She'll be here in just a moment to talk about Michael Vick.
Until then, look at the family photographs in Abernathy's den. There's her husband, Ralph, with Martin in Selma. Uncle Martin, that's what her children call him. There's Rosa Parks. There's her husband with Lyndon Johnson as LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act. There's Juanita marching, holding signs, singing songs. Every step of the way, from Montgomery to Memphis, the Abernathys and the Kings walked hand in hand. And when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, it was Ralph who lovingly held his dying friend's head.
So every time Juanita Abernathy walks into a room which she's doing right now, wearing a light purple jacket she does so with credibility. Her opinions have weight behind them. She has been shot at with rubber bullets in Belfast, Northern Ireland, threatened by police in Jackson, Miss. With the other photos, she keeps a framed picture of her home that was bombed.
She sits down and tries to explain why so many black people in Atlanta see racism behind the treatment of Vick. It has very little to do with Vick and everything to do with antennae sensitive maybe even understandably oversensitive to injustice. It's based on years of bad experiences with the legal system and with federal agencies such as the FBI.
"They have created all sorts of lies and fabricated all sorts of imaginary stories on the leadership of the civil rights movement," she says. "And they even bugged my bedroom. In this house. "
She leans back in the chair and watches the television. Predictably, it's all Vick, all the time. Montages of him playing. B-Roll of him walking into a courthouse. An e-mail from a viewer is posted on the screen. It's Lisa in Kansas.
"It is not a black or white issue but an issue of animal cruelty," she writes. "Black, white, Hispanic, it doesn't matter. Breaking the law is breaking the law, and Vick shouldn't get any special treatment because he is a football player. People need to stop using race as an excuse."
Juanita Abernathy sits in her living room as those words cross her screen. Here's what she wants the e-mailer to know. In Atlanta, where the Old South lingers just beneath a placid, integrated facade, everything is about race. Just walk a few feet away and look at her family photos. People's opinions about every new situation are formed by the totality of their experiences. Animal rights activists think it's about cruelty. Soured Falcons fans think it's about tragedy in multiple ways. African-Americans in Atlanta, according to prominent black leaders, think it's about Vick not getting due process because of the color of his skin.
Although it might not be about race to Lisa in Kansas, it is to Juanita in Georgia. Who's right? Can they both be? Can an opinion formed by experience be wrong? Is it possible to separate your future from your past?
These have long been the questions that define Atlanta.
Sept. 22, 1906: Atlanta was thriving. A black middle class had formed, and the city trumpeted itself as a New South success story. In a single night, that changed. Local newspapers reported four alleged assaults on white women by African-Americans. The assaults might never have happened. That didn't matter. A white vigilante mob roamed the city, attacking and killing black men and women, some by gunshots, others literally beaten to death. Some of the bodies were mutilated and publicly displayed. By official count, 25 African-Americans died, though others put the total higher. Hundreds more were wounded. The grandparents of the civil rights movement were scared children that night, wondering why strangers wanted them dead. Those memories would stick with them forever. They would tell their children and their children's children, urging them to never forget.
Atlanta envisions itself "a city too busy to hate." It is home to the largest upper middle class of African-Americans in the country, and the average black median income is nearly $10,000 higher than the national average. It's ground zero for the hip-hop industry. Some call it the capital of Black America. On any morning at the Thumbs Up diner, which sits in the shadow of Ebenezer Baptist Church and attracts a diverse crowd, you can imagine Atlanta has finally unlocked the riddle of the New South, and become a city where the only color that matters is green.
"There's no place in America like Atlanta," says Kwame Abernathy, Juanita's youngest son. "Black and white communities are accustomed to seeing each other doing well. The dealership is at least as accustomed to selling to well-to-do white people as they are well-to-do black people. Although the city is so segregated and racism still exists, it's still a special place."
The Thumbs Up buzzes. There's an energy here, just a block off Auburn Avenue, the cradle of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King was born a football field away and was a pastor at Ebenezer. Now there are bistros and lofts lining the street. Abernathy points around himself. If ever a city was made for a successful black quarterback, it was this one.
"This is Atlanta," he says. "Mike Vick fit in."
But there are still two Atlantas. The past isn't that distant here; on one street, there is an empty lot where a home was bombed to keep a neighborhood segregated in the '60s. The I-20 corridor originally was built as a de facto moat that kept African-Americans out of traditionally white neighborhoods. A long and painful history lurks beneath the surface, needing only a polarizing event to resurface.
"Atlanta is still a very separated city," says Frank Ski, a popular morning radio host. Ski whose station, V-103, landed the only post-indictment interview with Vick to date offers an example: Local clubs have different standards depending on if it's going with hip-hop or Top 40.
