This site, one of the country’s most historic African American districts, is the place where civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in 1929 and where he often preached until his death in 1968. Historic sites in the area include King’s childhood home, Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) headquarters, and the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site
522 Auburn Avenue, NE
Atlanta, GA 30312
ph.: (404) 221-5190
Web site: www.nps.gov/malu/
Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change
449 Auburn Avenue
Atlanta, GA 30312
ph.: (404) 526-8900
Web site: www.thekingcenter.com
The Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site and Preservation District in Atlanta is one the country’s oldest and most significant African American historic districts. Within the area, several important institutions, organizations, and businesses were founded, including churches, retail stores, a trust company, and an insurance company. These historic institutions centered around Auburn Avenue, black Atlanta’s most prominent thoroughfare.
Early in the twentieth century, this area became predominantly African American. By the time Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1929, the district was thriving as a vital hub of commerce and social activity. Observing the successful businesses and houses of the black elite that lined Auburn Avenue, historian and journalist I. P. Reynolds gave the name of “Sweet Auburn” to the avenue.
Businessman Hemon E. Perry played an important role in making Auburn Avenue commercially viable. Perry founded Standard Life Insurance Company in 1913 and used the company to finance his other enterprises, which included dry cleaners, a drugstore, a construction company, a mortgage association, and a coal-mining concern. He eventually overextended his resources, however, and his empire collapsed in 1924.
By then other businesses had been established in the district. A barber named Alonzo F. Herndon started Atlanta Life Insurance Company in 1905; it remains in business today, the largest black-owned stock insurance company in the United States. Atlanta Mutual Building Loan and Savings Association, founded in 1920, and Citizens Trust Bank, established a few years later, became successful financial institutions. This section of Atlanta was (and still is) home to a black-owned newspaper, the Atlanta World, established in 1928, and the black-owned radio station WERD.
In this thriving Atlanta community, Martin Luther King, Jr., was born into a middle-class African American family. He grew up in a comfortable, thirteen-room, two-story house at 501 Auburn Avenue. His father, Martin Luther King, Sr., was a Baptist minister; his mother, Alberta Williams King, a schoolteacher.
From his father and grandfather, young Martin inherited the family’s strong ties to the black Baptist church. His father was pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, a large and prestigious church located a short distance from the family home. His maternal grandfather, A. D. Williams, had founded the church. Martin Luther King, Jr., eventually served as copastor of the church with his father.
King later recalled that his boyhood years were spent in “a very congenial home situation,” and that his family was one “where love was central and where lovely relationships were ever present.” The King family home was situated in the heart of Atlanta’s thriving black middle class; as part of Atlanta’s black bourgeoisie, the family did not suffer real deprivation during the Great Depression that devastated America in the 1930’s.
In 1941 the King family moved to a larger home, a brick structure three blocks away at 193 Boulevard. This move happened at the same time as the completion of the new Ebenezer Baptist Church at its present site on Auburn Avenue. In September, 1944, after attending public elementary and high schools as well as the Laboratory High School of Atlanta University, young Martin entered Morehouse College as a special student. He was fifteen years old.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Morehouse in 1948, King left Atlanta to attend Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he graduated three years later with highest honors. He continued his education at Boston University, earning a doctorate in systematic theology in 1955. King remained away from Atlanta until 1960. During this time, he served as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and immersed himself in the civil rights struggle. King’s leadership of the successful Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 thrust him into national prominence. The boycott was called to protest racially segregated seating on buses.
By the 1950’s, the South was afire with local civil rights movements. Leaders of these groups, including King, the Reverend Joseph Lowery of Mobile, Alabama, and the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, Alabama, began to meet informally. According to one participant, Stanley Levison, “If there was one individual who clarified and organized the discussion it was Dr. King.”
Early in January, 1957, black civil rights leaders met at the Ebenezer Baptist Church to form an organization that would coordinate local activities. This organization became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), with headquarters on Auburn Avenue. In 1960 King became president of SCLC and returned to Atlanta. The SCLC planned many marches and activities for justice and freedom in the early 1960’s.
