A weekend witnessing Atlanta’s own 50-year march from MLK to Josie Duffy

By Maria Saporta

Atlanta can be a rather amazing place. Take this weekend for example.

On Saturday, there was the kick-off at the King Center complex for the celebrations commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

On Sunday morning, the ongoing parallel sagas of the future of Friendship Baptist Church and Mount Vernon Baptist Church in relation to the proposed new Atlanta Falcons stadium were surprisingly non-confrontational.

Bernice King remembering her father's dream (Photos by Maria Saporta)

Bernice King remembering her father’s dream (Photos by Maria Saporta)

And on Sunday afternoon, a who’s who of Atlanta leaders came to celebrate one of its youngest stars — Josie Duffy — upon her graduation from the Harvard Law School — a path that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed compared to the one chosen by President Barack Obama.

Sometimes I have to pinch myself to appreciate the history I have witnessed — the evolution of Atlanta and our city’s greatest generation.

Angela Watkins stands next to her daughter, Farris Christine Watkins, with their aunt and great aunt Naomi King, widow of A.D. King, seated

Angela Watkins stands next to her daughter, Farris Christine Watkins, with their aunt and great aunt Naomi King, widow of A.D. King, seated

And now I’m witnessing the present — as the next generation — the children of the Civil Rights leaders — are taking the stage in a world where the problems feel much more complex than they did in the 1960s and the solutions seem much harder to find and define.

March on Washington

Still the issues that were at the core of the March on Washington in 1963 continue to be relevant today. A booth during Saturday’s celebration at the King historic site had a replica of the original button — “March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom — August 28, 1963.”

Christine Farris and Judy North of the National Park Service

Christine Farris and Judy Forte of the National Park Service

In the gymnasium next door, Martin Luther King Jr.’s youngest child — Bernice King — reminded the audience how important freedom and jobs are to us in 2013.

And then she quoted her father (adding the word “sisters”) saying: “We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or perish together as fools”

The event included dancing and singing, including a performance by the grand-niece of MLK — Farris Christine Watkins — as her mother — Angela Watkins and her great-aunt — Naomi King (the widow of MLK’s brother A.D. King) watched.

A classic bus as they looked on Atlanta's streets in the 1960s

A classic bus as they looked on Atlanta’s streets in the 1960s

Her grandmother — Christine Farris, MLK’s only living sibling also came to the gym — along with a host of many other honored guests, including Fulton County Chairman John Eaves and Fulton Commissioner Joan Garner.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth home on Auburn Avenue

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home on Auburn Avenue

Up the street, a classic bus (from the era that rolled on Atlanta’s streets during the 1960s) was on display just a few feet away from MLK’s birth home — where people were lined up waiting to tour the historic site.

Friendship Baptist Church

On Sunday morning, Amy Wenk (my colleague from the Atlanta Business Chronicle) and I weren’t quite sure what to expect when we showed up at Friendship Baptist Church.

Lloyd Hawk, chairman of Friendship's board of trustees, at the front door of the church Sunday

Lloyd Hawk, chairman of Friendship’s board of trustees, at the front door of the church Sunday

We knew there would not be a vote by the congregation on whether to accept the $19.5 million deal to sell the church to make way for the new stadium. Specifics of the deal are still being ironed out.

But the word had not gotten out to several television stations or to some critics of the deal. About 25 protesters — primarily hoping to save Morris Brown College — have accused the City of Atlanta and Friendship of a Morris Brown “land grab” at the detriment to the college. It’s an accusation Mayor Kasim Reed has strongly denied.

Interestingly enough, Reed also showed up at Friendship Sunday morning. But he never came into contact with the protesters, much to the relief of Lloyd Hawk, chairman of Friendship’s board of trustees.

Derrick Boazman and Vincent Fort lead protestors to Friendship on Sunday

Derrick Boazman and Vincent Fort lead protestors to Friendship on Sunday

Everyone was on their best behavior. After all, in the black community, you show your respect when you’re in church.

