In 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King established the King Center in the basement of the family’s home in Atlanta, Georgia. The Center’s mission was to serve as a memorial to Dr. King’s legacy but it’s not a dry and boring mausoleum. Instead the King Center provides insight into Dr. King’s early life and the 12 years he spent as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District was designated as a National Historic Site in 1974 and became a National Historical Park in 2018. Something to understand about the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park is that it’s not your typical national park. Rather the park consists of a part of the Sweet Auburn neighborhood where Dr. King grew up. There’s some outdoor greenspace as well as art installations and monuments but the bulk of the exhibitions are indoors and spread across multiple buildings.
Courage To Lead
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Visitors Center houses a permanent exhibition, Courage to Lead. It tells the story of Dr. King’s life in tandem with the progression of the Civil Rights Movement. I made the mistake of entering the exhibit from the closest entrance which turned out to be the end of the exhibit. It made it a bit less climactic which was fine with me but it took nothing away from the experience.
The museum deals with some very serious topics but this exhibition is especially great for kids. In addition to a children’s exhibit in the foyer, there are also small blue info placards for kids throughout. The placards are located low on the walls at a height that most kids would be able to see and they explain the info of each section in simplified language for kids.
I’d previously seen photos from the Lorraine Hotel and still shots of Coretta Scott King and celebrities attending the funeral. But it was something else to see video of people in motion. Photos can certainly capture emotions but video adds another layer of detail. Rather than just seeing a snapshot of what happened you get a better sense of what it might have felt like to actually be there. I’d also seen close-up photos of individual attendees at the funeral but it was my first time seeing shots that showed the immense crowd gathered outside of the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Watching clips from Dr. King’s “Mountaintop” speech, his last speech, was powerful. Knowing that this would be the last night before the day of what would be his assassination meant that the speech would prove to be unbelievable foreshadowing that felt downright eerie.
The 1960 Campaigns
One of my favorite exhibits focused on Dr. King’s later 1960 campaigns. You hear a lot about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the other earlier campaigns that focused on civil and human rights. But, I find the push for employment and economic equality to be equally fascinating. The economic subjugation of Black people led to all of the other efforts to curtail Black people’s civil and human rights. Seeking economic parity signaled a shift in strategy that the Movement was no longer solely focused on the piecemeal fight against the symptoms of institutional racism but rather a head-on assault on the virus at the epicenter of the epidemic.
The relatively modern concept of race and racism were devised as a means of dehumanizing people of African descent and rationalizing their enslavement. Following Reconstruction, segregation was devised with the goal of providing limited and unequal facilities and resources to Black people. As the museum explains, this was intended to ensure the continued availability of an economic underclass that would serve the needs of White people as a means to survive.
In mainstream media, the timeline of Dr. King’s activism tends to have a gap between his “I Have a Dream” speech and his assassination. But his public opposition to the Vietnam War was actually incredibly radical for the time and put him at odds with the interests of former allies and the Johnson administration. Dr. King took issue with violence and militarism. But, he also saw the disrespectfully blatant hypocrisy of young Black men being drafted to fight in a “war for freedom” against other people of color while not being free in America.
With the Poor People’s Campaign and Memphis Sanitation Workers March, Dr. King was becoming more involved with economic initiatives and labor organizing. The Poor People’s Campaign sought to bring poor people from across America to Washington, DC in another mass protest on the scale of the March on Washington. But, with the goal being to bring attention to the needs of America’s poor. The Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike was aimed at addressing unsafe work conditions and a livable wage for Black public workers in Memphis.
Most Civil Rights activists were primarily active in one specific city or region of the country. As a result, their protests and initiatives were greatly influenced by and regarded local concerns. Given Dr. King’s national presence, he was often called upon to participate in various campaigns across the country. It took him away from his family and was incredibly stressful.
But, these experiences gave him a unique perspective as he was able to see first-hand the injustices that Black people faced around the country. The details differed but the fact that the presence of inequality existed across America was proof that racism was not a matter of happen-stance nor was it limited to the South. Instead, it was an indication of a social, economic, and legal system aimed at curtailing the rights and liberties of Black people across the country.
