Back when I attended my first organizing training ever (right after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, as I recall), I remember that our trainers posed the following question to fifteen of us trainees from around the Midwest: was Martin Luther King a leader or an organizer?
I recall thinking that Dr. King did a lot of the vision work, but the folks who got the grassroots to turn out by the hundreds and thousands were the real organizers. Nobody knows the name of whoever said, “Let’s boycott the buses in Montgomery---what resources do we have?” Civil rights grassroots wins happened in large part because of the nameless many church folks and the community groups---they were the organizers of people and time and money, and Dr. King was best at empowering the many to find words for their one cause, because ultimately he spoke from his heart as a leader.
In Atlanta, not only was I lucky enough to meet with Eleanor (who I think balances both organizing and leadership), but I also spent the afternoon of Monday, November 17, with Mark Johnson, a disability rights organizer with ADAPT since the early 1980s and Advocacy Director for the Shepherd Center. In addition to talking disability shop, Mark also took me over to visit the Dr. Martin Luther King Center. Back when I was planning this trip, Mark actually ASKED why my original itinerary did not include Atlanta, so it’s really thanks to Mark being a squeaky wheel that I ended up here.
So I Mapquested my way over to the Shepherd Center, which is a spinal cord, traumatic brain injury and multiple sclerosis rehab center. The Shepherd Center was founded back in the 1980s, at a time when there was no real rehab center for spinal cord injuries in the South back then. For a rehab center, I like that it resists the institutional bias to a degree with progressive programs like a gym that is open to the public, not just patients. It also has a Bridge program where counselors follow the progress of each patient for one year after they leave the Shepherd Center, in order to ensure the patients achieve real reintegration into their communities and aren’t just dumped off once the docs are done patching up their spines. Plus, Shepherd has a women’s peer support group that meets once a month, and Mark introduced me to its coordinator, Minna Hong, who is an awesome woman in her own right and with whom I hope to work more with in the future.
Mark himself has been a quad since the age of twenty (he pointed out that SCI is a male-dominated disability). As Advocacy Director for Shepherd, Mark keeps track of local and federal legislation, as well as issue trends. In addition, he connects people and groups with decision makers to create change. In short, he is an organizer. Read more about him here.
In the course of our conversation, Mark uncovered that I’d somehow (amazingly) forgotten to make plans to go visit the Martin Luther King Center. I couldn’t believe it. I think I got majorly distracted while blitzing from Sydney to Wellington to Sydney to San Francisco to Berkeley to Phoenix to Atlanta in something like five days. So Mark offered to take me over and have a look at some sights in Atlanta as well as the King Center, and we hopped in his van and went.
Our first stop was over near the CNN headquarters at Atlanta’s central plaza, where believe it or not ADAPT has a brick in the pavilion. Here’s a picture...look for the brick that says ADAPT USA:
We then zoomed past various buildings of ADAPT interest, and past the Georgia state legislature building (the Georgia state legislature is in session three months of the year, in case you were wondering over there in Texas where your state legislature is in town two months once every two years!). The King Center is within easy driving distance of the city center, with Dr. King’s boyhood home, tomb, the two Ebenezer Baptist Churches, the Center for Nonviolent Social Change and the actual King Center itself all within two or three blocks on Auburn Street.
At this point Mark informed me---not without a gleam in his eye---that right next door to the King Center is nothing other than a NURSING HOME! I thought he was kidding me, but nope, saw it with my own eyes and here it is, Parkview Manor:
Just another nursing home, right across the street from Dr. King’s tomb. Do you really think the world would have let Dr. King himself live in a nursing home? I don’t think so! If we wouldn’t have liked it for Dr. King, why should it be ok for anyone else?
Mark dropped me right off at the King Center because it was closing in about fifteen minutes, and when I ran in I found myself right at a life size model of marchers, one of whom is an amputee, as seen in the photo below:
I wandered around a little bit, and then Mark came in from parking the van and asked if I’d seen the marchers---yep, especially the amputee one? Good to see crips representing! As the museum then announced it was closing, he took me over to Dr. and Mrs. King’s white marble tomb, which is situated in the middle of a reflecting pool. Dr. King’s epitaph, in his own words, reads, “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.” Mrs. King’s epitaph reads, “And now abide Faith, Hope, Love, These Three; but the greatest of these is Love.” Here is a picture:
Then we took a look at the Eternal Flame by the tomb site. And here is a picture of Mark zooming off in the direction of the old Ebenezer Baptist Church:
Well, visiting the King complex reminded me that I've visited the Lincolns' grave in Springfield, Illinois, and the graves of the Kennedys at Arlington, not to mention Emma Goldman and Mother Jones. And you know what I think? I think that even though the disability rights movement has suffered so many passings itself, I am grateful that our movement is alive and growing after over forty years, and that we younger folks have the benefit of guidance from people like Mark, as well as Bob and Stephanie and Peg and Marsha and Rosemary and Mike E. and Nadina and Laura and Robin and Eleanor and a whole bunch of living, breathing people who fight hard and care deeply.
The movement may not in the future look as it has looked in the past, but as we see laws defeated and narrowed by the courts, and as greater and greater numbers of young people pass through the public education system and fail at basic independence despite society's promises of empowerment, and as we die and suffer under our current health care system, people with disabilities will continue to find new, renewed opportunities for making change together. We do, however, have to work conscientiously---fighting for women as well as men, as well as trans people. Perhaps thinking about a movement is what makes it so...if that's the case, then I at least intend to keep my faith in the varied abilities of my friends and colleagues who work for the cause, of all genders, of all perspectives, of all origins.