6 Degrees of Savannah Civil Rights – Part One

Quote

“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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

PART TWO COMING NEXT WEEK!

Shannon Presents “Master Murray”

Savannah and the world, owes a huge public debt to The Silver family of The South. They built a multitude of businesses & other cultural institutions both spiritual and physical, and especially in the 20th Century added much color to the color wheel spectrum of not just great, but the greatest of Savannah characters. Their story is one of an immigrant family made good, “legally” in the United States, but inside of that embracing The American Dream and never looking back. I can honestly say, Savannah would not be the same rich city, not really, without the Silver name. I shall largely let my interviews speak to those things, but I was reminded of all of this legacy to Savannah & the life of Rock N’Roll, when I sat down with a man I’ve long called “Master Murray,” my hero and envy as storyteller. Murray Silver, Jr is one of those people who you introduce by saying, “a man who needs no introduction.” He’s tied to everything and every one in some form or fashion and I’m often left awed by who he just casually mentions a friendship or artistic connection with. Of course as a young man, barely out of high school, I well remember the film, “Great Balls of Fire,” starring Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis, and Winona Ryder who played the infamous 13 year old bride, Myra. Admittedly I’d seen the hardcover book for sale in the mall bookstores, but at the time, it didn’t much interest me as I was immersed in English New Wave and California based Speed Metal. Even if I was weaned on the sounds of the 1950s via my father in particular, although Jerry Lee Lewis was probably too wild for my parents in their youth and later. Little too punk rock you might say. All the same, it wouldn’t be until I opened my former ghost tour business, Sixth Sense Savannah in 2001, that I became acquainted with Murray Silver, but at first it was only by reputation. He would do various book signings of his classic, “Behind The Moss Curtain,” which I still regard as the most compelling Savannah story book ever written, and I would get tourists on my ghost tours at night that would say, “Murray Silver sent us,” or “Murray told us you were the real deal and the only one to tour with.” It was funny because for years, I was doing 2-3 tours at night, often ending my Midnight Tour at 3 or 4 AM, and I would sleep until mid afternoon, get up and do it all over again. So I’m sad to say, I never got to go thank Murray personally for being so generous and I just hoped he didn’t see it as a disrespect. As time went by, we had some sporadic meetings at best but about 5 years ago developed more of a consistent friendship over the phone and I discovered we had lots of common interests and I regretted that we hadn’t talked more often. Which yes, we’ve more than made up for it since and this interview is proof! After just listening for a few minutes you’ll see why he’s one of the few storytellers I defer to and why I call him Master Murray.

My Radio Interview With Murray Silver Jr