It was easy to see these connections in the South given the prolonged history of slavery. It’s well known that Jim Crow laws were an official legal system of rules that defined and provided guidelines for enforcing segregation in the South. While the North has a history of being regarded as liberal and progressive, a far cry from the “ignorance” and “hostility” of the South.
If only things were that simple.
Dr. King’s move to Chicago to protest housing discrimination and other inequalities brought him directly into contact with White mobs that were just as hostile as the ones in the South. The reality was that economic inequality and racism were a problem across America. While Southerners are known for their veneer of gentility, Dr. King found that the North also has a veneer of liberalism that masks a social and economic structure built on a foundation of inequality.
The sources of the economic and housing inequality issues faced by Black people in the North were more subtle and it was thus harder to diagnose and prescribe solutions compared to obvious civil and human rights problems in the South. In addition, Dr. King faced resistance from not only White communities that hoped to maintain the status quo but also Black community leaders and residents who viewed him as an outsider.
The King Family
The official entrance to the exhibition leads you to an explanation of segregation and background information on Dr. King’s family. I already knew about segregation and how Jim Crow came about following the end of slavery. But I still appreciated the explanation of segregation not simply being a matter of racism but rather a systematic method for continuing to oppress the descendants of Black people.
I knew that Dr. King’s mother was murdered a few years after his assassination but I didn’t really know much else about the family. It was eye-opening to gain a deeper understanding of how the people that surrounded young Martin Luther King, Jr. shaped the man that he would later become. At a time when few people in general attended college it was incredible that his family had sought higher education for generations. The men in the family had a history of attending Morehouse while the women attended Spelman. In addition, Dr. King came from a multi-generational line of preachers.
It can seem like Black people passively accepted their second class position in society until the 1960s when they suddenly decided to take a stand. But this is not the case. Many Black people did not merely accept the position assigned to them by society. Some Black people knew they were worthy of more and openly chafed at receiving unequal treatment. Reading the stories of Dr. King’s father and grandparents standing up for themselves and essentially staging individual protests was enlightening and inspiring. This doesn’t take anything away from the courage Dr. King later showed but rather that it grew from the self respect and esteem that had been planted in him by his family.
Birth Home Video TourBefore leaving the Visitors Center I decided to watch the Birth Home Video Tour which guides viewers through the King home and a day in the life of the family. The furnishings were from way before my time so I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing the interior. Instead, I got really drawn into hearing about Martin Luther King Jr.’s family life growing up and about him as a young boy. Obviously, Dr. King was born so he was a child at some point. But, a lot of the discussion that surrounds him focuses on his activities and achievements as an adult. It was humanizing to hear about him doing the things that your average boy would do such as sliding down the banister, playing basketball with the neighborhood kids, and eating up a storm when his grandmother cooked.
King Center for Nonviolent Social Change
Freedom Hall is located across the street from the Visitors Center and contains a smaller museum with a shared gallery about Dr. and Mrs. King as well as a room about Rosa Parks.
When Rosa Parks comes to mind I think we automatically think about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But, what makes this exhibition different is that it includes a lot of photos from Mrs. Parks’ life as well as photos of different members of her family. Some of the pictures are pretty well-known and feature other activists from the Civil Rights Movement. But there are also quite a few of what I imagine to be personal photos that show a relaxed and human Rosa Parks in her day-to-day life.
Here’s the thing, I like and respect Dr. King and admire his contributions to and sacrifices for the Civil Rights Movement. But, I absolutely adore Coretta Scott King and she’s one of my sheroes. The Dr. and Mrs. King gallery in Freedom Hall focuses on the individual achievements of the couple. The room is split in half and one side charts of timeline of Dr. King’s life while the other side focuses on Mrs. King.
The exhibit features awards and other mementos that were received by Dr. and Mrs. King. There are joyous keepsakes such as Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize as well as a glass bowl that he received from the Temple Synagogue in Atlanta. There are also Mrs. King’s passports and fundraising concert programs. Mingled in, though thankfully few in number, there are items from unfortunate moments in their lives. For example, Mrs. King’s black veil that she wore at Dr. King’s funeral and the suit that Dr. King was wearing when he was attacked at a book signing in Harlem, New York.
