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Historic site's keeper is living tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.

For the woman in charge of the civil rights leader's crypt, birth home and church, Monday is the biggest day of the year.

January 15, 2012|By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
  • Judy Forte with her parents at Martin Luther King Jr.'s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta during an April 2011 rededication after its restoration.
Judy Forte with her parents at Martin Luther King Jr.'s Ebenezer Baptist… (Judy Forte )

Reporting from Atlanta — Judy Forte plans to report to her government job Monday morning without a hint of complaint.

She is 54 and superintendent of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park Service. The King holiday is her Super Bowl.

Thousands will make their way Monday to Auburn Avenue, just east of downtown Atlanta, to bear witness at King's outdoor crypt, and to tour his birth home. They will crowd into the civil rights history display underneath Forte's office, and the meticulously preserved old Ebenezer Baptist Church across the street, where King preached and plotted his nonviolent revolution.

For Forte, there will be dozens of rangers and volunteers to direct while she frets over security, crowd control and fire codes. Her staff, by custom, will discuss the history of the movement with visitors according to their ages and their relationship to its epochal events.

Forte tells them to expect three categories of tourist.

There is the generation of people like her, who directly benefited from the work of the civil rights foot soldiers.

There are the foot soldiers themselves — people like her late father, Jimmie Lee Goodwin, an Alabama mill worker who joined King on the last leg of the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965. These, she recommends, are the visitors to whom one listens, not lectures.

Then there are the younger ones. "A generation of kids who only know Dr. King as a historical figure, or from a coloring book," she said. "To them he's almost not real."

Forte can vaguely remember the week in April 1968 when King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. She was 11 and attending a recently integrated schoolhouse in Phenix City, Ala. The mood on her grade school campus, normally simmering with racial tension, was respectfully somber. Among her fellow African Americans, the trauma was more evident.

"The community was crying," she said.

At Tuskegee University, the historically black school east of Montgomery, Forte was recruited by a National Park Service striving to diversify its workforce. Her first assignment, in the late 1970s, was at the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park in Virginia, site of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender in 1865.

The visitors, most of whom were white, were partial to the Lost Cause. One of the few other blacks on the staff was a historical reenactor who played the role of a slave. On many occasions, she recalled, someone stealthily lowered the U.S. flag over the cemetery and replaced it with a Confederate one.

One day, as she was leading a tour of the McLean House — the site of some of the surrender meetings — a man asked whether she shouldn't be out by the slave quarters.

She smiled. "Not anymore."

Forte followed a park ranger's career, with its attendant trail building and firefighting and paper-pushing, until eventually landing here, in Atlanta, and the old Ebenezer building, where King was eulogized after he was shot.

The building, Forte knows, is all about King's legacy. But in a way it will be her legacy too.

In 1999, the congregation of Ebenezer Baptist Church, feeling cramped in the small, simple structure, moved to a larger and more modern worship hall across the street. The park service began leaving the old church open for tourists. Recordings of King's sermons were piped in to complement, hauntingly, the view of an empty pulpit.

A year after Forte became superintendent, the old church was closed as the park service began restoring it to its 1960s-era appearance. The process, which Forte oversaw, involved architects and historians, contractors and lawyers, church elders and King family members. They worried over the tiniest details, down to the shade of the mortar between the bricks.

Last Wednesday, Forte was walking across Auburn Avenue to show off the improvements. A former college sprinter, she moves with impeccably straight posture and cuts a commanding figure in her olive uniform and wide-brimmed ranger's hat.

As she stepped into the sanctuary, the hat came off, revealing a church-ready hairdo and a delicate pair of gold hoop earrings.

The changes she pointed to were subtle: The restoration of the walls to a historically accurate pale salmon hue. The removal of pew cushions that had been added after 1968. The repair of a leaking roof and a sagging balcony. It was as close as it would ever be to the way it had been.

The restored building reopened to the public in April. Forte's parents attended a rededication ceremony. Beneath her computer monitor, she keeps a picture of the three of them that day, standing in front of the old building. Her father is outfitted with a portable oxygen tank. He died five months later.

"He was so proud of Judy," Deputy Supt. Anthony Stennis said. "You could see it in his face."

On Monday, Forte expects the restoration job to be on display for the largest crowd yet. For the old foot soldiers, there is now an elevator — ahistoric, perhaps, but necessary.

For the children, King's recorded voice will ring out across the pews — filling in, perhaps, the lines on their coloring book pages.

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