"Tonight is black night, and it's 20 bucks to get in and 20 bucks to park," he explains. "And tomorrow night is white night and it's free to get in and five bucks to park."
The public restrooms opened to African-Americans long ago in Hotlanta. Laws ended most state-sanctioned racism. But you can't outlaw feelings. Recently, Ski said he was at a party for about 200 big shots in the hip-hop industry. It was at a local upscale restaurant in a trendy new development.
"I kept saying, 'Why am I here for a black producers' party and they are playing rock-and-roll music?' " he says. "And the manager wouldn't change the music. That's the lunch-counter situation. You can't say, 'Don't eat here anymore.' But [they] can make it very uncomfortable for you."
Enter Michael Vick into this complicated racial truce. A week after Vick was indicted, the Falcons finally held a news conference at team owner Arthur Blank's swanky Buckhead office. The public outcry had reached a fever pitch. PETA protested outside. Cars honk and drivers waved to the group. The condemnation seemed universal. "I've been doing this 20 years," says Bill Long, PETA activist and former Ohio State quarterback, "and I've never seen anything like this."
Across town at the local NAACP office, a different reaction brewed. The phones rang off the hook: What are the leaders going to do about the Michael Vick situation? Were they going to let people treat Vick like he'd already been convicted just because of the color of his skin? NAACP president R.L. White, who is the pastor of a church with 14,000 members, understands the outcry in the community. He is a product of the civil rights struggle. As a child, he saw a cross burned in his front yard. As a grown man, he shared a friendship with Martin Luther King Sr. These memories provide the foundation for his preaching and activism.
"The one thing that I say is everyone is welcome to their opinion," he says. "But my opinion is this: Unless a person has a trial, he is not guilty of anything. That is the fabric of our country."
After services on Sundays, he speaks with his parishioners. Many smell a conspiracy. White says you have to understand what people have been through before dismissing their theories. Yes, if Vick's guilty, then he's done an awful thing. But let's wait to see whether he's guilty. That's his point.
"For a lot of African-Americans, who have in the past either been accused themselves or seen people they admired not be given due process," he says, "they are skeptical about proceedings against well-known African-Americans."
White is sitting in his office at the Mount Ephraim Baptist Church. The motto of the church is "Healing and Reconciliation." He counsels so many people every week that the wallpaper behind his desk is frayed and worn away; he has reclined the back of his chair against it in thought that many times. Maybe his greatest dream is a time when every new day isn't colored by days long past.
Atlanta isn't there yet.
"The things that are culturally transmitted," he says, "we have to seriously begin to break out of these cycles."
Aug. 15, 1945: For the past several years, a coalition between black leaders and Mayor Bill Hartsfield had secured a measure of peace and prosperity in Atlanta again. The war against Japan ended that day, and many African-American veterans were coming home expecting a better life. That night, a chilling message lit the eastern sky. A newly re-formed Ku Klux Klan cut a cross a football-field wide into Stone Mountain, mixing oil and sand to make it burn. The makers of this fiery cross said, according to Kevin Kruse's "White Flight," that it was intended "to let the n------ know the war is over and that the Klan is back on the market." A year later, the first American neo-Nazi group was formed in Atlanta, determined to take the fight to black men and women. "What the Germans have done to the Jews will be a mere tea party compared with what we are going to do with them," its leader crowed.
The day Vick would have reported for training camp if he hadn't been otherwise occupied with a hearing at a federal courthouse in Richmond, Va. a caravan of people from Atlanta drove about a half-hour into the country, to a little town named Monroe, Ga. They packed into the First African Baptist Church there, commemorating the anniversary of the 1946 lynching of four black people, one of them pregnant. Five living suspects are still at large. They are hidden by neighbors, both those who silently approve their actions and those who are afraid.
The minister begins with a prayer that quickly builds to a crescendo.
"We come today asking You to shine Your spotlight on those who are responsible for the killings of our brothers and sisters," he says.
"Amen," the crowd responds.
"You got a spotlight that can shine from heaven. You have a spotlight the FBI doesn't have. We just ask You to shine Your spotlight."
"Take us all back to 1946."
The main speaker walks in through the back doors of the church, making his way toward the stained glass dove above the cross on the altar. He is The Rev. Joseph Lowery. He's an 85-year-old civil rights veteran. He helped lead the Montgomery bus boycott and march from Selma to Montgomery. Now he's here.
"Give him a hand! Our leader."
Lowery lowers the microphone and begins preaching. His voice is loud and unwavering as he asks, "Where is the justice?"
Soon, he begins talking about the case dominating the thoughts of Black Atlanta. The crowd leans forward. Women fan themselves.