Reflecting Pool & Tombs
Following the creation of the historic district, Dr. King’s remains were moved to a tomb located on the grounds of the King Center. A reflecting pool was built with a cascading water feature that flows down from Freedom Hall and settles calmly around the tomb at the other end. When Mrs. King passed away in 2006 she was interred next to Dr. King. The two now rest across from an eternal flame about a block away from where Dr. King was born and raised.
Dr. King’s family was middle class and lived in a pretty nice home for the time. Tours of the interior of the home are available but they are given at scheduled times and you have to get a ticket from the Visitors Center. After watching the home tour video I wasn’t particularly interested in actually walking through the house. The neighborhood and the exterior of the nearby homes were actually more intriguing. So I still walked up Auburn Avenue from the Visitors Center to explore the exterior of the house and its surroundings.
Walking down Dr. King’s block gives you an idea of what it might have looked like in the 1940s. A few shotgun houses are located across the street that have been preserved but they’re private property and it seems like people live in them. Another middle-income house next door contains a gift shop. You can walk around to the back of these houses and there are examples of small low-income houses from this time period as well. There was also some kind of a square wooden shack in the back that seemed random and for which I didn’t see a description.
Ebenezer Baptist Church
The Ebenezer Baptist Church was a second home of sorts to Dr. King. His maternal grandfather was the first in a line of family members to preach at the church so his mother grew up with close ties to the church. Dr. King’s father later became the church’s pastor while his mother led and managed the choir. Dr. King and his two siblings also spent a lot of their childhoods at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. King family weddings, baptisms, and funerals were held at this church. Following his return to Atlanta in 1960, Dr. King became co-pastor of the church and continued to preach there until his death in 1968.
The Ebenezer Baptist Church still remains in its original location but the building where Dr. King preached is no longer in use as a church. Instead the congregation worships across the street in a new building. The original building is now referred to as the Heritage Sanctuary and is open to the public. It has been restored to the way it looked while Dr. King was a pastor at the church.
There are some info cards in the church’s basement about the history of the Ebenezer Baptist Church as well as the restoration process. But there isn’t a lot of info in the church’s sanctuary itself. Instead, it’s just nice to have a quiet moment and walk through the church. The church is certainly iconic but when you step inside it’s a bit shocking how relatively small and normal the church seems while having played such a major role in the Civil Rights Movement and the life of a civil rights icon.
There was a time when I thought I knew about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But, I’ve come to realize that I’ve only known the mainstream media telling of his life. I’m also guilty of making the common mistake of not just merely comparing Dr. King to other leaders but actually debating who was more beneficial to Black people and the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, as I read more about Civil Rights activists and open my mind to different perspectives I’ve come to appreciate Dr. King even more.
Mainstream media has a tendency to simplify and condense the lives, experiences, and views of people. And in that simplification, complex ideas lose their nuance and people lose their humanness. You might think you know the story of Dr. King. But, unless you knew him personally, I’m sure you can still learn or take something away from visiting the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park.
I highly recommend visiting the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park. The location is easy to get to but I would recommend planning your trip between the morning and afternoon rush hours so you can avoid the Atlanta traffic congestion as much as possible.
Full disclosure, the community at present is very different from the community that Dr. King lived in as a child. Although located very close to Downtown Atlanta, there are a lot of people who seem to be homeless, have mental issues, and/or are on drugs milling about.
Nobody was aggressive or anything like that but be careful when exiting the highway and driving down Auburn Avenue as there were some people panhandling right before the exit and even in the middle of the street. One man approached my mom then tried to hustle her into buying him a soda because he got lost on his way to the suburbs. He became upset and uttered some profanity but went on about his business.
There are park rangers but I would recommend visiting early in the day and just being aware of your surroundings. With general common sense I think you’d be perfectly fine.
Plan Your Visit
- Harlem Black History
- The Rosa Parks Museum and Montgomery Civil Rights Sites
- The APEX Museum
- The Center for Civil and Human Rights
- The Legacy Museum
- Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
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