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The Bahamian island where Martin Luther King wrote his speeches

Fifty years ago this April, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. His tragic death has...

Posted: Mar 30, 2018 1:29 PM
Updated: Mar 30, 2018 1:29 PM

Fifty years ago this April, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. His tragic death has made King a saintly figure, but there's one place where his everyday life gets as much due as his big protests and dramatic speeches -- Bimini.

Bimini is the closest island of the Bahamas to the United States; it's accessible via a two-hour ferry from Miami or a puddle-jumper flight from Fort Lauderdale. The wreck of the ship the Sapona, a few miles offshore, is a stunning diving and snorkeling spot, and the iron hull was a popular place for rum runners like Joe Kennedy to stash their alcohol during Prohibition

In search of a mentor

King chose Bimini because it was where politician and civil rights reformer Adam Clayton Powell, Jr had a home. Powell was living in Bimini because of controversies back home in New York City.

After referring to a woman named Esther James as a "bag woman" (as in, someone who takes money illegally), she sued him for defamation and won a six-figure settlement. Rather than pay her, Powell ignored subpoenas, was found guilty of contempt of court, skipped town and headed to the Bahamas.

Because coming back to the US meant potential arrest for Powell, King came to him instead, and, like many before him, was immediately charmed by Bimini. King considered Powell the most influential black man in America, a kingmaker who could help King and his work to get international attention.

Island life

When he was in town, King often stayed at the Big Game Club and Resort, a members' club that doubled as a hotel. His room, number 303, has since been remodeled (meaning you can't say you are sleeping in the same bed or using the same telephone as him), but people will still ask specifically for King's former room.

While King spent much of his time on the island relaxing, writing and socializing with Powell, he did have certain traditions every time he visited -- namely, a lunch of conch fritters and ginger ale, a combination most locals hadn't seen before.

Artist Tommy Saunders, who lives in a home facing Radio Beach and makes crafts out of shells and driftwood he finds in the sand, worked as a personal assistant for King and was often the one who hand-delivered this lunch every day.

Meanwhile, Tommy's older brother Ansil, a boat builder and champion bonefisher, became King's guide and friend, taking the reverend out to secluded parts of the island where he could be alone with his thoughts. Like King, Ansil Saunders is a deeply religious man, and the two quickly bonded over their faith.

"He was so gentle," Saunders recalls. "His voice was a voice of love. It caused you to be like brothers and sisters, you'd see people in a different light." But he told CNN Travel that King could also be quite funny and playful, joking around with his friends over a drink.

It was on one of those days that Saunders and King spent out on a boat in the red mangroves that King wrote notes for his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, which he gave in Oslo in 1964. The trip out to the island had made him think about the mechanics of travel, and of how many people work together behind the scenes in order to bring passengers to their destinations.

"Every time I take a flight, I am always mindful of the many people who make a successful journey possible -- the known pilots and the unknown ground crew. So you honor the dedicated pilots of our struggle who have sat at the controls as the freedom movement soared into orbit," King wrote.

"You honor the ground crew without whose labor and sacrifices the jet flights to freedom could never have left the earth."

The legacy lives on

Biminites are proud of their connection to America's foremost civil rights leader. Unlike so many who only saw King speaking in front of crowds, at his most charismatic and thundering, the people of Bimini got to meet him as a regular man.

Adding to his mythology is the fact that King was killed not long after returning from the Bimini trip where he wrote his famous speech to the sanitation workers on strike in Memphis, often called the "I've been to the mountaintop" speech for its legendary refrain.

"He brought so much to this last speech that they had to help him back to his seat," says Saunders. "In a week, he was dead."

Later, King's widow Coretta Scott King sent Saunders a signed copy of her book "My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr," which he still counts among his most prized possessions. Though she had never been to Bimini herself, she knew how much the island and its people had meant to her husband.

When King died, the people of Bimini had a service to remember him. Now, there are two busts of King on the island -- one in front of the Straw Market in the center of Alice Town and one among the very mangroves where King spent so many peaceful afternoons.

Both depict King inside a seashell, an homage to the island and a way of keeping him safe. Saunders takes visitors out to the bust in his boat, hoping that they too will feel moved by the same spirit that the great man did, and says he has witnessed several religious conversions at the site.

The small but lovingly maintained Bimini Museum, across the street from the Straw Market, has photographs and memorabilia from King's visits to the island, as well as information about the island's history and famous native sons and daughters. There's also a plaque honoring King at the airport.

And King's legacy lived on in other ways. Inspired by his civil rights activism in the US, black Bahamians pushed back against the rule of the Bay Street Boys, a group of wealthy whites who controlled the government through illegal gerrymandering despite being a small minority of the population, eventually causing the party to dissolve in the early 1970s.

Powell, too, lives on as a local hero. When he died in 1972, he asked that his ashed be spread over Bimini.

But at the end of the day, King's legend endures on Bimini -- both as a civil rights hero and as a guy everybody could say hi to on the street. "I'd like somebody to be able to mention that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others," says Saunders.

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