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Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site

 As a tour guide in Washington, DC, I always point out the spot where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 to deliver his “I Have a Dream Speech”. Even though I was never privileged to see him in person, I’ve always admired his courageous leadership in the fight for civil rights opportunities that have enabled me to achieve far more than I ever even dreamed as a child growing up in rural North Carolina. So I was thrilled during a trip to Atlanta, GA when I had an opportunity to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site and Preservation District where Dr. King was born. This is where he grew up and began his metamorphosis into a great civil rights leader loved and admired throughout the world.

The National Historic Site encompasses about a two block area along Auburn Avenue and includes The King Center, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. King’s Birth Home and a few other historic sites. The larger Preservation District includes another 10 or so blocks of structures built between 1890 and 1930. During these years and for several years thereafter, Sweet Auburn Avenue was considered the Main Street of Black Atlanta because of its importance in the spiritual, social and professional life of Black Atlantans.

My visit began as I entered the campus of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change, also known as The King Center. Established in 1968 by Mrs. Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, the most notable feature of The King Center is the 100-foot long five-tiered Reflecting Pool. A white double marble crypt containing the remains of Dr. and Mrs. King appears to float in the middle of the gently flowing water cascading from a fountain on the far end of the pool. The memorial tomb is inscribed with the words from the Negro spiritual quoted by Dr. King at the close of his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech: “Free at Last. Free at Last. Thank God Almighty, I’m Free at Last.” Opposite the crypt is the eternal flame symbolizing the continuing efforts to realize Dr. King’s ideals.

The Reflecting Pool, opened in 1982, was the first portion of The King Center to be completed. At the west end of the pool is the Chapel of All Faiths symbolizing the universal appeal of Dr. King’s work and his message. The arch-covered Freedom Walk on the south side of the Reflecting Pool leads to Freedom Hall on the opposite end just beyond the fountain. Freedom Hall houses exhibits honoring Dr. King including his Bible, a clerical robe, several photographs, videos, and other artifacts.

Exhibits in another section of Freedom Hall honor Mrs. Rosa Parks, known as the “mother of the civil rights movement” for her courageous decision in 1955 to stand up for what she believed by refusing to give up her seat in the “Whites Only” section of a city bus in Montgomery, AL when ordered to do so by the bus driver. Her brave act of refusal led to the 381 day Montgomery Bus Boycott led by Dr. King, then pastor of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Mahatma Ghandi, whose approach to nonviolent civil disobedience greatly influenced Dr. King’s leadership of civil rights protests, is honored in another wing of Freedom Hall. I thoroughly enjoyed the self-guided tour but I was a bit disappointed that no docent was available to bring life to the exhibits, something critically important to young visitors who have benefited from but didn't live through that period in US history.

After exiting The King Center campus I walked a short distance west on Auburn Avenue to the intersection of Auburn and Jackson Street to visit the Heritage Sanctuary of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Dr. King’s father and grandfather were pastors at Ebenezer (meaning “the stone of help” from the Old Testament) and Dr. King was co-pastor in the 1960s. This landmark, built in 1914-1922, was the center of spiritual and community life for Dr. King’s family. He often referred to the church as a second home.

Ebenezer is the birthplace of the Southern Christian leadership Conference, an organization formed in 1957 to provide leadership for the growing civil rights movement. Dr. King was the organization’s first president. The Ebenezer Baptist Church is also the place where Dr. King was baptized in 1934, ordained to the ministry in 1948 then went on to preach his message of peace, love, service, and nonviolence. Ebenezer is where he delivered his renowned sermon (eulogy), “The Drum Major Instinct”, and where he was funeralized after his 1968 assassination in Memphis, TN. It is also where his mother, Mrs. Albe
rta King, was shot and killed on June 30, 1974 by a deranged young Black gunman as she played the organ during Sunday Service.

For a place with such a big history, the Heritage Sanctuary felt surprisingly small and intimate. Now a museum managed by the National Park Service, it has been beautifully restored to its 1960s appearance.

On the north side of Auburn directly across the street from Ebenezer’s Heritage Sanctuary is the statue “Behold”, unveiled by Mrs. King as a tribute to Dr. King and as an aspiration to others to fight for dignity, social justice and human rights. Patrick Morelli’s bronze sculpture reflects the ancient African ritual of lifting a newborn child to the heavens and reciting the words “Behold the only thing greater than yourself.”

