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The Journey Continues - A Reflection from the Past and a Promise for the Future.

By Eric Aft, CEO, Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC

In 1979, I was living in the Atlanta suburbs. I had a fascination with the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The first book of significant length that I remember reading happened the previous fall – a biography called King. I wish I kept it, and I’m sorry that the author’s name has long left my memory. 


At my elementary school, we had something called the Social Science Fair (different from the Science Fair), and I knew I wanted to do something about Dr. King. Under the guidance of my father, then the Associate Director of the United Way of Metro Atlanta, I was introduced to a local historian and community leader who would show me Dr. King’s world - where he was raised and began his work. Along with my friend, Louis Shaff, we spent a Saturday afternoon walking Auburn Avenue or, as it was truly known Sweet Auburn – taking pictures and learning about this incredible area in downtown Atlanta. We learned about the home of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Big Bethel Church, Atlanta Daily World, Municipal Market, Ebeneezer Baptist Church, and, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s boyhood home, along with many other important community locations. The historian spoke about the economic vitality of Auburn Avenue and the surrounding area during the early 1900s and its place in helping to educate, inspire, and inform the thinking of many leaders who were instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. 


For a kid of 12, this day raised so many questions. Since I had read a good deal about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement (yes, I was a history geek), I had an overview of critical events. Still, I could not begin to comprehend the discrimination, threats, and intimidation that would have met the young Martin Luther King, Jr. and his friends, much less the direct violence that was the reality of the Jim Crow era. This tour brought what I had read to reality. As a pre-teen, I couldn’t comprehend that people treated others this way. After the tour, I was excited to share the story of this amazing neighborhood and its people (and its tie to Dr. King) that was part of my city. Using photos from my Kodak Instamatic and summaries about the historical importance of over a dozen sites on Sweet Auburn, Louis and I put together a heck of a project for the Social Science Fair. 


During the previous school year, I worked with another friend on a project for the Social Science Fair that focused on the soon-to-be-operational MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) rail system. This project was fun and glitzy, but let’s be honest, it was pretty obvious and safe. Nonetheless, we won the Grand Prize based on our use of pre-printed slick pamphlets and a pretty awful clay model and even got a ribbon at the county-wide competition.


Okay, back to the Auburn Avenue project. Let me tell you – this was a good project (I still have some of the photos I used in the display and the paper that went with it). It was meaningful, focused on critical history in the area, and shared information about something that not enough people knew was part of Atlanta’s heritage. You probably see where this is headed – we didn’t win; no fancy ribbon or trip to the county-wide competition where more people could learn about Sweet Auburn and the boyhood neighborhood of Dr. King. I remember being confused and, frankly, shocked. The project was supposed to be a slam dunk – it blew the MARTA project out of the water. 


My parents have always been ones to let me and my brothers “figure it out”, so they didn’t sit me down and explain that presenting the history of Black Atlanta in a white, suburban elementary school in the 1970s was more likely going to get me more negative attention than positive. Instead, my parents just said they were proud of the project and hoped I enjoyed learning about the history.


The experience was one of my earliest lessons about racial inequity and prejudice. On some level, I was surprised that these issues were still real and weren’t solved – remember, I was 12. In other words, I got a dose of reality, but I also knew, even then, that I wasn’t the one impacted by this reality. I didn’t get a ribbon or recognition for our project, but this was about the life and reality of the community members whose story Louis and I tried to share – not a life he or I experienced. 


Over the years, many other books about Dr. King (I highly recommend Bearing the Cross by David Garrow) and his writings have inspired me. A colleague recently shared one of her favorite quotes from Dr. King: 


"I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits."


These words reflect exactly what initially captured my attention about Dr. King (along with his voice, which instantly mesmerizes and pulls you in.) Dr. King spoke of potential and opportunity – the motivating factors for our team's passion for our work. He conveyed the idea of inclusivity and the strength of being bonded together.


 “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” 


At Second Harvest, we speak a lot about community. This concept of being “tied” to one another comes to my mind whenever I hear this word - community. 


We must realize that we only succeed and grow ourselves when we provide true opportunity (a level playing field and shared sacrifice) for all people. In doing so, we all realize our potential, and we all gain – emotionally, financially, and spiritually. Most importantly, through this commitment, we all live up to the promise that is embraced in the ideals of this country, which Dr. King challenged us to achieve in his I Have A Dream speech. 


“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [people] are created equal.” 


With so many challenges in today’s world, Dr. King’s legacy provides us with an understanding that we each have the power to create opportunities for others – some big and some small, but every opportunity we offer is meaningful. And, as my project with Louis did 35 years ago, I encourage you to seek out the stories of others. I know it will enrich your life, bring us closer together as people, and strengthen the foundation of our community to benefit us all. Thank you, Dr. King, for stirring in me the drive for justice and giving us all a shared vision of the future where every person can fulfill their potential - bringing greater prosperity, meaning, and joy to our lives. 


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Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC

3655 Reed St. 

Winston-Salem, NC 27107

Tel: 336-784-5770

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