"I do not seek to excuse Vick," he says. "Dogfighting is despicable. It smells of sadism, savagery, and reflects the hardening of spiritual arteries. It is cruel and betrays animals that show humans affection and trust, and thus are easily led to a bloody end. But that does not justify the violation of human rights in the principle of presumed innocence. The mad rush to execute Vick has been bloodthirsty itself."
The crowd is in the palm of his hand.
"I'm your brother," he says.
A constant murmur of "amens" and "yeses" provides a rhythm section for his talk.
"Michael Vick is my son," he says. "I've never met him. But he is my son."
He steps away from the microphone when he's done. The church erupts, the roar beginning at the front, rolling toward the back like a thunderstorm, then toward the front again. Everyone leaves the church, bound for the site of the lynchings. They are staging a re-enactment, on the exact day at the exact place at the exact time, so people don't forget. A group has gathered out on a country road, at the Moore's Ford bridge, on the border of Walton and Oconee counties. White actors from Atlanta have come to play the murderers; their actions are based on eyewitness accounts of the event, which is believed to be the last public mass lynching on U.S. soil. As everyone waits for the victims to arrive, Mary Babinston explains why she feels compelled to participate.
"Everything is a race thing," she says. "As a white person, my history books were: Dr. King was a very nice man. There was none of this. To the black community, terrorism has always been on our soil."
She looks around at the wall of pine trees on both sides of the road. "It's still the Deep South in many ways," she says. "These trees have seen a lot of s---."
Finally, a Buick approaches. The four black victims are inside. The rednecks come out of the woods, a dozen or so, brandishing weapons. Time slows. The crowd goes silent.
"Get out of the car!" one lyncher shouts.
"Get the f--- out of the car!"
One of the black men pleads for his wife's life: "Let Mae go!"
The women are screaming now.
"Please don't hurt my baby."
The mob shows no mercy, dragging them under the bridge which has KKK spray-painted on it and to a little clearing, where the murders took place 61 years ago. The lynchers line up their victims and, with the four screaming and begging for their lives, starts shooting. The sound of gunfire actually fireworks in a nearby forest echoes in the clearing, a thousand little pops. Reports of the incident say that one of the bodies had 180 shells in it.
"Shoot 'em again!" the ringleader screams. "Shoot the n------ one more time."
The people watching are totally silent now. The murderers cut the baby from its mother's womb. Then a woman wearing a white choir robe steps out and begins singing, making her way toward the bodies. As she sings Dr. King's favorite song, the first drops of rain fall from the Georgia sky.
Sitting on his mother's shoulders, a little child looks on in horror. He whispers, "Did they kill the baby, too?"
Dec. 18, 1962: Once again, Atlanta seemed poised to make a peaceful transition to the future. A year earlier, the schools had been desegregated. Student activists were breaking down Jim Crow, industry by industry. Mayor Hartsfield had just coined the phrase, "A city too busy to hate." Then a black doctor bought a home in a quiet neighborhood called Peyton Forest, taking the first step into white Atlanta. All hell broke loose. In response, as Kruse's book and other sources detail, the city erected 4-foot-high roadblocks at each entrance to the neighborhood, walling the African-Americans out at the dividing line between white and black Atlanta. A battle erupted. Activists protested. It was dubbed Atlanta's Wall. Someone destroyed it, and local whites built it back the next morning. At night, robed Klansmen patrolled the barricades.
Juanita Abernathy smiles when you mention the barricade. She gestures out the window.
"A mile away," she says.
That doctor? He was a friend. She remembers the wall. She remembers a lot of things. Like one public restroom for black people. In the entire city. She couldn't try on a hat; after it had been on her head, white women wouldn't deign to place it on theirs.
Now, that area is the upper-class black part of town. The mayor lives there. So does civil rights leader and famed politician Andrew Young. Hank Aaron lives there. All of those people remember the struggle. It's a struggle that continues despite more than a generation past Jim Crow laws.
"Some people would say, 'Well, that happened in olden days,' " Juanita says. "No, it didn't."
Kwame, who is sitting a few feet away, agrees. "We cannot forget the past until we have fully and properly confronted the past," he says. "Some people are like, 'Hey, man, why can't we just move on?' It's because we haven't dealt with it properly."
The Vick montage continues on the television. More experts. More people screaming for his head. More gory details of the death of the dogs, death by electrocution and by bodyslam. Before Vick first came to Atlanta, she hadn't cared enough to watch football. There was something about finally having an African-American quarterback in town that excited her. Maybe Juanita felt like it was a small realization of the work she, Ralph and their friends had done.
"I come home from church," she says, "and I sit in my stadium in the middle of my bed and play ball. Or I will come up here and sit in my easy chair and play ball. So nobody can criticize Michael Vick."
