6 Degrees of Savannah Civil Rights – Part One

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“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately” 
— Ben Franklin

I’ve just returned from a rather cold 5-mile walk in the cemetery under a powerful full moon, or what’s leftover from last evening’s Super Blood Wolf Moon. My soundtrack? Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic speeches here on the nation’s annual holiday just several days after King’s birthday. There was something about the combination of the moonlight illuminating so brightly that objects became stark black and white, King’s God-like voice echoing off of granite and marble headstones like they were his gathered, listening flock. Sadly, King, now more among them, even if the legacy of his words and hypnotic voice live on forever and resonate as vibrantly if not more so.

It has become almost a ritual for me now that I give myself a Dr. King Day every January 21. Generally, I will turn on Savannah State University’s 90.3FM and listen to his speeches and the various interviews and commentaries they play. For an entire day, his voice fills both the foreground and the background of my household. It’s generally a day where I don’t leave the house much, I become that immersive in the spirit of his memory and the meaning of his life. I’ve found its usually a sunny, but colder day in Savannah on King’s Remembrance Day and am embarrassed to admit that I usually skip the morning parade. It’s just that the day wants me to be more meditative and singular, surrounded by my animals and books and the smell of coffee. More Thoreau-in-the-woods kind of experience. Martin would approve but would probably tell me to add a carton of Kent cigarettes. After all he was an intellectual before Minister. 

Young Martin Luther King, Jr, arms open in the way a book is like a friend. After so much reading, Martin was ready to be read like one and he spoke volumes.

Tonight I’m moved to write about Dr. King and The 6 Degrees of Civil Rights’ Separation in my own life. No, I was not there but I moved to a town that was center stage and have, met and in some cases befriended key players who knew other majors. I never got to meet my hero Dr. King, who, at a very young age, became part of my spirit and voice as communicator and orator and storyteller. So to meet people who did, to make studies of their faces and words as they’ve related this story or that one? And to now call these people “my new heroes,” or to have made the friendship of some? Well, I cannot begin to express how deeply its touched my life and that these memories I will carry with me until the end of my own days. I am gobsmacked when I think about it actually. 

This will be a long night for me. But I’m channeling The King Energy so have to honor the muse and of course, you, my reader. There will be a Part Two & Three and will be worth holding out for so stay with me in this path. It will lead somewhere interesting and unexpected. 

I’ve stood next to and touched a real live lynching tree. Like a real one. Not the ones they talk about on cheesy ghost tours, but a true-to-life, hanging tree. I used to sit on the bench beneath its massive branches late at night taking breaks from art projects, or in the afternoons when I watched my dog Mina play nearby.  I loved its large presence and the way it stood behind me. It kept me company. I used to watch the sun go down behind it each night from my 5th Floor apartment 2 blocks away. All Live oaks seem to hold secrets but for a number of years, I had no idea that this one had such a dark past. A rather morbid irony was that it reposed smack dab in the middle of Colonial Park Cemetery. Like some great watchtower, it was the tallest Live oak in downtown Savannah and by some estimates around 120 ft in height. It was often compared to the height of the steeple of The Independent Presbyterian Church as it was visible from pretty much anywhere in the historic district. You can actually glimpse it in my documentary film, “America’s Most Haunted City” or peek it on YouTube in a CMT TV short I did with Coast To Coast Radio’s George Noory. The cemetery had been used for hangings during colonial times and the last mob-style lynching was in 1911. A black man falsely accused of raping a white woman was dragged from the neighboring Old City Jail, then hung from the mighty oak and his body was torched on the tree. The original photo, which had never been previously exhibited or publicly seen, was owned by a mentor who loaned it to the controversial exhibit “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” in 2002 at The King Center. My friend had spoken of it many times, so it was finally something to see it first hand. The image of the charred body forever burned in my mind. Like it was never a man from the start. I never blamed the tree obviously, but when the city cut the perfectly healthy tree down over a decade ago? I felt certain someone either still held a grudge or felt they were putting the tree out of its own historical misery. I wept over that one.
On a “lighter note,” there’s a neighbor who I’ve long respected, the family much admired, he owns a set of swivel stools from a drugstore counter where protestors sat in Savannah during a sit-in during the turbulent ’60s. They repose discreetly and unmarked in his storefront window. When I first asked him why they were there, this rather humble man and not famous for smiling, almost beamed back one when he exclaimed, “Dr. King sat in them and when they closed the department store, I told the man,Save those chairs for me!” You could tell they’ve been a proud possession ever since. 

