Thursday, May 28, 2015

‘334 Auburn Avenue’

I read late into the night, and in the summer months I often return to books I had read in my youth. You’ve heard of comfort food? I like comfort comprehension. I am well into The Making of the President 1964 again, Theodore White’s second of what would become his quadrennial four-book series. These are fascinating chronicles that encapsulate many of the social and political forces that shaped those times. The reporting is not only about men campaigning for the presidency of the United States; it is a witness’ account of historic happenings contextualized with details that can make your eyes pop.

So I reach Page 176, early into Chapter Six, titled “Freedom Now: The Negro Revolution” (remember, this was published 50 years ago) which recounts the birth of Martin Luther King’s nonviolent civil disobedience campaign to end segregation in the American South, beginning in Birmingham, Alabama. Excerpted:

“Full plans were drawn up after Thanksgiving, 1962. In December the Alabama Christian Movement leaders met with King at his Atlanta headquarters in the Masonic Lodge building at 334 Auburn Avenue and decided to launch their protest just before Easter.”

I probably noticed the reference to a Masonic lodge when I had read this previously decades ago during high school because my grandfather was a Mason, but obviously that sentence appears larger to me today, and I found it odd just now that the street address would merit mention.

Gotta love Google.

A user named Wally Gobetz posted this history two years ago:

Atlanta - Sweet Auburn:
Prince Hall Masonic Temple

Courtesy Wally Gobetz
The Prince Hall Masonic Temple, located at 334 Auburn Avenue NE, was built in 1937, with an addition in 1941, for the M.W. Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Georgia, under the leadership of prominent black leader and Grand Master John Wesley Dobbs. The Renaissance Revival building was designed by Charles Hopson and Ron Howard. The Prince Hall Masons, Georgia’s most influential black Masonic lodge, were first organized in 1871 by Frances J. Peck, the pastor of Big Bethal A.M.E.

Starting 1949, the Masonic Building’s second floor housed WERD 860AM, the first radio station owned and programmed by African-Americans. Jesse B. Blayton Sr., an accountant bank president and Atlanta University professor, purchased the station in 1949 for $50,000, and hired his son Jesse Jr. as station manager. By 1951, “Jockey Jack” Gibson had become the most popular DJ in America.

The Prince Hall Masonic Building currently houses the national offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an African-American civil rights organization. The SCLC traces its origins back to the Montgomery Bus Boycott by the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), under the direction of Martin Luther King, Jr., following Rosa Parks’ arrest in 1955. As boycotts spread across the South, leaders of the MIA met in Atlanta on in 1957 and founded the Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration, which was later shortened to the Southern Leadership Conference and eventually changed to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Under the direction of its first President, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the SCLC was run out of the first floor of the Prince Hall Masonic Temple. It is said that Dr. King would bang on the ceiling of his office with a broom when he wished to address the public on WERD.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic District, an area bound roughly by Irwin, Randolph, Edgewood, and Auburn Avenues, was established in 1974 and later, in 1977 designated a national historic landmark, and expanded in 2001. The district encompasses the environs in which Martin Luther King, Jr., grew up, from his birth in 1929 until he left Atlanta.

I have to believe every Prince Hall Mason in the world is aware of all this, but it is news to me, and I share it here in case it’s news to you too.

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