The house was the parsonage of Martin Luther King Jr.'s brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King, or A. D., who served from 1961-1965 as minister of the Ensley's First Baptist Church. The younger King was instrumental in the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement - his church was one of three churches that held mass meetings to organize the movement -and as such was a target of the Ku Klux Klan, which bombed his house in May of 1963.
In a way, it's fitting that few know the significance of that house; A.D. King seemed to shun the spotlight that followed his older brother. But if one small but dedicated group gets its way, then history's light will shine bright on A. D. King, and his former parsonage will again become a gathering point - and a source of pride for a community that often seems willing to forget its rich past.
Enlisting help for precious dirt
Two people who are working to get recognition for the A. D. King Parsonage are longtime Ensley residents and First Baptist parishioners Omie Crockett, Sr. and Erskine Lewis. They were both made deacons at Ensley First Baptist Church while King was pastor. "Martin was our ordination speaker," Lewis says, referring to A. D.'s brother.
Though Crockett and Lewis are both in their 80s, they clearly remember the 1960s, especially the mass meetings held to organize the movement. Those meetings, according to Crockett, were generally held on Mondays but in the most heated times, like the spring of '63, meetings were more frequent. "We had Movement meetings every night - every night," Lewis says.
That kind of community involvement says something about what happened all those years ago, and it easier to see why Crockett would sacrifice his very modest means to buy the parsonage when the church put it up for sale in 2006.
"It wasn't about control," Crockett says. "Nobody'd ever really thought about [making the house a historical site], I don't guess."
Crockett admits that buying the parsonage was a major decision for him personally.
"It was a big purchase," he says. "I hated to see them put it out there in public for sale. I just made arrangements to borrow the money and buy it. As far as need, I did not need it - but I knew if they sold it was going to lose value, lose everything. So I went on and made the sacrifice."
Lewis doesn't mince words on his opinion of the church selling the parsonage. "Biggest mistake they ever made in their life," he says. "I had to tell them all the time, you don't get rid of the parsonage. You don't get rid of your dirt."
Through his friend Robert Holmes, Crockett was able to secure some additional help from John Meehan of the non-profit Village Creek Society. Meehan and his partner, Dr. Mable Anderson, work to improve the lives of those in the Village Creek watershed, which includes part of Ensley.
Meehan sees the parsonage as something that might inspire pride in Ensley's youth.
"It could be a real educational opportunity, especially as Ensley starts to rebuild, to revitalize." he says. "A lot of young people, especially the generations we've got today, do not know their history. They don't know about the Civil Rights movement, about those who sacrificed and gave their lives up in the movement.
"The parsonage is three blocks from the new Jackson Olin High School," Meehan says. "That would be a good asset for future generations to learn about who Rev. A. D. King was."
Together with Holmes, Crockett and Lewis, Meehan and Anderson have helped with a documentary being produced on A. D. King and managed to get A. D. King's widow, Naomi, to make her first return to Birmingham since the King family left in 1965. Naomi was the guest of honor when a plaque commemorating the bombing was dedicated last August.
"It was emotional for her to come back to a place she hasn't been in 42 years, and tell her story," Meehan says.
Back to Bombingham
At the parsonage that day, Naomi King gave a moving tour of the parsonage, describing in detail what happened on the night of the bombing in 1963. She recreated that tour for the documentary.
"On May 11, that was the Saturday night before Mother's Day, a little before 11, I was sitting in the living room...on the sofa," Mrs. King says in the documentary.
"I had set the dining room table with all of my finery, and enjoyed looking at it, getting ready because it was Mother's Day. My husband was in the bedroom working on his sermon, his Mother's Day sermon, and he walked up to this front door, opened it, looked out and down the street, and he said 'Naomi, it's too quiet here.' He said 'Let's get out of here.' So he came over, took me by my hand and by the time we walked to the middle of my home, and we looked back."
It was then that the first bomb exploded. According to Taylor Branch's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Parting the Waters: America During the King Years, 1954-1963, King and his wife were "evacuating their five children through the back door when a second, larger bomb blew a hole eight feet high in the brick façade and sent the front door flying in chunks against the back wall of the living room."
Although King and his family were uninjured, the gathering crowd - which would eventually number almost 2,000 - was teeming with anger. Reacting to rumors that police were actually involved in the bombing, the mob pelted a policeman and his patrol car with rocks and whatever else was at hand.
"The police department, they used to do all this dirty work," Lewis says. "This is why we can't get off our knees now. The Bull Connor images are still here."
King pleaded with the crowd outside his home to disperse, but his efforts proved futile. An explosion - another bomb - was heard in Ensley, but it came all the way from the A. G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, where many Civil Rights leaders were staying. The bomb's target, Martin Luther King, Jr., was rumored to be staying there, but he had actually returned to Atlanta earlier that night.
When the crowd outside the parsonage finally scattered, dozens of people went into downtown Birmingham, where they participated in one of the most destructive riots in the city's history.
Getting off our knees
Besides the plaque that was installed last August, there are no signs revealing the parsonage's violent history. The scars of the bombing have now been covered with brick, and the bombed-out porch has been moved to a different side of the house. But while the house has aged well over the years, the surrounding area has decayed. Burglar bars in the windows of most homes are but one ugly piece of evidence. In Ensley, there are blocks of vacant storefronts next to an occasional salon or other small business. Many of the residential lots are vacant, and many of the houses are boarded up. Few people are on the streets.
But there are signs of hope in Ensley: the new Jackson-Olin high school, the new mixed-income public housing development on Highway 269, and the beautiful Erskine Hawkins Park next to Tuxedo Junction. As Meehan says, Ensley is rebuilding and revitalizing.
A. D. King died in 1969, at the young age of 38, but it seems like his lifelong work could have a post-mortem impact on the place he called home for four years.
Meehan hopes that the parsonage will soon receive a roadside historical site marker. Earlier this year the parsonage's supporters received news that the building is to receive recognition from the Jefferson County Historical Commission, and that the building is now listed in Alabama's historic sites registry and in the National Register of Historic Places. With that listing, the parsonage could receive federal funding to be turned into a museum. Meehan hopes it might become part of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute's tours. Soon the parsonage could become a way to connect young and old with their past and their city, inspiring respect for and pride in Ensley, and eventually filling those empty storefronts and abandoned houses, and one day even pulling down those burglar bars.
That may seem like a dream now, but the King family has never been short on those.
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