Although I once lived closer, I’m still just mere blocks from The 2nd African Baptist Church where Dr. King flirted with an early rendition of his famous, I Have A Dream speech. Arguably the greatest speech given in the 20th century and in my opinion is the only rival to “The Gettysburg Address.” Every goose bump from here to eternity now has a built-in reaction, programmed by King’s magnificent oration. Can you imagine having been part of the test audience on that one? And in the same spot, where many years prior, General Sherman had presented his 40 Acres & A Mule edict? Talk about nation changing speeches and what a follow-up for the young Rev King!

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Through the years in Savannah, one of my favorite friendships belongs with notable writer and photographer, Murray Silver, Jr. His father, Murray Silver Sr, wrote the book, Daddy King & Me, about Martin’s father, or the other Martin, “Daddy King,” and the details of their long friendship. Murray Silver not only represented Martin Luther, Jr as an attorney, but he was also on the scene just minutes after Daddy King’s wife, Alberta was murdered in Atlanta in 1974 during the failed attempt on Coretta’s life. It’s odd, yet not surprising, that mainstream media “skips” mentioning this every year when they honor Dr. King. Or that Martin’s brother, Alfred, “A.D.” King drowned mysteriously after his brother Martin’s assassination. Clearly, someone wanted all of these beautiful people dead. To date, Murray Silver, Jr counts Coretta Scott-King offering him a role in helping to develop The King Center in Atlanta one of his life’s great honors. Both Silver men have countless stories and personal photos of the two families in casual gatherings and its that behind-the-scenes stuff of such people that is so priceless to other storytellers like myself.

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PART TWO COMING NEXT WEEK!

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The Church, A Cemetery & My Not So Religious Weekend

 

 

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By Shannon Scott (C) 2015

NOTE: Having just seen The Church in concert recently for what is probably the 4th time, I decided to scratch up this review I wrote for their 30th Anniversary Tour in 2010. I think it says something about the force that music is and also why this band is so enduring.

There’s the church, and then there’s The Church. There are cemeteries, and then there is Rose Hill. Both have been my passion and love for quite some time. I spent a little time with them both this past weekend. Saturday night in Atlanta marked the last night of the 30th Anniversary Tour for the band The Church and then Sunday marked another day in the 170th year of Rose Hill Cemetery.

Rose Hill - Macon 041

The Church as some may know, are best known in the states for their 1988 hit, “Under The Milky Way Tonight,” a haunting, melancholy and cerebral love song of sorts. I remember being 17 and lying on the hood of my 1978 Trans Am inside of an Illinois cemetery surrounded by corn fields, staring at the stars with a girl I loved and the song reverberating off of headstones as it played from the car, moving around the cemetery and night air like some singing wraith. The song and the band became a part of my consciousness and lead singer, Steve Kilbey, a part of my hero base. The man feels art and makes it. He draws and paints, writes and sings, and in the same way some people eat. No lie. And unlike most rock stars who just go around spending money and doing interviews and carry around a kind of glam approach to their craft, Kilbey and crew remain humble honorees to their art.

