Story and photos by Diane Slawych
The boyhood home of Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the highlights of a new self-guided trail launched by Georgia Tourism this spring to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the civil rights leader’s death.
Georgia’s Footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Trail includes 28 attractions (from churches and courthouses to schools, museums and other landmarks) in eight cities. Several of the sites, such as King’s boyhood home, are in Atlanta.
The Baptist minister and a prominent leader in the civil rights movement for about a dozen years until his death in 1968 was born on Jan. 15, 1929 at 501 Auburn Ave. N.E. The house was built in 1895 and purchased by his maternal grandparents, A.D. and Jennie Williams, in 1909.
King spent the first 12 years of his life in the 14-room two-storey middle-class home. His grandparents lived on the main floor and King, his siblings and parents occupied the second floor. The arrangement was typical of families along Auburn Avenue.
Though most items inside the home, which is open to tours, do not belong to the family, furnishings and other items are typical of the time period.
Many homes along the street have Queen Anne architectural features, such as ornamental mouldings and spindles, decorative shingles and woodwork on the end of some of the gables.
White people built and first occupied many of the homes in the neighborhood. But after the 1906 race riot, educated, middle-class Blacks began settling here and by 1910 the area was predominantly Black.
King’s childhood here was entirely normal, according to one of the plaques outside. “He did his chores and received his allowance. Neighbours often saw him bouncing a ball off the side of the home or riding his bike along the street. He fought with his brother. Though physically small, he was intensely competitive. Neighbourhood kids risked getting hurt when playing against him in football or basketball.”
Another plaque on site states the strong sense of family and the ever presence of religion were the two cultural values that distinguished the King household. “Bad behaviour often met a stern response; good behaviour received a warm embrace. Prayer and scripture punctuated each day. Daddy King’s status as pastor at Ebenezer and strong maternal influences ensured a stable and secure upbringing for the King children. While the anguish caused by the Depression swirled all around them the Kings lived comfortably, their home and church a neighbourhood mainstay.”
“My mother and father went out of their way to provide everything for their children,” said King in 1967. “I went right on through school; I never had to drop out to work or anything. And you know I was about to conclude that life had been wrapped up for me in a Christmas package.”
The King family later moved to another home within the Sweet Auburn district at 193 Boulevard, which has since been torn down.
King often returned to his old neighbourhood though. There’s a photo of him standing in front of the Auburn Avenue house with two of his own children, Martin III and Yolanda.
After 1941, King’s birth home was divided into two rental units. The property was eventually acquired by The King Center in 1971 and opened to the public four years later.
The National Park Service conducts free 30-minute tours of the home every hour, though the tours are limited to 15 people and fill quickly. (arrive early)
The birth home is located within the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Site, which commemorates where King was born, lived, worshiped and is now buried. Just down the street is the Ebenezer Baptist Church Heritage Sanctuary, where King served as co-pastor with his father and where, in 1974, a gunman fatally shot his mother and the deacon.
Within the same block is the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change with a reflecting pool that surrounds the tombs of King and his wife Coretta Scott King. And nearby is the historic Fire Station Number 6, Atlanta’s first racially integrated firehouse.
To go into more depth and venture beyond this one-block area, take the excellent three-hour bus tour with Civil Rights Tours Atlanta. One of stops is at 234 Sunset Ave. W., the house King lived in at the time of his assassination and where Coretta raised their four children (though this home is not open to visitors). And you can’t get closer to MLK himself than having Tom Houck as your guide. Expelled from high school in 1965 for participating in the Selma, Montgomery march, Houck, at age 19, became a driver and personal assistant to King and his family and has plenty of stories to share.
King’s accomplishments are many. It’s said that in the 12 or so years that he led the American Civil Rights Movement, African-Americans made more progress toward equality than in the previous three centuries. In 1964, he became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s no wonder the birth home of this American icon is such a popular place to visit.