(By the way, no date has been set for a Friendship vote. Hawk is getting married on Friday and will be gone next Sunday. The following Sunday is Labor Day weekend, and it is unlikely a vote would be held on that day).

Morris Brown bankruptcy

After the service, Friendship member Sonny Walker distanced himself from the Morris Brown protesters. Walker is vice chairman of the Morris Brown Board of Trustees.

“The relationship between Morris Brown and Friendship is very good,” Walker said. “Our attorneys have been talking.”

(In case you had any doubts, in many ways, Atlanta is still a small town with numerous interlocking relationships going back for decades).

Protesters hoping to save Morris Brown show up at Friendship Sunday morning

Protesters hoping to save Morris Brown show up at Friendship Sunday morning

Meanwhile, Morris Brown returns to U.S. Bankruptcy Court on Aug. 26. The deal it had with FD LLC apparently has fallen through. Morris Brown had asked the judge for more time to come up with another plan.

Walker said the AME Church — both the district and the national organizations — are “going to help us at least meet the requirement for bankruptcy court.”

Meanwhile, the Morris Brown faculty had orientation on Friday, and the unaccredited college, which is saddled with debt, is going to try to stay open as long as it can.

Mount Vernon Baptist Church

Across the street, the mood at Mount Vernon Baptist Church was more upbeat than it had been a couple of weeks ago when a defiant Rev. Rodney K. Turner talked about not letting the “enemy dictate your steps.”

Since then, Mayor Reed and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young have met with Rev. Turner, and there has been some softening in Mount Vernon’s attitude about possibly selling the church.

“Don’t let anything you read or hear make you nervous,” Rev. Turner told his congregation. “Please be encouraged. God is navigating our steps. God has taken care of Mount Vernon for 98 years. Continue to pray as we move forward. Also keep Friendship in your prayers as well.”

Josie Duffy and the future

On Sunday afternoon, Eugene and Norrene Duffy invited close friends to their home to celebrate the graduation of Josie Duffy from Harvard Law School in May.

Rosa, Gene and Norrene listen as Josie Duffy reads letter from President Barack Obama

Rosa, Gene and Norrene listen as Josie Duffy reads letter from President Barack Obama

Josie, 27, was chosen by her classmates to give the commencement address to her class on May 30. Her message? To see “the grace in the gray area.”

Instead of going to work for a big law firm, she is working for the Center for Popular Democracy in New York.

Her sister, Rosa, called Josie her “best friend.” She also is living in New York City,  and she was home for the festivities.

Gene Duffy, who worked for Mayor Young and Mayor Maynard Jackson, is a political behind-the-scenes player and viewed as a king-maker (one of the first to support Obama in his presidential quest).

A proud Mama. Norrene Duffy beams next to Josie

A proud Mama. Norrene Duffy beams next to Josie

So it was totally believable that Gene Duffy surprised Josie with a personal letter from President Obama congratulating her on her successes — a letter she read out loud.

Mayor Reed, calling Josie the best intern he has ever had, was quick to point out that she is following in Obama’s footsteps — first graduating from Columbia University, then from Harvard Law and now choosing to work in the community for the public good.

“You made all the right decisions for all the right reasons,” the mayor said. “Your worst case scenario would be for you to come home and work side-by-side with the mayor of Atlanta.”

Among the honored guests who came to celebrate Josie’s day were Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE; as well as Martin Luther King III and his wife, Arndrea and their lovely daughter, Yolanda.

(Full disclosure: I went to elementary school (Spring Street) with Martin and his older sister, Yolanda. And my children, Carmen and David, went to elementary school (Morningside) with Josie and Rosa. Remember – small town).

As I said, only in Atlanta — a place that links the generations of history with the future in a seamless chain.

The future. Josie Duffy welcomes Yolanda King, the daughter of Arndrea and Martin Luther King III

The future. Josie Duffy welcomes Yolanda King, the daughter of Arndrea and Martin Luther King III

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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