Touring Atlanta's Civil Rights Landmarks

From Sweet Auburn to downtown, Michelle Jachim traces MLK's footsteps and the genesis of the civil rights movement in Atlanta.

Scattered throughout Atlanta are historical gems that tell the city’s remarkable civil rights story. It was in Atlanta that the world’s most famous civil rights activist was born, and with him, ideas that catalyzed change throughout the world.

“We shall overcome,” sang the swaying crowd, arms intertwined. As the civil rights anthem filled the air, hundreds of community leaders and spectators—among them Dr. Bernice King, daughter of Atlanta’s own Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.— gathered on the lawn of the Center for Civil and Human Rights to celebrate its grand opening and bear witness to what many consider a new era for Atlanta’s civil rights legacy.

Of the cities considered cruxes of the American civil rights movement, why make Atlanta the Center’s home? “Atlanta was never afraid to grapple with its own history of civil and human rights,” says former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. Throughout the city are reminders of that struggle, from the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site to the Sweet Auburn District to Morehouse College—many hiding in plain sight. “Atlanta has landmarks where the legacy of the civil rights movement can be touched. A simple walk can easily turn into a journey through history,” says Doug Shipman, the Center’s CEO. 

Dr. King's Birth Home

On Auburn Avenue sits a two-story Victorian home painted in soothing yellow with a bronze plaque that proclaims, “Martin Luther King Jr. was born in this house January 15, 1929.” The King Birth Home is one part of the 15-acre Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, which also encompasses the tombs of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King.

Nearby, at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Jackson Street, stands Ebenezer Baptist Church, its name proclaimed in white neon lights under a neon cross. Dr. King’s father—affectionately referred to as “Daddy King”—was the pastor at Ebenezer for four decades. Dr. King became his co-pastor in 1960, and would go on to deliver some of his most powerful sermons at the iconic church. Xernona Clayton worked alongside Dr. King as events coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during the height of the civil rights movement. She remembers his influence as pastor: “Dr. King gave sermons at Ebenezer two Sundays a month, and people came to church just to see him. Now, people like to walk down the aisles of Historic Ebenezer, because these are the aisles down which Dr. King walked.”

One of the most powerful sermons King gave at Ebenezer—”The Drum Major Instinct”—would serve as his eulogy only months later. 

Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church

Dr. King’s assassination is the subject of one of the more striking exhibits at the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Here, visitors climb a staircase inspired by that of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. At the top of the stairs is an intimate room with a single wooden bench at its center. Surrounding the bench are aftermath images of Dr. King’s death. In front of the bench, grainy video footage of Dr. King’s funeral is set to an eerie and moving soundtrack: original audio of Dr. King delivering his “Drum Major” sermon at Ebenezer.

“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. … Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

The stories displayed so vividly throughout the Center’s American civil rights exhibit, “Rolls Down Like Water,” are not from the distant past. The year 2013 marked only 50 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom turned the world’s attention to America’s racial injustices. Dr. King’s four children—Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter and Bernice—were just 12, 10, 7 and 5 years old, respectively, when their father was assassinated. 

Center for Civil and Human Rights Exhibit

“Daddy was more than just a civil rights leader,” says King Center President Bernice King. “This museum helps people understand that all of what he did was a pivotal part of our history, yet it is very present—it lives.”

The idea for the $80-million Center originated with the late Evelyn Lowery, a second-generation human rights activist—and wife of Dr. Joseph E. Lowery—who founded the sister organization to the SCLC. But it was Shirley Franklin who became the project’s leading champion. In 2002, upon being elected Atlanta’s Mayor, Shirley Franklin became the first African-American female mayor of a large Southern city.

“Mrs. Lowery brought it to me and a few days later [former Atlanta Mayor and civil rights icon] Andy Young said the same thing [about building the museum],” recalls Franklin. Seven years later, Franklin had raised $100 million in donations and assorted gifts. This astronomical scale of giving is indicative of why Atlanta’s business community plays an integral role in the city’s exceptional civil rights story.

“It’s just different here. Both white and black civic leaders have long realized that bad racial relations are bad for business,” says Young.

Atlanta’s business community reached a crossroads in 1964, when Dr. King became Atlanta’s first Nobel Peace Laureate. The city’s buried racial tensions bubbled to the surface when Atlanta’s mayor, the legendary Ivan Allen Jr., organized an unsegregated gala to commemorate the feat. “The celebration in my father’s honor was arguably the first time Atlanta’s white business community and our black business community had come together for such an occasion,” says Martin Luther King III.

