Exploring The Parks: Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site

Dr. and Mrs.King's tombMural opposite the visitor center

Dr. and Mrs. King's tomb is encircled by flowing water. A small section of a large mural which depicts the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Photographs by Danny Bernstein.

OMG (Oh my Gosh). Am I so old that I can remember events that have since resulted in national park units?

That’s the way I felt when I visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta. The "March on Washington" (1963), the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis (1968), the creation of the federal holiday honoring his life; all these events are explained at the site. This year is the 50th anniversary of the “I have a dream” speech that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave during the March on Washington."

The Martin Luther King National Historic Site, created in 1980, is located along several blocks in downtown Atlanta. Dr. King’s life, achievements, and the changes in race relations that occurred during his lifetime are recounted and commemorated in buildings, gardens, sculptures, and walkways. The designers have done a terrific job of incorporating historic and modern features to tell the story.

King Birth Home

The King Birth Home explains how the Civil Rights leader's upbringing and extended family shaped his life and work.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on Auburn Avenue in 1929 in the home of his maternal grandparents. AD Williams, his maternal grandfather, was an early architect of the Civil Rights movement in Atlanta. In 1956, Fortune magazine called Sweet Auburn "the richest Negro street in the world." The whole block, part of the national park site, has been renovated to what it looked like in the 1930s. The birth home is still owned by the King family and leased to the National Park Service.

The home and furniture have been restored to their 1930s appearance. About 50 percent of the pieces are original. The house had electricity and running water. All the major utilities were available in this neighborhood by 1900. The King family was comfortable, educated, upper middle-class people.

When formal visitors came, they were received in a parlor complete with a piano and gramophone. The den with its Monopoly game and Chinese checkers was where the family relaxed. A radio and telephone are prominently displayed.

The dining table is set formally and ready for dinner with a pitcher of iced tea in the center. This room was not reserved just for Sunday dinner. The family ate breakfast and dinner here every day. The children were expected to recite a Bible verse from memory at the dinner table. In the kitchen, a box of Wheaties, Dr. King’s favorite cereal, sits on a small table. The huge second-floor hallway was used for extra bedroom space.

Park Ranger John Jenkins, a retired paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, gives a lively, personal tour. He reminds visitors that before desegregation, Blacks couldn’t stay in a motel or eat in most restaurants. Travelers had to find willing Black folks like the King family to rent them a room. .

The house was unusual as it had central heating, an innovation at the time. One of young Dr. King's jobs was to feed coal into the furnace. Ranger John points out that if the young man didn’t do his chores, there was no “time out” in those days. Instead, as the tour visitors respondedwith one voice, “he got a whupping.”

The family moved out when Dr. King was 12 years old to a brick house, which Martin Luther King, Sr. considered an important step up.

The house next door, now the bookstore, was owned by an entrepreneur who built modest homes for cotton mill workers in the neighborhood. The young Dr. King played with their children; he was exposed to kids from all different background and races.

The tour ends at the bookstore where Ranger John encourages you to buy a book on the birth house because you can’t take photographs inside.

You can obtain free tickets for the Birth Home tour at the Fire Station on a first-come, first-served basis only on the day of the tour. Since only 15 persons are allowed through the house at one time, tours fill up quickly. We lined up before 9 a.m. and were glad we did.

Ebenezer Baptist Church

Dr. King Jr. spent considerable time during his youth in the Ebenezer Baptist Church where his father and grandfather preached in favor of desegregation and voting rights for all. At the time, the church was one of the few institutions that Blacks could control. Dr. king delivered his first sermon there when he was 18 years old.

The church, built in 1914-22, has stained glass windows where the names of donors have been inscribed. The large, ornate church held 529 worshippers.

In 1999, the Ebenezer Church opened the modern Horizon Sanctuary opposite the old building, and turned over the original church to the National Park Service.

Peace Plaza

Peace Plaza lies between the Visitor Center and Auburn Ave. The "I Have a Dream" World Peace Rose Garden is part of a beautifully landscaped area, which includes the Coretta Scott King rose and a flowing water fountain. Also in the plaza, the "Behold" statue depicts the baptism of the infant Kizzy, by her father Kunte Kinte. People might recognize the names from the TV miniseries Roots.

King Center

The King Center, though not a part of the park unit, is an integral part of a visit. The reflecting pool with gently cascading water encircles the tombs of Dr. and Mrs. King. An eternal flame burns close by. While visitors are admiring the water, they can hear Dr. King's speeches broadcast into the street.

Visitor Center

This massive building concentrates on the major contributions of Dr. King using film, audio recordings, and photographs.

The displays start with segregation in the South. Then Rosa Parks sat down on a city bus in Montgomery Alabama in 1955. Dr. King, one of the leaders of the bus boycott, received national attention for his civil rights work.

In 1963, more than 25,000 people of all races gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to demand passage of Civil Rights legislation. At the time it was the largest demonstration in the United States. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his now-historic speech, “I have a dream.”

A temporary photo exhibit, My Eyes Have Seen, commemorates the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington. The black-and-white photos by Bob Adelman show Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, Whitney Young, Jr., John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and other icons of the 1960s civil rights movement.

Opposite the visitor center, a large mural depicts scenes in Dr. Martin Luther King’s life: Dr. King as a child, at Morehouse College, police dogs going after demonstrators. The mural is peppered with “peace now,” “We shall overcome,” “no more war” signs. The more you look at the mural, the more incidents you’ll be able to recognize.

This Is A National Park

Home tours are now offered six times a day now. Before sequestration, they were available every 30 minutes in the summer. Currently the unit closes at 5 p.m., instead of 6 p.m.

As you walk around the several city blocks that make up the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, it may be difficult to remember that you’re in a national park.

The Visitor Center didn’t open exactly on time. I also noticed that the ranger in the Ebenezer Baptist Church kept her flat hat on indoors. Ouch!

This casual approach had its positive side. When I asked the ranger on desk duty where we could walk to lunch, he made a restaurant recommendation, something that rangers don’t usually do. Also, they seemed to speak their mind a lot more freely.

“Where are your volunteers?” I asked.

“It’s tough to get volunteers, especially on Sundays.”

Another ranger’s reaction was “Volunteers? Everyone has bills to pay.” I would have thought that in the Atlanta Metropolitan Area, residents would fall all over themselves to volunteer at such as prestigious historic site.