Just beyond the “Behold” statue is the new 1,600 seat Ebenezer Baptist Church Horizon Sanctuary. The Horizon Sanctuary opened in 1999. Under only its fifth senior pastor since its founding in 1886, Ebenezer continues the tradition of service to the community and speaks on behalf of the oppressed, disenfranchised and underprivileged throughout the world.

On my way to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Park Service Visitor’s Center adjacent to the Horizon Sanctuary, I passed the “I Have a Dream” International World Peace Rose Garden. According to the dedication plaque quoting Mrs. King, the “rose garden symbolizes the beautiful spirit of the nonviolent path advocated by Dr. King.” Bronze plaques around the perimeter of the rose garden show messages that reflect unique thoughts of student winners of the Inspirational Peace Contest. The annual contest helps youth from around the world connect with Dr. King’s universal message of peace, love, service and nonviolence.

I walked from the rose garden toward the Visitor’s Center entrance and I couldn’t help but notice the 10 foot by 140 foot mural on the back wall of the MLK, Jr. Natatorium. The mural entitled “Dreams, Vision & Change”, shows scenes from Dr. King’s life beginning with his childhood and continuing through his assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN in 1968. It was painted by Louis Delsarte, an African American artist, who has painted numerous murals and large canvasses of Dr. King.

At the Visitor’s Center visitors can retrace the life and works of Dr. King through numerous photographs, black and white films and interactive exhibits. These include The Freedom Road exhibit showing a formation of white life-size statues of foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. This exhibit pays tribute to the thousands of people willing to march, sit in, stand before water hoses, risk police batons, and go to jail, all of which led to the success of the Movement. Another exhibit shows the shoes and boots of well-known civil rights leaders both past and current. Not to be overlooked is the “Children of Courage” exhibit geared to younger visitors.

The air-conditioned visitor’s center is also a good place to cool off on a hot day and to make a quick stop at the bathroom. National Park Service staff at the Information Desk just inside the visitor’s center door can take reservations for the free guided tour of the King Birth Home.

Having lingered longer than planned at other sites, I had missed the last guided tour of King’s Birth Home. Nevertheless, I walked east to 501 Auburn to see the place where Dr. King was born on January 15, 1929. For 12 years Dr. King and his family lived in the two-story Queen Anne style house only a block or so from the Ebenezer Baptist Church. The house has been restored to its appearance during Dr. King’s boyhood years.

On the opposite side of Auburn are several double shotgun row houses built in 1905 to house textile mill workers. These family dwellings, once common throughout the south, were called shotgun houses because all rooms were lined up in a row, and one could theoretically fire a shotgun straight through the front door to the back door without hitting a wall. These homes are among the 230 historic structures in the 38 acre MLK, Jr. National Historic Site and Preservation District that have been restored. They are used as park services offices or as private residences.

I never met Dr. King nor did I ever see him in person. Nevertheless, I was awed and inspired just standing in front of the crypt and seeing the birthplace of one of the world’s most influential human beings. Dr. King left a rich legacy, one that hopefully people worldwide will long remember and carry on.

As my husband and I stood across the street admiring Dr. King’s Birth Home, a tall white man approached and asked if we could answer a question. I noticed his accent and first asked where he was from. He said he was from The Netherlands in Atlanta on a business trip and had taken a bit of time to visit Dr. King's memorial. After a brief chat about his visit to the United States and Dr. King’s legacy, he asked “Why am I the only white person here today?” While the overwhelming majority of the visitors I’d seen during my two or so hour visit had been African American, I had seen a handful of white visitors. However, the Dutchman’s question did cause me to pause and ask myself why I hadn’t seen more.

If you go

A limited number of tickets is available each day for the free half-hour National Park Service guided tour of Dr. King’s Birth Home. So if you want to take the tour, your first stop should be at the Visitor’s Center to obtain your tour tickets since demand for tickets exceeds supply especially on weekends.. Tours are held daily except certain holidays from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM.

The King Center, the Ebenezer Baptist Church Heritage Sanctuary and the Visitor’s Center are open during the same hour and are self-guided.

National Park Service Visitor’s Center
450 Auburn Avenue

Dr. King’s Birth Home
501 Auburn Avenue

King Center
449 Auburn Avenue

Ebenezer Baptist Church Heritage Sanctuary
Auburn Avenue & Jackson Street
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