Many of those travelers heading to Alabama will drive or fly through Atlanta and might consider stopping there to see the city’s Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historical Park. The Atlanta sites include his birthplace and childhood home, the church where he and his father preached, the center founded after his assassination and the tombs where King and his wife, Coretta, are buried.
The Atlanta park provides both a preface and an epilogue to any Montgomery itinerary exploring African-American history, the civil rights era and the injustices of slavery and segregation.
KING IN MONTGOMERY
King came to national prominence in Montgomery while serving as the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church there. He arrived in 1954 as a newlywed in his 20s, fresh out of divinity school. The following year, virtually overnight, he became the leader of the civil rights movement when a black seamstress named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white passenger.
Montgomery visitors may tour the Dexter Parsonage Museum, where King and his family lived, and the Rosa Parks Museum, along with the newly opened lynching memorial, called the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and a companion museum called the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.
KING IN ATLANTA
King’s grandfather paid $3,500 in 1909 for a Queen Anne-style frame house at 501 Auburn Ave. in Atlanta. The neighborhood was the Sweet Auburn District, a thriving location for black-owned businesses, churches and clubs.
King was born in the house in 1929 and lived there until he was 12. Not only was the house occupied by his grandparents, parents, sister and brother, but the family often hosted visitors. In the segregation era, black travelers had a hard time finding hotels, so they sought accommodations with family, friends and others in the black community.
The house was built in 1895, but it’s been restored with period pieces to the way it would have looked when King lived there in the 1930s and early ’40s. Household appliances on display include a washing machine with a wringer and an icebox that kept food cold before modern refrigerators. In 1941, the Kings moved to a brick house three blocks away but kept the Auburn Avenue house as a rental.
One charming aspect of the guided tour is hearing anecdotes that bring the King family to life, including stories of pranks the children played. Visitors will see a piano and learn that young Martin and his brother once loosened the legs on the piano bench before a lesson. The bench collapsed when their teacher sat down.
King attended Atlanta’s Morehouse College before going off to Boston University’s School of Theology for a Ph.D. He married Coretta in 1953 and was minister of the Montgomery church until 1960, when he moved back to Atlanta and became co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church with his father.
King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. His widow established a center near his childhood home in his name, today known as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. Both King and his wife are interred in simple white tombs on the grounds of the center, near a reflecting pool and across from an eternal flame.
A King national historic site was established in 1980 under the auspices of the National Park Service, and was designated a national historical park this past January.
The visitor center offers exhibits about King’s life and work, along with other stories from the civil rights era. The grounds also include a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. King was heavily influenced by Gandhi, who employed non-violence as a tactic in the movement for India’s independence from Great Britain.
The national park site is free and there is a parking lot. The visitor center, historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and Freedom Hall are open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Details at https://www.nps.gov/malu/index.htm.
The only way to enter King’s birthplace and childhood home is by guided tour, and tour availability is extremely limited. Free tickets are handed out at 9 a.m. in the visitor center for hourly tours held 10 a.m.-4 p.m. With just 15 spots on each tour, the tours fill up fast. You may see and photograph the exterior of the house any time from the street.
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