Traveler's Checklist: Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site
Last year, nearly 659,000 people from all over America and the world visited Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta’s historic Sweet Auburn neighborhood. What an inspiring place! Here are some things every visitor should know.
Established in 1980, this park in Atlanta’s center city includes the birthplace, church, and grave of the renowned civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated in 1968. A surrounding historic preservation district preserves the core of Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood, the community that historically served as the economic and cultural hub of Atlanta’s black population.
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.”
Although American blacks knew about Sweet Auburn well before the civil rights movement got under way, 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’s 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 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.
To Protect and Interpret…..
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 the enabling 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).
Admission is Free, and So is Street Parking
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site is one of the many National Park System units that do not charge entrance fees. Donations are appreciated, though.
Free parking is available on John Wesley Dobbs Avenue between Jackson Street and Boulevard. Arrive early if you want a prime space. At peak times, parking can be hard to find near the park.
Walking Between Sites Can Be a Hassle
Attractions are spread out in this park. That can pose problems if you have trouble walking. The streets are busy, so watch children closely.
Winter Hours Are in Effect
During the less busy season, mid-August to mid-June, the park opens at 9:00 a.m. and closes at 5:00 p.m. Summer hours are 9:00 to 6:00.
Get a Copy of the Park Map and Brochure
You can pick up a free copy of the park map/brochure at the visitor center, but why wait? Just visit this site to download a copy for orientation and planning purposes.
Now…… Go Visit the Park!
** Immediately go to the information desk at the King Center’s Freedom Hall (449 Auburn Avenue) to sign up for Birth Home Museum tour tickets. Try to be there when the building opens at 9:00 a.m. While tours of the rest of the historic sites and other attractions can be self-guided, tours of the Birth Home (discussed below) require tickets (free of charge) that can be obtained only on the day of your visit. Because Birth Home tours are so popular, the full day’s quota may be filled up quickly (often before noon). The first tour begins at 10:00 a.m. Only 15 people can be taken on each tour of the Birth Home, so you may need to wait several hours before your allotted time. You can spend the waiting time visiting the park’s other attractions.
** Begin your tour with a stop at the National Park Service Visitor Center, which is conveniently located at 450 Auburn Avenue. Constructed in 1996, the NPS Visitor Center has a museum, interactive exhibits, and films focused on Dr. King, the civil rights movement, and the Sweet Auburn community. Tracing African-American history here is meaningful for people of all colors and cultures. There is a staffed information desk, and rangers are on hand to provide orientation and interpretive services.
The visitor center’s Freedom Road exhibit is not to be missed. While you listen to the old spiritual songs, stand among the eight life-sized statues of men and women, black and white, in the simulated 1960s-era Freedom March. Feel your emotions stir. These ordinary people, the Civil Rights Movement’s “foot soldiers,” risked being fire-hosed, beaten, or even killed for the cause. How could the Movement have succeeded without them?
** Visit the Peace Plaza, which is the formal name of the beautifully landscaped area between the visitor center building and Auburn Avenue. The Peace Plaza has an International World Peace Rose Garden, waterfalls, and the Behold Monument. Contemplate the symbolism of sculptor Patrick Morelli’s marvelous “Behold” statue:
The Behold Monument commemorates the historic principles that guided the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On January 11, 1990 Mrs. Coretta Scott King unveiled this monument as a tribute to her late husband and as an enduring inspiration to all who fight for dignity, social justice, and human rights. Sculptor Patrick Morelli was inspired by the ancient African ritual of lifting a newborn child to the heavens and reciting the words "Behold the only thing greater than yourself."
** Take a self-guided walking tour. This is especially recommended for the many tightly-scheduled visitors who have only a few hours to spend at the park. Walking tour maps are available at the Visitor Center and through several others sources, including the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau (phone 404-222-6688). During the warmer months, the Atlanta Preservation Center offers -- for a fee, and only for special groups – guided walking tours of Sweet Auburn and the park. For further information, phone (404) 688-3353.
** Tour the Birth Home Museum. Dr. King was born shortly after at noon on January 15, 1929, in an upstairs bedroom of his grandparents’ modest Queen Anne-style home at 501 Auburn Avenue. It was in this home that the young “ML” spent his first 12 years, living and interacting with his parents, his two siblings (Christine and Alfred Daniel), his maternal grandparents, an uncle, and a great aunt. The family eventually moved to a brick home on Boulevard in 1941.
Now called the Birth Home Museum, the building at 501 Auburn is a highlight attraction of the park. It has been restored and refurnished to reflect its appearance during ML’s boyhood. The furnishings are original or period reproductions, and some personal items owned by the family are on display.
The ranger-led tours, limited to 15 people each, begin in the downstairs parlor, where there are family photographs of the young M.L. The family used the parlor for choir practice, piano lessons, and as a “rec room” where the family listened to radio programs. Also on the tour are the dining room, the children's play area, the upstairs bedroom in which M.L. and his siblings were born, Reverend Williams's den (where the family conducted nightly Bible studies), the bedroom that M.L. shared with his brother Alfred Daniel, Christine's bedroom, and the coal cellar where M.L. was required to stoke coal as one of his chores.
