Sweet Auburn and the Kings

Reading time:  4 minutes

The neighborhood wasn’t alluring in a touristy sort of way.  Despite those including myself that flocked there in respect of one of the greatest Americans ever born, there were plenty of locals living a dream I would label a nightmare.

“Buy me a cheese sandwich, just one cheese sandwich,” she uttered.

I’m disappointed now that I didn’t hand her a couple dollars, instead choosing to stay part of our group and not get sidetracked by her request, or drawn into a conversation with a street vendor telling me why I should “support the neighborhood.”

The reality is he was right.  I was in Atlanta to watch Illinois Wesleyan University’s men’s soccer team play in a tournament at Emory University.  If you ever walk the campus of either university, you would understand that the word “privileged” isn’t a far stretch from the imagination.

I’m not suggesting the “silver spoon” variety.  I know many of the parents that send their children to these schools are reliant upon financial aid, student loans and work study.  I have been both a student and a parent reliant upon such assistance myself.

There are other words too, like scholarship or endowment.  None of these were uttered this day on Auburn Avenue, a couple blocks south of the burial site of Dr. Martin Luther King.

“Buy me a cheese sandwich.”

Have I learned nothing in my forty-eight plus years?

I don’t write this as a social commentary, but merely a personal reflection on a moment of my life I wish had been better.  She may very well have spent the money on something besides food, but who am I to question her decisions?

I passed up the opportunity to help someone, even slightly, and it just isn’t sitting well with me days later.

If you’ve never been to this section of Atlanta, the neighborhood has some challenges.  In addition to tourists, there were what appeared to be local residents that could use a helping hand.  It’s honorable to show your respect to Dr. King and his wife Coretta’s final resting place, but I’m certain he’d want you to respect those that have come after him.  Those that walk the streets of the neighborhood, some likely sleeping there as well.

The Auburn Street Historic District itself is more than just the King museum.  The National Parks Service, which operates the area, describes it best:

“Concentrated along a short mile and a half of Auburn Avenue, the Sweet Auburn Historic District reflects the history, heritage and achievements of Atlanta’s African Americans. The name Sweet Auburn was coined by John Wesley Dobbs, referring to the ‘richest Negro street in the world.’ Like other black communities throughout the country, Sweet Auburn’s success was intricately tied to the residential patterns forced on African Americans during the early 20th century–the result of restrictive laws in southern states which enforced segregation of the races, known as Jim Crow laws. It was here that many African Americans established businesses, congregations, and social organizations. “

As we walked up the street, I surveyed our group.  There wasn’t a black face among us, nor anyone needing a meal.

We might not live a life of entitlement, but we certainly don’t experience daily struggles for food or housing.

We were about to depart an economically depressed area that celebrated one of our greatest Americans, and head toward a university filled with elegant lawns and impressive buildings.  A school were plenty of kids from well off families would obtain a top notch education so they could ensure their societal standing in the next generation.

“Buy me a cheese sandwich.”

The photo above is the eternal flame, sitting adjacent to the crypts of Dr. and Mrs. King.  For a while this spring, that flame didn’t burn.  As noted on a marker at the site, the flame “symbolizes the continuing efforts to realize Dr. King’s ideals for the “Beloved Community” which requires lasting personal commitment that cannot weaken when faced with obstacles.”

But where was MY commitment this day?

“Buy me a cheese sandwich.”

It’s one of those decision points in life that, if you choose to acknowledge, will give you a pretty good assessment of yourself.

Many ignore the moment.  I have plenty of times myself.

I plan to do better next time.

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