When I was in Atlanta, Georgia researching my book about racism and the death penalty in the USA, my companion and I decided to visit the Martin Luther King Memorial which at that time comprised his tomb and an eternal flame dedicated to his memory and his mission of non-violence.
We took a bus there (unusual in itself – but more of that later) and strolled down the street towards the memorial. We had been walking for about five to ten minutes when we stopped. We looked around and almost without a word being said we turned and walked back in the direction we had come. We never did see the memorial.
Why was that? The answer is that unwittingly we had crossed an invisible border. We had walked into black Atlanta. We had become the odd ones out, white people in a black town. It made us feel uncomfortable. Your may think that our reaction was over the top but in the few days we had been in Georgia we had come to realise that racial segregation was a reality, that the two communities did not mix.
These days the King Center, as it is known, is a much grander affair with a visitor centre and access to the house where Martin Luther King was born. There are organised tours. But I see that the website does inform you that the memorial is in the centre of black Atlanta.
Racial divides work both ways
A similar thing had happened to me many years before when I was in New York. I was a student, looking for a temporary job to tide me over the summer. Having seen an advertisement in the paper for a job agency, I took the subway to the appropriate place and walked into the offices where I sat down to wait my turn. A very kind black man approached me. Gently and tactfully he suggested that this was not the right place for me. I was in Harlem. In my innocence at that time it had not occurred to me that the racial divide worked both ways.
These invisible borders are everywhere. The world has moved on. But the borders remain. They divide not only different ethnic communities but those of differing social class as well.
April 4th is the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968.
And the buses in Atlanta? Public transport is run by MARTA, standing for Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. There are those who say it stands for Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta. A survey in 1999 showed that 78 per cent of MARTA passengers were African American.