Remember: The Birth Home Museum is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (6:00 p.m. during the busy summer season) and is accessible only to ticketed visitors who take the guided tours at scheduled times. Tour tickets are available only at the King Center’s Freedom Hall information desk on the day of your visit – first-come, first-served. The daily tour ticket quota is reached quickly during peak visitation periods. To avoid missing out on the tour during busy periods, and to increase the odds you’ll get the time slot you prefer, try to arrive at the Visitor Center by 9:00 a.m.
** Tour the Birth Home Block. To protect the historic character of the Birth Home’s immediate surroundings, the National Park Service bought all of the homes on the “Birth Home Block” and arranged for the exteriors to be restored to their 1930s appearance. (The interiors were modernized to 1990s standards.) To sustain the aura of a “lived-in community,” the houses on the Birth Home Block are rented for residential use.
It may be unavailable at times, but try visiting this site for a virtual tour of the area surrounding the Birth Home Museum.
** Though you cannot now tour Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church (Heritage Sanctuary), which is closed for renovations, you can stop by to view and photograph it at 407-413 Auburn Avenue. Dr. King was baptized in Ebenezer Baptist and worshiped there during his childhood. His father, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. (“Daddy” King), became pastor in 1931. In 1960, after Dr. King had become a civil rights leader, he returned to be co-pastor of the church with Daddy King. During Dr. King’s tenure as leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he used the church as a meeting place to plan strategies and tactics for nonviolent civil rights protests. His funeral was held at Ebenezer Baptist after he was assassinated. Sadly, Dr. King’s mother was fatally shot at the church in June 1974 while playing the church organ during a Sunday worship service.
In 1999 the congregation moved to a new church, Horizon Sanctuary, which is located directly across the street (and is not open to the public). The Park Service acquired Historic Ebenezer Baptist at that time and made it part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. Today, the historic church, which is also known as the Heritage Sanctuary, is used by the congregation only for special services.
The Park Service is restoring the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church (Heritage Sanctuary) to its appearance in 1960-1968 when Dr. King was co-pastor. Many structural, roof, and interior repairs and improvements (such as new stained glass windows) are being made during the project, which will cost more than $4 million. After the renovation is completed, probably no sooner than April, the church will be reopened to the public for both self-guided and ranger-led tours when the church is not in use by the congregation.
** Visit Historic Fire Station No. 6, which is located at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Boulevard. Built in 1894, and now the oldest remaining firehouse in Atlanta, this venerable facility served Sweet Auburn for nearly a century before being deactivated in 1991. There are exhibits, a bookstore, and a museum that includes a 1927 American LaFrance fire engine. (This is the type of fire engine young ML would have seen.) The focal topic of interpretive talks is the desegregation of the Atlanta Fire Department.
** Be sure to stop by the Martin Luther King Center (built 1982), which is located at 449 Auburn Avenue next to Ebenezer Baptist Church’s Heritage Sanctuary. Though best known as the site of the King Tomb – the side-by-side resting place of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, in a specially built mausoleum (with reflecting pool and Eternal Flame) -- the Freedom Hall adjacent to the tomb also has exhibits illustrating Dr. King’s life and teachings, personal artifacts and timelines related to other non-violent social activists, special exhibits, the King Center Library (limited access), a gift shop, and related visitor facilities.
** Tour the adjacent Preservation District, where a substantial collection of historically significant buildings can be seen (though not toured). The sites in the Preservation District are privately owned and not open to the public, so be respectful. The Preservation District has three component parts. One area lies to the east of the park. The other two areas lie to the west of the park and are physically separated by the Interstate 75/85 corridor. The following buildings are the principle attractions of the Preservation District (including all three areas).
• Wheat Street Baptist Church (built 1920-1931)
• Prince Hall Masonic Building (completed in 1941, this building was the SCLC national headquarters).
• Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (rebuilt 1924).
• Sweet Auburn Curb Market (1923, still in operation).
• Herndon Building (built in 1926; 60 offices; has housed the NAACP and the Atlanta Urban League).
• Odd Fellows Building and Auditorium (built 1912-1914).
• Butler Street YMCA (built 1918-1920).
• Royal Peacock Club (formerly the Top Hat, built 1922).
• Atlanta Daily World Building (first black-owned daily newspaper).
• Atlanta Life Insurance Company Building (completed 1920).
• APEX Museum.
• Auburn Avenue Research Library (special collections for study of African-American culture).
• Martin Luther King, Jr. Natatorium.
• Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center.
• John Hope Elementary School.
• David T. Howard School (Dr. King attended elementary school here; now has archives for Atlanta public schools).
Postscript: Expect crowds if you visit in January. This park’s monthly visitation almost always peaks (at around 100,000) in January, the month of the national King holiday. One glaring exception was the year 2006, when 192,854 visits were recorded in February, the month that the remains of Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s wife (and ardent civil rights campaigner), were interred at the park’s King Center.
Spirit of Sweet Auburn
The activities of the Spirit of Sweet Auburn (formerly Friends of Sweet Auburn) organization are focused on the historical district, but impact management of the park. Spirit of Sweet Auburn was not established for the purpose of providing assistance to the national park, but rather as a community-based NGO with community-defined interests.