Great Read: From this Selma house, Martin Luther King made civil rights history
Jawana Jackson scrunched her eyebrows, momentarily puzzled as she stared at a bedroom bureau.
“I really thought the pajamas were in one of these drawers,” she said in the tone of an aunt concerned that her visiting nephew might go without proper sleepwear.
Jackson lingered a moment, unsure. Then she poked a finger in the air.
“Oh, wait, I think they’re in here.” The 55-year-old walked to a second bedroom and opened another chest of drawers.
With the reverence one would show holiday china, Jackson pulled out a plastic storage bag. She unzipped it to reveal a pair of nondescript men’s pajamas, navy with yellow piping, then took out the contents and placed them on the bed.
“These were Uncle Martin’s pajamas,” Jackson said. “One of the pairs, anyway. He was always leaving them behind.”
“Uncle Martin” is the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the place he was always leaving them behind is Jackson’s childhood home.
A gray-green bungalow on a scraggly block in this small Alabama city, the home’s unassuming facade conceals a remarkable trove of living history.
It was here that King stayed during a critical period of the civil rights movement. In 1964 and 1965, he planned a march from Selma to Montgomery at the home of his friend Sullivan “Sully” Jackson, a black dentist who lived in Selma with his wife, teacher Richie Jean, and their 5-year-old daughter, Jawana.
King knew it wouldn’t be safe to stay in a hotel with the political temperature rising. So he called Sully, and a home where the most vocal objections usually came only from a child at bedtime turned into one of the most important protest staging grounds in America.
There are more formal sites honoring the late leader — the King Center/ the MLK National Historic Site in Atlanta, or the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. But perhaps none offers a better reminder that the movement King led was made up of real people, in ordinary spaces, unsure of whether the goals they were dreaming of would ever come to pass.
As if yesterday
In the family’s breakfast nook and at a dining room table, King convened allies such as Andrew Young, John Lewis and James Bevel to talk strategy. In the dining room, the same wicker-backed chairs are still positioned around the table, as if King had just stepped away for a moment.
Leaders were always coming in and out of the house — sometimes 15 or 20 at a time, Jackson remembers. Her mother kept a steady stream of chicken and cabbage and cornbread going. (This scene and several others from the house are re-created in the recent film “Selma,” which on Thursday was nominated for a best picture Oscar.)
In one of the family bedrooms, King would pen his sermons; he’d then deliver them at nearby churches to gird congregants for the fight ahead. The bedroom’s walls are painted in the same turquoise color, the bed covered in the same gold duvet — all preserved impeccably, like nearly everything else in the house. Jackson would often give up her bedroom to make room for King or one of his deputies.
In the living room, a cushioned chair is angled toward the television. The latter is a stout, wood-paneled affair, from the days when a TV was as much furniture as entertainment conduit. It was at this spot that King sat, watching as President Johnson gave the March 15, 1965, speech announcing the drafting of the Voting Rights Act.
The moment was captured in a famous Life magazine photograph, and as Jackson now stood in the spot with a copy of the image, the similarities were so uncanny that the only difference between the photo and real life was the absence of King.
“He was just sitting there like anyone else would, watching television, even though he was the reason the president was giving the speech,” Jackson said, still marveling at it.
Jackson now lives in Atlanta with her husband, Jim, and their spotted Great Dane, Rambo, a dog large enough to intimidate many horses. She runs a company that sells golf apparel but also spent much of the last three decades ensuring that her parents didn’t change a thing in the Selma home; she has also started a foundation for that purpose.
Her mother died a year ago (Sully died in 2004), and since then, Jackson has been weighing the logistics and finances of — and her appetite for — turning a place of so many private memories into a museum.
She knows it would be neither cheap nor easy, especially psychologically. Several times she said, “I’m going to do it; I think I’m going to do it,” without sounding entirely convinced.
But Jackson wants others to understand Uncle Martin from the inside, understand how the movement felt, understand what she saw as a girl.
Many nights, she remembers, King would disappear into one of the bedrooms to take a phone call from “someone important.” That someone was President Johnson, with whom King would spend hours in conversations. A phone — rotary, beige — still sits on the nightstand where King took those calls.
“I know there’s a controversy now,” Jackson said, alluding to a fracas around the film, which some say portrays the late president as unduly obstructionist to the civil rights movement. “But from my point of view, it isn’t true. Uncle Martin always came out smiling. They were happy conversations, good conversations. The phone calls produced action.”
King had a way with ordinary people too, Jackson said. Often, when the civil rights leader would see her for the first time in a while, she said, he would ask her to open her hand. He would then slip $5 into it. It’s a warm memory, but with a twist.
“I learned later from my father that whenever Uncle Martin knew he would see me, he would go see my father first. He would say, ‘Sully, can you give me $5 for Jawana?’ Because he never had $5 on him.” She laughed. “That was just the way he was. He just was never thinking about material possessions.”
The family comes off as welcoming in the film, which was directed by Ava DuVernay and produced by Oprah Winfrey. But Jackson said she wasn’t happy with how the production unfolded.
“I reached out many times, to no avail. DuVernay finally called me [during shooting, which took place in Atlanta and, to a lesser degree, Selma]. She said, ‘You’re really going to like it.’ But how does she know? Our family knew Uncle Martin and Uncle Andy [Young],” Jackson added. “How was I not consulted?” She said that she did not intend to see the film. Reached by email, DuVernay declined to comment.
Selma, then and now
Safety was a concern in the Jackson home. Police officers would regularly come to the back door warning of potential Ku Klux Klan activity, and there was a go-to escape plan that involved Jackson hiding under a pile of laundry in her uncle’s hearse.
Jackson even believes the house was under federal protection. Once, her mother was standing at the kitchen sink when “a white arm shot out” from the supply cabinet below it.
“My mother jumped back five feet.” It was an FBI agent who was stationed in the house, protecting King and his colleagues. The Jacksons didn’t know him and had no idea how long he had been there.
Tensions still hover above Selma, which, though far removed from the days of vicious Sheriff Jim Clark and then-Gov. George Wallace, still evinces white-black tension. (The city of 20,000 is now 80% black.) In a tangible reminder of a city’s identity battle, the street named for civil rights attorney J.L. Chestnut was once named for Jefferson Davis; some white locals still refer to it by the Confederate leader’s name.
“Treat us fair,” a middle-aged white man said to a reporter in a bar along the Alabama River while, downtown, a group of older black women at a Bible study group made the same request.
Local officials have embraced Jackson, even though she no longer lives in Selma, believing she represents the kind of concrete historical link that larger cities come by easily.
“There is still a lot of work to do on race relations in Selma, but what people like Jawana do is remind us of how far we’ve come,” said George Evans, the city’s mayor. “Progress is slow, but it’s faster with these reminders.”
The rapper Common, who stars as Bevel and who also contributed a song to “Selma,” said that places like Jackson’s home can amplify understanding of the period.
“It’s great that Selma is finally getting the recognition, because the people were chosen for a reason,” he said. “They had the fire and desire to move things forward.”
Standing in her house’s study, Jackson pointed out a desk where she wrote high-school term papers — the same desk that King wrote some of his best-known speeches.
“It happened here,” she said. “It didn’t happen in textbooks. People need to see that. I think things would be different if they did.”
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