Fame is such a fleeting thing, but it was nice to get some on last week's From Our Own Correspondent.
I was driving to work yesterday (I commute from Filey to Gildersome 3 days a week) and was listening to the podcast, when you declared yourself to be going to Atlanta.
"Been there." I thought, "Wonder if this guy will get out of the worlds worst airport." (My wife had her bags searched and her toothpaste confiscated before security would let us OUT of the airport)
You made it and were heading to a Baptist Church. "I'm a Baptist." I thought.
You recalled the northern mill town Baptist Churches, "Oh yes we have loads of them up here."
Your grandparents and uncle went to the Baptist church and your parents were married there in 1953. "That makes him about my age."
Then you said it..... "At the time Gildersome’s Baptist church was being built,"
Hey that's us, I'm the minister there. I'm on my way to work there.
So at our church meeting (the time when the members get together and decide what we want to do) last night I played them your clip, thinking they would be pleased to have got a worldwide mention.
Wish I hadn't.
How many 'Whiteheads' do you think they could name - Why is The Vicar of Dibley so accurate?
Anyway, thanks for the mention. Any time you are back in Leeds call again. I don't preach like Martin Luther King, nor his successors, but the people of Gildersome are the friendliest I know, and their good hearts are making the world a better place, step by step.
Some broadcasters really are sharp at recognising talent. I just popped in to the CNN Centre here at Atlanta, and in no time I was in the studio doing a screen test. Was it the sharp dress sense, the youthful appearance, or the cute accent?
They've said they'll let me know.
Not simply the most striking building in Atlanta. The Fox Theater is one of the most astonishing examples of architectural, well, eccentricity I've every come across. It makes the Prince Regent's Brighton adventure seem restrained.
According to Wikipedia, the Shriners, a masonic-style organisation, had a hand in the Moorish design. And the building opened as a movie palace in 1929. Various attempts to redevelop the site have been fended off, it's been stylishly restored and remains in use as a concert venue.
As you can see, the side elevation to the building is even more remarkable, a quite extraordinary piece of mock Arabesque architecture. The scale is gargantuan, and the attention to detail quite remarkable - right down to tiling, window surround, pillar cushions ... and the interior is apparently even more elaborate, in Egyptian style!
For only the second time in my life, I went today to a Baptist church service. My father was brought up a Baptist, his twin brother was briefly a Baptist elder, but I was 50 before I first entered the once imposing Gildersome Baptist chapel. There was a much larger congregation this morning at the Ebenezer church in Atlanta, closely associated with Martin Luther King. An impressive service, strong sermon, enchanting male choir (in smart matching suits with striking pale yellow ties) - and I didn't see another white face there. I hadn't expected the tactile aspect of the event. When the preacher asked the congregation to turn to their neighbour and say: "Have you welcomed Christ into your life?" the woman next to me grabbed my hand and posed the question. (Answer on demand!) And the last hymn was sung with everyone joining hands, and the last verse with hands high in the air. But I wasn't there as a tourist - and I enjoyed the service.
Around Ebenezer is the 'Sweet Auburn' district, the community amid which King grew up. Migrants from Germany initially settled here, then from the 1880s African Americans began moving in. Race riots culminating in particularly vicious violence in 1906 prompted 'white flight'. The black community that defined the area was prosperous. In the 1930s, when King was a child here, Auburn Avenue was reputed to be the most prosperous 'black' street in the world.
At least that is what the guide showing us round King's house - the mustard coloured one in the photo - told us. A spacious, sturdy building, and the locality is now run as a National Park. That includes some surviving 'shotgun' houses, smaller, with the front door opening directly on to the living room, built for blue collar workers.
The MLK 'National Historic Site' is not generally top of the list for visitors to Atlanta, but it's lot more rewarding than 'The World of Coca Cola', I promise you!
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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