My civil rights movement information hunt started with an arresting experience at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama. As the “I Have a Dream” speech beamed on TV, I knew where the next location would be: Atlanta’s Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site.
This museum sits in an Atlanta community known as “Sweet Auburn.” In the early 20th century, amidst segregation and the accompanying Jim Crow laws, this neighborhood fostered African-American businesses, social organizations and congregations. Atlanta’s first black-owned office building and daily newspaper (The Atlanta Daily World) were founded here. “Sweet Auburn” was coined by its unofficial mayor, John Wesley Dobbs, after he referred to it as “the richest Negro street in the world.”
The museum’s design and content did not supply a chill-level experience, but it was pleasantly laid out. A short film can be watched before beginning the self-guided tour.
After leaving the small theatre, a tour guide let us know about MLK’s birth home tour. This is a must-do for the visit. And like the museum admission, it’s completely free. Signing up for the birth home tour can only be done in person and on the actual day of the tour, though, so arrive early if you’re here during a holiday or on a weekend (hours 9am-5pm or 6pm depending on the season).
Our group of fifteen people walked past one block lined with small, humble houses, then a second block incongruously boasting of sizeable homes and showcasing entirely different architectural styles. Auburn Avenue truly did house the poor and rich, tying them into the same community.
Dr. King’s birth home is not on the poor block – it’s a two-storied, three-bedroom, two-bathroom house complete with a living room, game room, dining room and kitchen. The King family was not roughing it. Grandfather Williams and Daddy King (Martin’s father) had earned a healthy salary as Episcopal Church pastors during their respective times.
As we viewed the master bedroom, our guide went on to explain that MLK and his two siblings were born in the house. There was a nearby segregated hospital in town, but the King family refused to use its services.
Dinners were eaten with the entire family every night, and the children had to recite newly memorized verses from the Bible before eating. Conversations would include the kids’ opinions – Daddy King focusing on the projections of voice and conviction levels while Mrs. King kept watch on the grammar. MLK’s powerful usage of the English language, which he would later use while bellowing those flowery speeches, was clearly no coincidence.
Strolling through the neighborhood that helped shape one of our country’s key leaders, imagining the daily life in the King house (with accompanying stories) and feeling privileged to walk through a part of Dr. King’s upbringing was nothing short of unforgettable.