There is a connection there. Vick was a symbol for Black Atlanta, and now he's gone. That troubles many in the community. Not everyone, but many, especially those who have felt racism in their own lives and find themselves attuned to it. Yes, he's created many of his own problems, but the lens for viewing his problems was created many years ago. And so the question arises: Are people like Juanita Abernathy stuck in the past or are they the only ones seeing the situation with eyes wide open?
"You would think that Michael Vick is the largest criminal this country has ever encountered, by the media play," she says. "The way they have portrayed this, you would think he's guilty until proven innocent because now it's his goal and his responsibility to convince America that he's innocent."
Kwame, 36, reluctantly paraphrases Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, not exactly a favorite of most African-Americans: "It's an electronic lynching."
For more than an hour, Juanita sits in her chair and tells stories. About the time the cop in Jackson threatened to kill her, just for trying to find her 5-year-old son a restroom. About the fear permeating the days when they were all worried Dr. King would get shot and she was afraid Ralph would go down with him. She understands the world is a different place, but it's hard for her not to ask: Where was the universal outrage then?
"We place dogs above human beings," she says, "and there's something wrong with that picture."
July 26, 2007: Kwame Abernathy finishes breakfast, which he eats at the table next to Hank Aaron at Thumbs Up. Then he gets in a car and drives through Atlanta, toward the exclusive enclave of Buckhead, first down Paces Ferry Road, then Howell Mills Road. Million-dollar mansions hide behind a sentinel of trees; most homes have service entrances. Kwame sees a black woman walking down the side of the road. Even in a city as diverse as Atlanta, she seems out of place here. "That's somebody's maid," he says. Then he reveals another secret of segregated Atlanta: the invisible bus stop in this rich neighborhood. The maids have to take public transportation to work. But the virtually uniformly white residents don't want bus stops near their homes. So there's an unmarked one, just for maids. And you'd never even know it existed, except for one clue: a bare patch of grass where the women wait.
Three members of the New Order human rights group surround their leader at a large table in a Buckhead restaurant. His name is Gerald Rose, and he sponsors grassroots work here in the community, much of it dealing with police brutality. The group's current cause is Vick. After hosting one gathering at the Georgia Dome, New Order is planning further rallies to defend a citizen's right to due process.
"This thing," Rose says, "is way bigger than Michael Vick."
Different forces brought the members of New Order together; their views, like Abernathy's, have been shaped by people and moments in their past. Rotunda Nelson's son is serving 20 years for robbing a store with a BB gun when he was a 15-year-old. She thinks the system let her family down, and she wants to keep other parents from experiencing the same kind of hell. Rose's father was an activist before him, and he's carrying on the family tradition. Sometimes, Rose wishes he'd been alive during the golden era of the civil rights struggle. When he talks to his fellow New Order members, you can tell, in some little part of his imagination, he thinks they are playing Ralph Abernathy to his Martin Luther King Jr.
"You're seeing history in front of you," he says. "I'm young, but I believe in old school. It might mean going to jail to get your point across."
Despite his sympathy for Vick's plight, the quarterback's lack of good judgment gives Rose pause. On one hand, Rose believes Vick is being treated differently because he's black. On the other hand, Rose is tired of the behavior of high-profile athletes. And the allegations are shocking.
"I can't see him doing that," Rose says.
"That's demented," Nelson agrees.
"If he did do it, there are a lot of people he needs to answer to," Rose says, "including myself."
Rose's opinion of Vick is not based on newspaper accounts or gossip. He has actually met Vick. That's what he's basing his defense on. A local boy named Hassan Reed was shot in a drive-by. Before taking a round in the leg, this 8-year-old child worked to get the other kids down on the ground, saving their lives. Local groups called him a hero. When Vick heard, he wanted to visit the kid, try to cheer him up. Rose helped facilitate the meeting. These allegations don't sound like the man he knows.
So, New Order became the first organization to publicly support the NFL star. Its target is a moving one. It isn't really animal rights groups, or even white Atlanta. Certainly, some of white Atlanta supports Vick, too, though arguably because they are Falcons fans. New Order leaders are aiming at people who formed their opinion on Vick because of his race and not facts. They are especially aiming at people and corporations who acted on those opinions. They have boycotts planned for the companies who bent to public pressure to drop Vick pretrial. If he's found not guilty, they plan to push for permanent boycotts of those companies. They have a pro-Vick tailgate planned for the first preseason game. They're asking fans not to go inside the dome.
"We want seats empty," Rose says.
The group members finish their meals, going over details for their next event. They share food, stories and, in between, wonder how anyone can't see that Vick is being targeted. He's just their latest fight. Near him, Rose has a thick binder, filled with newspaper clippings and other memorabilia. Each one is about another injustice New Order has fought. They fight because their fathers fought, because they see inequality, because it's what they're trained to do, because they like the attention they get from fighting. They will tell their children and their children's children, urging them to never forget.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.