Judy Forte remembers when she heard about Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tenn. She was 11 years old and her parents told her about it before she went to school that day.
“They told me when I got to school there may be people saying things about it,” she said. Her teachers at Susie E. Allen Elementary in Phenix City didn’t say much about it and kept everyone on task, she said, but she remembers “all the emotion,” and the somber atmosphere.
Now in her 50s, Forte has worked as the superintendent of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic site in downtown Atlanta for six years. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in January and Black History Month in February are her busiest times of the year.
“We get visitors of all ages,” she said.
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Some are the individuals that were involved in the civil rights movement, those who marched for their rights or knew King. Forte said they don’t spend much time reciting the history of the movement to these visitors.
“We don’t talk to them. We let that generation tell us,” she said. Then there are the benefactors of the “foot soldiers” of the civil rights movement -- those, like herself, who were too young to participate, but know the stories.
“That particular group is enlightened, based on what was told in their family and in the community,” she said.
Finally, there are the kids, coming on school trips. To many of them, King is an iconic, if unreal, figure in history.
“He’s a hero, someone that might not even be real,” she said. Then they see the house and community he lived in as a child and they begin asking questions -- how old he was, if he actually lived in the house in downtown Atlanta, if Forte knew King.
“The younger kids ask questions to try and connect -- is he really real, tangible,” she said.
Guides tell them about King’s time in a segregated school, as well as his time at Ebenezer Baptist Church, singing and participating in church activities.
“They see the community he lived in as a child. He was a child who lived in a house, just like they do. And he became a leader in a movement that changed America,” she said. “They relate to him more as a person.”
Black History Month is observed every February to honor the achievements of African Americans, like King. There are local events, like the annual Black History Breakfast at the Columbus Trade and Convention Center Feb. 20. The speaker this year is Emanuel Cleaver II, Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. There’s also the Columbus Black History Museum and Archives at Porterdale Cemetery on Victory Drive.
“It’s displays of the individuals that are buried there,” Johnnie Warner said. The display is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday and admission is free.
The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic site in Atlanta is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Forte said working at the site has helped her realize her dream of being an educator but in a different way.
“I can be a teacher in an environment outside the classroom and educate people from all over the world,” she said. While Forte has worked at other national historic sites, including Appamattox Courthouse, the site of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender, working at the King site is unique because the history is so recent. She’s met former President Jimmy Carter, King’s sister, Christine King Farris, and Congressman John Lewis, who organized sit-ins and freedom rides as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
“I learn so much from them,” she said.
Forte said passing on this history to younger generations is important.
“A lot of young people that I see don’t understand they are the benefactors of struggles that take place in the past,” she said. “It’s important to talk about African-American history so they understand the freedoms they have are not just given to them.”
Sara Pauff, 706-320-4469