I had about an hour to kill in Montgomery, and decided to check out the parsonage for the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. This was the house Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. lived in with his wife and kids for most of the civil rights movement. It’s an ordinary white house several blocks away from the church, the kind that would otherwise go unnoticed. The house on the corner has been turned into the visitor’s center and museum, which is where I met two older black women working behind the counter. I asked if there were any more tours today, and how long they would be (I had a prior engagement back in Prattville). One of the women said she had one more tour scheduled, but there was a very special group coming for it, and the tour might take a bit longer. “I have my regular tour, my VIP tour, and my extra special VIP tour,” she told me. “They’re getting the extra special one, so it’s going to take a full hour.” They offered to have the second woman take me through the house quickly before the group arrived if I was in a hurry, but I didn’t feel like I could turn down an opportunity for an extra special VIP tour. Especially when I realized I was talking to Ms. Cherry.
If you look up the TripAdvisor reviews for the parsonage, you will find that nearly everyone mentions the fantastic qualities of Ms Cherry. Adjectives used to describe Ms. Cherry and her teaching style include: amazing, eloquent, touching, inspiring, incredible, phenomenal, sincere, informative, comical. Nouns include: knowledge, personality, authenticity, treasure, a gift. Three different reviewers also referred to her stories as giving them “chills.” There are no negative reviewers for the Dexter Parsonage. And every word is true.
When the treasured group arrived I found out why they were so special. This was an association of teachers, and Ms. Cherry is a retired school teacher from New England. She sat us down in a small theater in the museum, where we watched a brief film. Then it was Ms. Cherry’s time to shine. She pulled out a scrap book of clippings and photos, pointing to the various civil rights leaders that came through Montgomery. She pulled framed photos off the walls and told the story of King’s life. She would be in the middle of a story when a name would come up, and she’d turn to us saying, “You know who Diane Nash is, of course.” When we responded with blank stares she would let out an exasperated exhale and launch into the story of yet another fantastic human being. Many were people she knew personally, and were people who knew Dr. King. As she went through her presentation I started to realize how much of walking museum Ms. Cherry really is. She explained to us that she was all set to settle into retirement after many happy years of teaching, when she felt a calling to work at the parsonage. She is still working because she feels that she must. She is personally preserving the lesser-known history of civil rights, and I can’t imagine what will be lost when she’s gone.
After a lengthy, informative, and hilarious presentation, it was time to go over to the house. We walked up onto the porch and Ms. Cherry grabbed one of the teachers. He was a young man who just happened to be from Ms. Cherry’s home state, and she took a real shine to him. She pulled open the screen door and handed him a key. “You’re about to open the door that Martin Luther King Jr. opened every day,” she said. There was an impressed sound from the crowd as the man blushed with humility. There was a pause, and Ms. Cherry looked at him. “Don’t you want someone to take your picture?” she asked with a smile. We all laughed, he handed over his camera, and suddenly every camera was out to record the moment.
In the house Ms. Cherry talked about the daily life and struggles that the King family faced. She showed us remnants and marks from bricks and bombs, and explained how even when a guest was staying over, no one could sleep in the front room out of fear of what might happen in the night. She talked about the night the house was bombed while Dr. King was at a meeting arranging the famous Montgomery bus boycott. King rushed home to ensure his wife and young child were unharmed. A crowd of furious black supporters gathered outside the house, ready to erupt into violence in defense of their leader. Dr. King stood on the porch and urged peace, telling the crowd to disperse without incident. They did as he asked, and as Ms. Cherry tells it, many lives were saved that night.
The final room of the tour is the kitchen. Ms. Cherry talked about how bad things had gotten for King in his final weeks, and how dangerous his work had become. She told us how he would always send flowers to his wife back home while he was away, and she pointed to a vase of plastic carnations on the counter behind me. “The last bouquet he sent was made of plastic flowers, and when Coretta called to ask him about it, he said, ‘I wanted to give you something that would last.'” Dr. King knew the reality of the threats he faced. I had seen video of the speech he gave the night before he died, and thought it was a mysterious fluke that it seemed to contain such premonition. Now I realize it wasn’t a fluke at all. He knew what he was doing would kill him. He knew it was coming soon.
Ms. Cherry sat down at the kitchen table and told a story from a few years earlier in King’s life. It was the story of a difficult and sleepless night when the reverend came into his kitchen to be alone with his thoughts. He began to speak with God. It was the moment King said he let go of his fear of death. It was the moment he talked about in that final speech, when he said that he had been to the mountain top. Sitting in this kitchen, Dr. King found the faith and courage to continue the fight, and see it through until his end.
Ms. Cherry paused and one of the women stifled a sob. Ms. Cherry told her it was okay, to go right ahead and cry. I had been politely listening to the story without much thought, but hearing the other woman start to cry almost brought me to tears. Suddenly I was flooded with emotion, and so was the entire room. Ms. Cherry said that normally no pictures are allowed in the house, but “if we do it quickly no one will know.”
I offered to take the photo so the entire group could be in it with Ms. Cherry, and Ms. Cherry insisted I get one with her as well. Back in the museum she gave the group leader a packet of “special materials” that she had put together just for them, but then said she’d make one for me too. Inside was more information on the house, a photo she’d taken as one of the original boycott buses drove in front of the house, and a list of qualifications to join “Ms. Cherry’s Character Club.” It’s clear that for Ms. Cherry, character is everything, and to her it’s everything Dr. King was about. She reminded us that “the measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
In trying to write an ending for this post, I asked myself how Ms. Cherry might end it. I think she might tell you to imagine a small, 1950s kitchen, painted yellow with light blue accents on the furniture. I think she would ask you to imagine a young Dr. King sitting at the table alone at night. And then I think she would repeat to you the last public words he ever spoke:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!