While the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. left his mark everywhere from Washington D.C. to Birmingham to even Oslo, Norway, it was in Atlanta where his legacy echoes the most. It was here in the Georgia capital where he was born and grew up and where firsthand he saw the evils of segregation and racism.
Just like the Jewish ghettos in Europe, in the segregated American South, African Americans were restricted to living in certain neighborhoods. For the city of Atlanta, the area known today as the Sweet Auburn Historic District was where African Americans lived and worked. Schools, homes, businesses-it was all here in this neighborhood only a short ride from downtown Atlanta.
Most visitors to the Auburn Avenue area come to see the childhood home of Martin Luther King. He, along with his brother and sister, was born in the house at 501 Auburn Avenue as well as his mother; it was King’s maternal grandparents who first purchased the stately Victorian era property. While normally, tours of the childhood home are only available with a guide, the day we visited (the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend), they were doing an “open house” which meant that starting at 10 AM, you could visit the house, no tickets needed. As the house is property of the National Park Service, a ranger would let in a new group of people that had started to congregate and a fleeting five minute background on the house and its rooms was given. I had read that normally tours lasted 30 minutes. At the National Park Service headquarters, we did watch a 10 minute movie which went into detail about King’s childhood, his family members, and the house so I suppose we still had the tour, just in a different medium.
I think for many people today, we know the legacy of King’s work as an adult, as a visionary leader, but not too much is known about King the child. I also enjoyed hearing about his parents and his maternal grandmother, all of whom left quite the mark on King in regards to education and civil rights. King’s father had grown up in rural Georgia, the son of sharecroppers. He came to Atlanta as an adult, entered the fifth grade around the same time and would go on to get a college degree. King’s mother and maternal grandmother were also recipients of a college education, very rare for Southern black women at the time.
A couple of blocks away is the famous Ebenezer Baptist Church where King’s father was the minister and where King would later become co-minister with his father. He would serve in this role until his assassination in 1968. It was only recently that I learned that King’s mother, Alberta Williams King, was assassinated at Ebenezer during services there in June 1974 by a mentally deranged gunman while playing the organ. Then the year following King’s assassination in 1968, his younger brother Alfred had drowned. I always had equated the Kennedy family with unimaginable suffering, but to think that in a span of less than 10 years, the mother and two children all tragically died is just horrific.
All within striking distance of the church and his childhood home are the graves of Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta. They are quite lovely, resting atop a reflecting pool. They also are directly across from an eternal flame which burns in honor of King’s legacy and what it continues to stand for.
We began our visit at the National Park Service headquarters which is normally where you would go to obtain tickets for touring King’s childhood home (tours are limited to 15 people and are available on a first come, first served basis-so if you want to visit it, be sure to get there first thing; tours begin at 10 AM). But also on display was an exhibit on segregation, including the funeral wagon which carried King’s coffin (people thought he would want that instead of some fancy car).
Also in the immediate area was the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change which contains many personal effects from King’s collection. Depending on how much time you have to spend, it may be something worth visiting.
As we had other things planned later on in the day, we didn’t explore too much of Auburn Avenue but of the little that we did see, I appreciated all of the historic buildings. I was particularly fascinated by the “shotgun houses;” there was a row of them across the street from King’s childhood home as well as some in the back of it. I discovered that these narrow domestic homes, usually no more than 12 feet wide, were the most popular style of house in the Southern United States from the end of the Civil War through the 1920s. The term “shotgun” is said to come from the saying that one could fire a shotgun through the front door and the pellets would fly cleanly through the house and out the back door. In the case of the ones on Auburn Avenue, the houses were originally constructed for whites who worked at a nearby mill but after the race riots around the turn of the last century, the area changed and African Americans moved into them.
While short, I did enjoy my visit to Auburn Avenue. It was a great way to see the origins of one of America’s most famous leaders but also to see an area of a major city so distinctly preserved.