Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site and the Struggle to Save Sweet Auburn

Auburn Street residences near Dr. King’s Birth Home. Photo by satomiichimura via Flickr.

The establishment of Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site on October 10, 1980, did more than just preserve the martyred civil rights leader’s birth home and church. It provided further impetus for the preservation of one of America’s most important black neighborhoods.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, at 501 Auburn Avenue in Atlanta. Auburn Avenue is the main axis of Sweet Auburn, a historic black community lying just east of Atlanta’s central business district (generally between Courtland St. and I-75/85). Sweet Auburn served as the economic, cultural, and political core of Atlanta’s black community for most of the 20th century.

In a city that was deeply divided along racial lines, and in which blacks suffered profound economic deprivation as well as racial segregation, Sweet Auburn was a showcase for strong black families and thriving black businesses, churches, and other social institutions. In a nearly two-mile long corridor, Auburn Avenue offered black-owned banks and insurance companies, real estate agencies, law offices, medical offices, a law library, a business college, exciting nightclubs, big churches, fancy restaurants, clean hotels, funeral parlors, a drugstore, and lots of beauty salons, clothing stores, and other shops.

Among the neighborhood’s prominent establishments were the Atlanta Life Insurance Company (America’s second-largest black insurance company), the Rucker Building (Atlanta's first black-owned office building), the Atlanta Daily World (the first black-owned daily newspaper), and the Royal Peacock Club (a nightclub showcasing national entertainers like B.B. King and Gladys Knight). This is the environment in which Martin Luther King spent his boyhood and acquired his core beliefs, attitudes, and values.

It was early civil rights leader John Wesley Dobbs who coined the term “Sweet Auburn.” Dobbs called Auburn Avenue the "richest Negro street in the world" because of the many economic, educational, social, and leisure opportunities it afforded blacks during the Jim Crow era. Gary Pomerantz, whose book Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn chronicles Atlanta’s racial history, referred to Sweet Auburn as "the yellow brick road for black dreamers in the South in the 1930s and '40s." In the modern era, Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson said that Sweet Auburn offered “the three B’s – bucks, ballots, and books.”

Today, nearly eight decades after Dr. King’s birth, Sweet Auburn is still a distinctively black neighborhood, but it has lost population and it is economically struggling. Ironically, it was the civil rights victories of the 1960s that triggered Sweet Auburn’s decline. After racial segregation was banned, opportunities for blacks blossomed outside the ghettos and many long-time residents left Sweet Auburn to live and work in better neighborhoods. Like many other inner city black neighborhoods, Sweet Auburn went into decline by the early 1970s as out-migration, lack of investment, increased crime, and other factors sapped its vitality. To make things worse, a highway construction project, Interstate 75/85, split the neighborhood in two. In 1992 the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Sweet Auburn as one of America’s “11 Most Endangered Historic Places.”

Population decline has heavily impacted Sweet Auburn. In 1980 when the studies for the park’s General Management Plan were underway there were only about 1,470 people residing within the boundaries of the National Historic Site and the surrounding preservation district. (No exact count was possible, since the census block boundaries are not the same as the park boundaries.) The population residing in the 996 housing units within the NHS had declined by 20 percent during the 1970s and was still in decline in the 1980s.

Demographically, Sweet Auburn remains overwhelmingly black (over 90%), distinctively poor (less than half the citywide household median income), and dominated by one-person households (over 60%). Most housing in the neighborhood consists of apartments and rental homes, and housing values are far below the Atlanta median. Many buildings in Sweet Auburn that were in good condition when Dr. King lived there are now badly in need of repairs or renovation

Sweet Auburn has been described as “a decaying memorial to a bygone era.” Some have said that this is perhaps not such a bad thing. To make Sweet Auburn the way it once was, you would have to restore racial segregation.

Although American blacks knew about Sweet Auburn well before the civil rights movement got underway, it wasn't until the 1960s that Auburn Avenue gained nationwide recognition among whites as the birthplace and home of Martin Luther King, Jr. Following Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, national attention was sharply focused on Sweet Auburn as Dr. King was eulogized and buried there. (Before finally being interred at the King Center Freedom Hall in 1977, Dr. King’s body was first buried in Southview Cemetery and then at Ebenezer Baptist Church.)

Only a few months later, the establishment of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (better known as the King Center) drew still more attention to the neighborhood and its remarkable history. Dr. King’s birth home and Ebenezer Baptist Church attained shrine status, attracting people in pilgrimage fashion from all over America and the world. The King Center became a pilgrimage destination too in 1977 when Dr. King's body was entombed there and the Eternal Flame was lit

By 1976, Sweet Auburn had been designated a National Historic Landmark. Many prominent politicians joined civil rights leaders in calling for a national park to commemorate Dr. King’s contributions and preserve and interpret the Sweet Auburn community. Congress complied, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site was established on October 10, 1980.

In its authorizing legislation Congress specified that "the places where Martin Luther King, Junior, was born, where he lived, worked, and worshiped, and where he is buried" should receive special attention "to protect and interpret [these areas] for the benefit, inspiration, and education of present and future generations" (PL 96-428).

Preserving the most important buildings associated with Dr. King is one thing, but preserving the surrounding neighborhood is quite another. The Park Service had no authority to preserve the entire Sweet Auburn neighborhood (or “freeze it in time,” as it were), nor was this desired by the community, which has always prized economic renewal more than historic preservation. All that could be reasonably expected was a buffer area around the key landmarks in which some pains would be taken to keep renewal and preservation projects reasonably consistent with the park’s mission. This is, in practical terms, the function of the area known as the Sweet Auburn Historic District.

A forerunner, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic District, was established in 1974. Just two years later, Sweet Auburn was declared a National Historic Landmark.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site was established on October 10, 1980, it included only Dr. King’s birthplace, church, and grave. A separate 68-acre Martin Luther King, Jr. Preservation District was established as a vehicle for protecting a core section of the Sweet Auburn neighborhood from renewal projects harmful to park interests. The park’s full title is actually Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site & Preservation District.

A private non-profit organization, the Historic District Development Corporation (HDDC), was formed in 1994 to preserve or renew historically important structures in Sweet Auburn, beginning with houses surrounding the birth home and working outward. In planning its preservation efforts, the HDDC strived to improve the community without pricing lower income residents out of the neighborhood. By 2006 the HDDC had built or rehabilitated more than 110 single-family homes and over 50 units of affordable rental housing. It recently began focusing on the renewal of Sweet Auburn’s commercial area.

Although it might have taken on a wider neighborhood preservation role under different circumstances, the National Park Service has acknowledged the success (and likely further success) of private efforts and decided to more tightly focus its land acquisition efforts. As explained in the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site Strategic Plan, October 1, 2006 – September 30, 2011:

At the time the park was established, the neighborhood in and adjacent to the NHS was deteriorating. It was felt at the time that federal acquisition of land and structures throughout large parts of the NHS would be one way to preserve and enhance the historic district while improving the lives of persons living in the neighborhood. In the intervening years, however, the neighborhood has experienced resurgence. A number of private efforts are now underway to rehabilitate structures in the NHS and Preservation District. In particular, the Edgewood corridor has become a major area for rehabilitation work in downtown Atlanta. The private sector, with technical assistance from the National Park Service and oversight by the Atlanta’s Urban Design Commission is moving aggressively to restore the corridor to its glory years. These entities are performing the role originally envisioned for the NPS. Accordingly, it is the intent of NPS to divest itself of all remaining tracts on Edgewood Avenue and concentrate its future land acquisition efforts on Auburn Avenue and Sunset Avenue.

Post script: Boston African American National Historic Site was also established on October 11, 1980.