Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site Atlanta, Ga. Visited: February 5, 2005 NPS Site Visited: 144 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT? Two blocks in the historic Atlanta district of “Sweet Auburn” that tell the story Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life as framed by the greater struggle for civil rights in America.
BEAUTY (5/10) A short promenade where visitors can match their footprints to those on the Civil Rights Walk of Fame leads from the parking lot to the red-brick Visitor Center. Parts of the MLK Jr. NHS blend in with neighboring structures dedicated to the memory and vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. such as the King Center, the MLK, Jr. Community Center and the new Ebenezer Baptist Church. Sweet Auburn is still a residential area. Homes on historic Auburn Avenue look much like they would have when MLK Jr. was growing up here.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (9/10) The most well-known leader of America’s civil rights movement was born and raised here. The Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church which is part of the NHS served as a religious center for the King family whose members preached and worshipped here, as well as a setting for meetings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the SCLC and later the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) with the principles of non-violent direct action and civil disobedience to unfair and immoral laws. This site is dedicated to the life of the “most eloquent spokesman for racial justice of his time”, as well as the continued quest for equality in America.
CROWDS (7/10) People filled the Visitor Center, courtyard and streets connecting the Site’s buildings. Luckily, the third most visited historic site in the National Parks System is designed to handle a crowd. Exhibits encourage movement. There is plenty of room for everyone. We wished tours of the King birth house would have been given on a more frequent basis. We were able to wait four hours but most of the tourists left wanting more.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (5/5) The King NHS is located just a mile and a half from downtown Atlanta. Innumerable signs lead you off Interstate 75/85 exit 248C (Freedom Parkway/Carter Center) right onto the Boulevard and immediately right again into the large parking lot area. We were there on the first Saturday in February. Despite the large crowds, there was plenty of parking room. Free parking downtown in one of America’s largest cities - what a concept!
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5) The bookstore, which is located in the back of Historic Fire Station No. 6, tries to keep pace with the Site in exploring and expanding upon the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, it spreads itself a little thin. One of the Site’s many free handouts lists contact information for organizations such as the American Red Cross, Amnesty International and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The handout’s other side recommends 19 books to read. Only six of these books are actually for sale at the bookstore.
Just one of the many inexplicably missing texts is Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years: 1963-65, part two of Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize winning history of the Civil Rights Movement set around the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
COSTS (5/5) The Site is entirely free. Free guided tours of the Martin Luther King, Jr. birth house take place hourly. Spots fill up fast. The only tickets available at noon were for the 4:00 and 5:00 tours.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (3/5) Two Rangers were positioned at the main Visitor Center; two more were outside the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. Given the amount of people here on this beautiful Saturday afternoon, these Rangers served more as pointers and directors than as interpreters.
TOURS/CLASSES (8/10) Grown-ups will have to crouch to read the first exhibit at the Visitor Center, designed not for them, but for "Children of Courage". The exhibit chronicles events in young Martin’s childhood and adolescence which shaped his beliefs and teachings, explores the role of young people in the 50s, 60s and 70s and ends with a reflection: "Who Can Take the Lead in Ending Injustice?" Open the door to see a future leader.
Pull-out drawers allow kids of all ages to see how black and white stereotypes found their way into dolls, toys, and magazines from each decade and how these images evolved over time. A 15-minute film accompanies the exhibit.
The adjoining room has several cubicle-type exhibits centered around life-sized statues memorializing the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. Each cubicle contains museum items, interpretive panels, quotes and a video exploring either an aspect of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life or his leadership in the struggle for civil rights.
The Visitor Center hosts changing temporary exhibits. Powerful black and white photographs of human rights heroes from over 35 countries lined the walls during our visit. Speak Truth to Power now begins a Latin American tour to Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil, and in France, Germany, and (pending) India. The MLK Jr. NHS was an ideal setting to expand this movement’s audience.
Only one thing prevented this Site from earning a perfect score and that was the condescending tone of the young Ranger from New Jersey who led our tour of MLK’s birth house. Although most of the audience had probably spent the better part of the day touring the Site waiting for the next available house tour, he began his talk as if we knew nothing about MLK, the Park Service, or anything really. His patronization was enough to make us leave the tour before we set foot inside the house. We handed our tickets to a dad and a young boy peeking inside just as the Ranger was about to turn them away.
Even without a tour of the house, the Site offers much to its visitors. Takeaways from the MLK NHS include a booklet entitled, 101 Tools for Tolerance Simple Ideas for Promoting Equity and Celebrating Diversity and a Pledge Card asking visitors to Respect all people; live a life of loving, not hating; choose patience over anger, non-violence over force; and actively promote freedom, justice and world peace.
FUN (9/10) It was wonderful to see so many people of all colors, age and nationality remembering and learning about the incredible life and message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. together.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10) Absolutely. This is a must-see National Parks destination as well as one of America’s treasures.
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