The.Church-band-1982

Ah but the show. It was a nice crowd of maybe 1000 or a spread out 750. One of those places where there isn’t a bad seat in the house really. Since most reading this aren’t fans per say, I’ll spare you the whole play-by-play. But what I will share that I was reminded what tactile musicians they all were and one other significant thing. A revelation that I will say may at first sound like stating an obvious, but for me it was a kind of revelation that gave me new appreciation as a music lover and as fellow artist. That as a band, they are all telling a story with each song and that each of their contributions is a voice that they add to the story whole. And that without the setting of the band, they could not tell the same story. A story yes, but it would not be of the same scale or meaning. Anyhow, this thought prompted me to see them more as storytellers than just musicians and I began to observe and listen through the rest of the show in an unexpected way. I began to see them more as 4 primordial neolithic beings gathered around some fire and making this sound or that one as they searched for the sound that would shape the story they were trying to tell or perhaps already existed and had found them to help it be told. Some bands strike one as exacting a will, and then other bands, like The Church, are like a will exacting on them. Even so, what gets fashioned in the end, with such cool, loving and even jaded narration by their spirit guides-man, Kilbey, is something very special to behold indeed. I’m not quite sure why they officially chose the name The Church, but I’d have to say that they are love of their own unique organization. Without going to hippie with it, I mean they are a “love organization.” Even in their most dispirited or even cynical songs, they never just remain inside of that one vein and always have some note of benevolence undercurrenting the messages and all is about four good-natured fellows. Like introspective advisers that you would turn to for learning and healing, but less of titles or of an institution. What they offer you isn’t dogma in repeat but more about vibrations that will in turn do something for you that is meaningful to you and for you. The Church really are some lovely human beings mostly. Relatable magicians amongst the spirits.

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Unfortunately the next day I woke up from my little dream space inside of the in-love-with-itself, City of Atlanta. Albeit in a very comfortable bed which I did not want to leave. Don’t get me wrong, because my loathing of Atlanta is much akin to those who say, “I don’t support the war but I support the troops.” I like some of the individual things there and some of the individuals themselves but like Oscar Wilde said on his death bed, “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.” So I did and apparently Atlanta is still standing doing its thing.

Greetings From Atlanta by R.Land

Greetings From Atlanta by R.Land

Yuppie Shitholes by R.Land

On my way home down I-16 from Atlanta to Savannah I couldn’t quite shake the overall loneliness of my brief time in Atlanta. I think I relate more to the homeless people stammering around or marching purposefully with their empires stacked high in grocery carts than I do the rest of the population. So  I decided I needed to get grounded in one of my favorite cemeteries, Rose Hill. So after a quick stop for some coffee, I made my way around to the steep hill entrance of the 1840 cemetery. I knew right away that I was going to find a high perch overlooking the river and would soon puff away on one of my favorite cigars. After that the universe would just kick in and take effect. It was a pretty hot day but a decent breeze and big puffy clouds rolled across the sky like ghostly zeppelins in a parade. Anyway, the cemetery is a masterpiece of Italian styled terracing and reminds me that at one time Macon was truly a great city of great business, minds, statecraft and the arts. And you know what? I’m convinced that for all of our corporate commercialized surroundings & techie gadgetry, that our world is actually so much less than civilization was at one time. Rose Hill and other cemeteries are like “today’s” dirty secret in that they reveal the past in brilliant respects and show the present for all of its weaknesses.

Rose Hill Monument by Jennifer Anne Sparatore

Macon today is a fairly rough around the edges & very poor looking town. I mean sure if you’re only measure of quality is by the number of drive-thrus and gas stations that a town has, then yeah, Macon and many other cities are virtual Renaissance Romes. But if your measure is deeper and more complex than that? Say involves literature, poetry, painting, art, stone masonry, sculpting, hand-craft, philosophy, work, effort and valuing what you possess and taking care of it all to make it last? Than cemeteries like Rose Hill once again expose us for the frivolity of the times and the soul sucking of human kind’s individuality going on all around us. Or at least if you believe that the greatness of a time can be and ought to be defined in that place’s architecture, city scape or yes, its cemeteries. In fact to look at Rose Hill, one might even doubt that the place of today and the cemetery in those places have anything to do with each other. That’s how shocking in contrast places like this can seem. As one wanders through one almost in a daze asks, “where did the culture go that belonged to this?”