It was a monumental shift and, at first, no one in the white business community bought tickets; that is, until The Coca-Cola Company intervened. Coca-Cola President J. Paul Austin rallied Atlanta’s business leaders upon hearing of the alarmingly low gala attendance. “The Coca-Cola Company does not need Atlanta. You all need to decide whether Atlanta needs The Coca-Cola Company,” declared Austin. The dinner sold out within two hours. 

World of Coca-Cola

Today, the Center is located in Pemberton Place—named for and honoring the inventor of Coca-Cola, John Pemberton—on land donated by The Coca-Cola Company.

In the ways that Atlanta’s white business community astounded the nation with its progressive actions, so did the city’s black business leaders with their intelligence, determination and affluence. In fact, Fortune magazine dubbed Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue “the richest Negro street in the world” in 1956. In 1976, “Sweet” Auburn became a National Historic Landmark. The Sweet Auburn story was born from Atlanta’s worst race riot in 1906. Before the riot, both black- and white-owned institutions thrived in Downtown Atlanta. A mass exodus of black business owners took place when the riot left 27 people dead and 70 injured. Just east of downtown in the Fourth Ward, Auburn Avenue was soon bustling with African-American churches, nightclubs and varied businesses, including Atlanta’s first black-owned insurance company.

Today, the mile-and-a-half Sweet Auburn Historic District stands as a legacy to the unlikely successes of a repressed populace. Once a wildly popular venue for African-American legends Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, B.B. King and Louis Armstrong, The Royal Peacock Club is now a booming dance hall.

Sweet Auburn Curb Market

The Sweet Auburn Curb Market was created as an effort to rebuild after Atlanta’s second-worst fire in 1917. The segregated market allowed only whites to shop for goods inside, while African-Americans were relegated to stalls along the market’s curb, hence its current name. Nearly 100 years later, local vendors, chefs and restaurateurs of all races own the popular stalls sprinkled throughout the market.

According to Young, “[Atlanta] always had a high level of educated black folks who believed in themselves,” which contributed greatly to Sweet Auburn’s eminence. It is no coincidence that Atlanta also has the largest concentration of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the nation, including Dr. King’s alma mater, Morehouse College.

It was from Morehouse College that Lonnie King [no relation to Dr. King] began the Atlanta Student Movement. As a Morehouse student and football team fullback, Lonnie King doggedly organized a series of powerful boycotts and lunch-counter sit-ins that severely impacted the bottom line of Atlanta’s business community. “We appealed to the black masses,” recalls King, now a 77-year-old Navy veteran. “According to my data, [the boycotts] cost Rich’s Department Store $10 million in sales in 1960.”

Lonnie King

“Lonnie did a good job in helping to create the atmosphere and national reputation of Atlanta being the gateway to the New South,” says U.S. Congressman John Lewis, former chairman of the Atlanta-based Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). 

Today, Morehouse College is home to the King Collection, an astounding assortment of approximately 13,000 of Dr. King’s books, letters, annotations and personal belongings. While the Morehouse campus displays some of these items, the college partnered with the Center for Civil and Human Rights to create an exclusive exhibit for the museum.

A small room decorated in pine paneling houses the Center’s “Voice to the Voiceless” gallery. The room is kept starkly quiet, fostering feelings of reverence and reflection. The glass cases in the room display a rotating group of Dr. King’s manuscripts and personal effects, curated in themes to convey a unified message. The gallery’s inaugural exhibit, “Nonviolence and Peacemaking during the Civil Rights Movement,” speaks to Dr. King’s lifelong focus on making change without the use of violence. “The day Martin was assassinated, he told me that the philosophy of nonviolent direct action must be institutionalized and internationalized,” says SCLC Chairman Dr. Bernard LaFayette. “This civil rights center does just that.”

Center for Civil and Human Rights

At the Center’s groundbreaking in June 2014, members of the community were asked to write notes for inclusion in a time capsule interred that day. One note reads, “I now realize that civil and human rights are about protecting the essence of us all as human beings. As old issues fade, new issues emerge. My wish is that [the Center] remain relevant in order to combat [those] emerging issues.”

Just as the Center will remain relevant by shedding light on global challenges, so too will Atlanta remain a guiding beacon with its ever-present history of struggle, strength and change.