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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Two Sides of Flame : Torch Bearers Visit King's Grave Site, but Few Are There to Watch

July 20, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

--Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 1963

Where is everybody? There should be thousands and thousands of black folk down here.

--Contractor Philip Hutchinson, Atlanta, Friday night

What was supposed to be the most powerful moment of the pre-Olympic ceremonies came and went at Martin Luther King Jr.'s crypt Friday night.

There wasn't a wet eye in the house.

The Olympic torch, which represents worldwide what King preached nationwide, made one last stop at his grave site in downtown Atlanta before being carried into Olympic Stadium for the Games' opening ceremonies.

"It should be the emotional high point of the entire torch relay," predicted the local newspaper.

If that was true, then it has been one dead trip from Athens.

The thousands were hundreds. The cheers were brief.

The melting pot was not, the crowd comprising about 99% percent African-Americans, even though King's resting place is a well-publicized national historic site.

"I guess the white people must all be at the stadium watching the opening ceremonies," said Robert Rembert, a local clerk.

The torch was scheduled to arrive at King's grave at 9:40 p.m., about an hour after the actual ceremonies began but more than two hours before it was scheduled to light the stadium caldron.

The white marble crypt is both beautiful and historic, set above a shimmering fountain a block from King's birthplace and next door to his home church.

Yet for an unobstructed view, one needed only to arrive at 9:39.

Where were the masses that had chased the torch at 2 a.m. Friday through a north suburb?

What happened to those 12-deep crowds that caused the torch relay to fall two hours behind schedule once it reached the city limits Thursday?

At the one place where Atlanta could show the world that it lives what has been preached, the torch took a seventh-inning stretch.

"No matter what Dr. King said, if you are not educated enough to understand it, it will do you no good," said Hutchinson, whose four children waved American flags. "A lot of people around here just don't know what is going on."

Those who attended appreciated their good luck. They smiled, hugged, laughing about being so close to something that can be so touching.

"That torch there is the light of the world," said Deborah Lestage, a teacher. "I'm not big on sports--I don't know a lot about it--but this has a profound effect on me."

As the last of the three former female track stars carried the torch back to the street, a chant arose that was typically, optimistically American:

"You go, girl!"

But a few minutes later, the crypt stood alone again.

Many who watched were not from the neighborhood. Those who do live there returned to tiny homes on dimly lit streets, leaving street vendors lonely and $5 parking spaces empty.

"I have to be honest, I live in Atlanta but I have never been here," said Ginnie Lee Monferdini, a white homemaker who lives in the east end of town. "I've just never made it. But now that I see how neat it is, I will bring my kids back."

Monferdini, however, noted she had been to another Atlanta landmark, a cemetery known for the graves of Civil War heroes.

"I couldn't believe the part of the cemetery where blacks were not allowed to be buried," she said.

Insiders say that is the way of Atlanta, a city of nearly 70% African-Americans, a city in which the races coexist as close as the few blocks that separate the downtown business district and King's famous Auburn street . . . yet are planets apart.

Critics say King's words were heard by many. But truly believed by few. Blacks included.

"People of different races in this town, if they interact, it's because of work," said insurance clerk Janice Rembert, Robert's wife. "Then many of them break off and go their own ways."

Thirty minutes before the torch arrived at the crypt--usually a time when torch watchers have reached a fever pitch--the gift shop at King's research center had no customers.

There was room to reach out and touch the torch as it passed.

And the line for the tour of King's birthplace numbered two, a mother and her tired-looking daughter, listening absently to a guide while staring at a few idle wanderers on the street below.

*

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight.

--Dr. Martin Luther King, Washington, D.C.

This torch run represents the strength and will to move forward, something we need to do here.

--Deborah Lestage, Atlanta

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