Rose Hill - Macon 040

But civilization philosophy aside, I just wanted to get grounded by the transporting energy there. So as planned, I found my perch and eventually lit my cigar and then after some puffs decided that I might just take some pictures with my little phone camera, not knowing if it would do the place justice or not. I began to wander and would wait at times for the sun to come out to catch the very contrasty light. I wanted to share some of the scenery with everyone. While I was sitting up on this grave plot above the river that right below has some train tracks, a poem came to mind that I knew I kind of wanted to express in some kind of way. I just got a few beats of it and just put it together below. I think my inner poet sometimes takes on the voice of a Southern black woman and I accept this just fine really. I mean if that’s the voice speaking through, it’s the voice that you accept and borrow you know?

I don’t care about anything out there!
I don’t care about the pitch fever traffic or the unkindly stares!
I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care, Don’t care, Don’t care, Don’t care!
I’m happy right here where the dead people sleep!

Rose Hill is my pasture and I’m its happy sheep!
There are slopes to run & stone bridges to leap!
Wildflowers growing and grass beneath my feet feet feet!
Grave markers to read and new dead people I need to meet!

I don’t have time for you old world of the living!
You might be driven but you sure ain’t livin!
There’s no peace out there or rest for the wicked!
Stress is your game and your spirits are constricted!
You won’t be my misery and I won’t be your convicted!
Here in this place I’m one with me and stay uplifted!

What’s that you say? You say you laughing at me?
That’s okay because in here you’ll soon be.
Away from all of that out there where you ain’t free.
You just can’t see, can’t see, can’t see.

So you go about your business, hustle and dread.
I’ma roam round here awhile, where you think its dead.
Might even move in, I’m so partial to this stead.
Lie down awhile, take in the cool earth ‘neath my head.
Listen to the river roll by and the train on the tracks too.
I’m home in here with the breeze and the quiet.
Not out there with you in that life laugh riot.

Some of the photos need a little explaining. Probably the most interesting and quite possibly, one-of-a-kind, burial aspect to the cemetery is this man-made but very nature grown in, “valley” between what I’ll call the  two main sections of the terraced cemetery. Which is where I spent the bulk of my time taking photos so when you see the shots of the stream, this is running through that area. There are graves here that were constructed to be resemblance of the purported Christ tomb of the bible and in fact a few of them have large rocks in front of their doorways that are the spitting image. There is one shot where you see a small enclosure in the hill which has some bricks around it and it looks like an open mouth. This is one that either fell apart or was dismantled by the family or vandalized, etc. I’ve actually crawled into before in past visits and there were 4-5 bed like graves going back that used to hold the caskets or what have you and one of the neat things about being in there is that the tree roots from the e hill above are growing out of the ceiling so are kind of dangling in the air here and there and it’s really quite strange. It’s a little damp and slimy in there and you can tell kids hang out in it from time to time so there’s a bit of an uneasy feeling about what might crawl over you or who you might bump into but with a little cleaning up it would make a fine little vagabond abode.

In the end, my visit really did achieve the hopeful effect. I won’t lie, I’m rarely happier then when I’m in a cemetery. I feel more connected and abundant with thought and feeling and some part of wholeness kicks in for me that I can’t quite get anywhere else. While in Rose Hill, it took mere seconds, for me to feel “at home” and happy and at ease and at peace. But if I think about it further, certain historic cemeteries are full of everything I love in life – scupltures, wrought & cast iron, flowers, birds, trees, fresh air, history, symbols, and all of those things combined into different compositions at every turn and so many different ways to spend your time looking at them and revisiting them. For someone like me who can be easily pleased (or disturbed) by my esthetic surroundings, the right cemetery can be the definition of absolute beauty to the senses. Its uplifting and peace instilling all at once. There’s also some unconscious knowing built-in to those feelings that one day I to will be a part of one permanently and may my resting place be just as affecting as is Rose Hill, which on this Sunday, for a time, was my church.