On Dexter Avenue in downtown Montgomery, Wanda Battle carries The Dream forward.

On Dexter Avenue in downtown Montgomery, Wanda Battle carries The Dream forward.
Robbie Caponetto/Southern Living

A joyful, passionate powerhouse of positive energy, Wanda Battle is director of the tour ministry at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama—the church Martin Luther King, Jr., pastored.

Leading tours at this MLK church is not just her job—it's her calling, her sacred mission.

"The tour is not just a historical journey," Battle explains. "It represents a message of love, of struggle, of hope and overcoming, which are all the principles of human existence—for us to love each other as brothers and sisters and to be what Dr. King called the beloved community. That's how God has helped me to understand the legacy of Dr. King. I want to be a better person and to do better every day in how I treat other people."

It's hard to explain the experience of touring King Memorial with Battle. She's definitely not a "buy your ticket, right this way, that concludes our tour" kind of guide. She engages with everybody on her tours—and helps them to connect with each other. "Think of one thing you love about yourself," she might challenge you, "because you have to love yourself before you can love other people."

In the basement of King Memorial, she gathers her group into Dr. King's office and brings to life his love of books and lifelong learning. Just outside his office is an unassuming podium, the kind your church probably keeps in the fellowship hall for meetings and Bible studies. Dr. King stood behind it at the state Capitol the day he addressed the Selma to Montgomery marchers. And if you think Battle is just going to tell you about that podium, you're mistaken. She's going to invite you to preach from it, briefly. Each member of the tour group steps behind it and repeats those famous words: "How long? Not long!"

"I think what's happening right now is a real renaissance in civil rights and human rights because there are so many issues in our society," Battle says. "Many groups are now taking their place to march and to send letters, to call and advocate for causes that they feel are important."

Battle grew up in Montgomery. Two of the businesses her family owned were a funeral home and a taxi service, both of which helped transport the black community during the bus boycott. What many people don't realize, she explains, is how improbable King Memorial's very existence is. First, it's a church founded by wealthy black families—on a predominately white street. Many years later, when the state considered claiming eminent domain and taking the property, the move was unsuccessful because, by then, the church had been designated a National Historic Landmark. The Klan burned crosses near it but never fire bombed it or structurally damaged it. Battle has a simple explanation: "I see that as the protection of God."

She also has an explanation for a resurgence of interest in Montgomery and everything that has happened there. "People are fascinated by this history of overcoming and standing for what is right, for advocating and doing it in love," Battle says. "For you see the result of what love does as opposed to what hatred does. Hatred is destructive. Dr. King advocated love for all mankind."

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