King and the SCLC became involved in civil rights efforts all over the South and also lobbied for national support for the movement. King embraced the growing protest movement among black college students, and in 1960 he joined a group of students in demanding service at whites-only lunch-rooms in Atlanta department stores. King and numerous others were arrested. The incident may have helped sway the 1960 U.S. presidential election. Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy, initially reluctant about involvement with the case and rather noncommittal about the Civil Rights movement, eventually decided to telephone King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, and offer his moral support. Kennedy’s brother, Robert, phoned the judge in the case to protest the denial of bail to King. These actions undoubtedly won many black votes for John Kennedy. Previously, numerous black voters had been leaning toward his opponent, Richard M. Nixon.
King continued his involvement with desegregation, voting rights, and other civil rights causes in such cities as Albany, Georgia, and St. Augustine, Florida. Massive protests in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 led to more jail time for King, and the publication of his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he denounced not only the overt racist but
the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers a negative peace that is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice, who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action,” who paternalistically believes that he can set the time-table for another man’s freedom. . . .
On August 28, 1963, King led his famous March on Washington. Before 200,000 people, he shared his dream of America when he said: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
King received many honors for his nonviolent brand of civil rights activism. In 1963 he received the Nobel Peace Prize, and early in the following year, Time magazine chose the young Baptist minister as “Man of the Year.”
King continued to lead important civil rights campaigns before being killed by an assassin’s bullet. The first of these campaigns was the dangerous Selma-to-Montgomery march, which took place from January to March, 1965. During the second campaign, the Civil Rights movement entered its “northern phase”; in the summer of 1966, King went to Chicago to attack the social and economic conditions that militated against the welfare of blacks.
The King-led campaign faced tough and angry opposition from local whites. For example, demonstrations launched by King in the southwest side of Chicago were met by jeering white marchers, who threw rocks and bottles. King left Chicago on August 6, 1966, vowing “to keep coming back until we are safe from harassment.” After the Chicago campaign, some persons in the Civil Rights movement began questioning King’s nonviolent methods, although his personal reputation remained unblemished.
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to show support for members of an all-black sanitation workers’ union, on strike against the city. On April 6, King’s body was put on public view at Ebenezer Baptist Church; three days later, he was buried in Atlanta’s South View Cemetery. An eternal flame burns at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which is located at 449 Auburn Avenue. It symbolizes the ongoing effort to achieve King’s dream of justice and brotherhood for all Americans. The center was established in 1969 to build on what the Civil Rights movement had accomplished under King’s leadership. The center has organized programs that work to eliminate violence, poverty, racism, and war through peaceful means.
“All people are welcome here,” said Coretta Scott King, the center’s president and chief executive officer. “We want to be a place where people can come together. Hopefully, in the sharing process, we will all grow and understand and respect the dignity and worth of all human personalities.”
Located on the third floor of the center’s three-story red brick building is the heart of the institution: the archives and library. It was established soon after King’s death, when his widow and other family members, as well as several friends, joined together to act to ensure the preservation and use of King’s papers. Since those formative days, the archive has expanded its scope to become a repository of books, diaries, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, photographs, films, tapes, phonograph recordings, and other records that total more than a million items and document the modern Civil Rights movement. Each year the library’s small staff answers about five thousand research requests from all over the world.
Today, the King Library and Archives is the country’s primary institution for preserving and documenting the pivotal period in U.S. history known as the Civil Rights movement. It tells the story of a movement that has its seeds in the Martin Luther King, Jr., Historic District–a movement that fundamentally altered the course of U.S. history. Within the historic district, other sites related to the Civil Rights movement and Atlanta’s historic black community include King’s birthplace; the Ebenezer Baptist Church; and the headquarters of various black-owned businesses that have operated there since early in the twentieth century.
Several books have put the Martin Luther King, Jr., legacy, the Civil Rights movement, and the King Historic District’s development in perspective. The following is a sampling of some of the best sources.
Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: William Morrow, 1986. Lewis, David Levering. King: A Biography. Urbana: University of Illnois Press, 1978. Lincoln, C. Eric. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Profile. New York: Hill & Wang, 1984. Peck, Ira. The Life and Words of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1999. A biography of King and a history of the Civil Rights movement.