Explore the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta
"I AM A MAN!"
As recently as 1960, segregation in Atlanta was firmly established and backed by state law, as it was elsewhere in the South. But even prior to the Civil Rights Movement, the city had shown more of a progressive attitude than others in the region. Small steps like the appointment of various black officials and the 1959 desegregation of public transport were already inching Atlanta towards change, and by the early 1960s the city had become a catalyst for the struggle that was to follow.
Activists based themselves in the city’s Sweet Auburn neighbourhood, just to the east of Downtown Atlanta. Birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it remains the best place in America to connect with his legacy and begin an exploration of the city’s remarkable civil rights journey. We take a look at how the story is documented at five of the most important historic sites and attractions across town, including the Center for Civil and Human Rights which opened in 2014.
King Birth Home
Located at 501 Auburn Avenue, the King Birth Home is just one of a number of buildings that make up the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, run by the National Parks Service. Dr. King was born here on 15 January, 1929 and lived in the house with his siblings, Baptist minister father and music teacher mother until he was 12. By all accounts it was an ordinary childhood – he sang in the church choir, preferred football and baseball to learning the piano and wanted to be a fireman when he grew up – but the ranger-led tour gives a deeper insight into the familial and external influences that shaped him into one of the country’s greatest ever leaders. Rooms on display include the parlor, children’s play area, dining room – where the family regularly debated world events over meals – and King’s parents’ bedroom, where he, his brother and sister were born.
Tours of the home are free, last approximately 30 minutes and are filled on a first-come, first-served basis on the day. They run several times daily, between 10am-4pm but are often over-subscribed so arrive as early as possible: Sundays and early weekdays offer the best chance.
Ebenezer Baptist Church
Also part of the National Historic Site, this Gothic-Revival style building became known as the spiritual base of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Along with his father, who preached here for four decades, Martin Luther King, Jr. served as co-pastor until his death in 1968, working for voting and other rights and providing spiritual guidance to the African American congregation. For its role as an activist hub and as the site of King’s baptism and funeral, it’s an exceptionally meaningful symbol of civil rights in Atlanta.
In 2001 the church was significantly restored, including the preservation of stained glass windows, furniture, the balcony and a pipe organ. Today, the congregation has moved into a building across the street but members conduct tours of Ebenezer daily (9am-4pm Mon to Fri, 9am-2pm Sat, 2-4pm Sun).
Mural at the Visitor Center at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site © Ryan Quick / Flickr Creative Commons CC by 2.0
Center for Civil and Human Rights
Opened in June 2014, the Center for Civil and Human Rights is one of Atlanta’s more recent attractions. This inspiring facility connects the American Civil Rights Movement to present-day global human rights issues, and confronts the past, present and future of both via exhibits that bring visitors right into the subject matter. Visit the Freedom Riders wall to pay homage to activists arrested during the movement, learn about global dictators while standing next to their (surprisingly short) life-size images, read the original writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the “Voices of the Voiceless” exhibit, or experience what it was like to be the target of unprovoked abuse at the replica lunch counter. Other highlights include an oral history booth where visitors can tell their own civil rights story, and a striking water sculpture at the side of the building featuring two 30 foot glass panels.
The Center is located in Downtown Atlanta between the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola at Pemberton Place. Open Monday to Saturday, 10am-5pm, Sundays 12pm-5pm. Entrance is US$19.99 for adults, US$15.99 for children.