Visiting King's Atlanta

Sweet Auburn neighborhood links visitors to civil-rights legend


December 03, 2006|By Michael Schuman | Michael Schuman,Special to The Sun

In the days when the civil-rights movement was a far-off vision and segregation was as prevalent as blooming wisteria in April, the Atlanta neighborhood known as Sweet Auburn stood out as one of the most notable black communities in the nation.

The district centering on Auburn Avenue east of downtown boasted black physicians, dentists, attorneys and entrepreneurs. It was here that WERD, the first black-owned and -operated radio station in the United States, originated, and it was in a building at 148 Auburn Ave. that the largest black-controlled stockholder life insurance company, Atlanta Life Insurance Co., was founded in 1905.

It was the same Auburn Avenue that in 1956 was called by Fortune magazine "The Richest Negro Street in the World."

This is not to imply that Sweet Auburn was without its poor. Mixed in with the two- and three-story Victorian homes were the shotgun rowhouses of the lower class. And you can still see this urban mosaic today. It was in many ways America in a microcosm, with one exception: All the residents were black.

This was the environment in which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was born and raised. In order to gain an insight into the man, it is important to understand Sweet Auburn.

National Park rangers at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site tell about the thriving neighborhood as well as King's life, emphasizing events that molded him into the determined champion for civil rights that he became.

The tour guides say his first contact with racism was at age 6 when he was told that he and a young white friend could no longer play together and that his first taste of life beyond Jim Crow laws in Atlanta was as a teenage tobacco worker in Connecticut.

Perhaps his foremost role model was his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., who succeeded his father-in-law as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1931, two years after King Jr. was born.

When you see the birthplace at 501 Auburn Ave., the initial reaction may be one of surprise. Many expect to see a small bungalow or shotgun shack.

The younger King's birthplace is a proud and handsome Queen Anne-style frame house with two stories and a roomy front porch.

It is spacious inside, with a warm front parlor downstairs as the nucleus of the home and comfortable and cozy bedrooms upstairs. When we walked through this historic structure, we saw a home where family cohesiveness and strict discipline were the rules.

Play time - it is said that the King children were partial to games such as Monopoly and Old Maid - did not begin until chores were done.

King's jobs included stoking the furnace in the colder months and brushing crumbs off the dinner table with the half-moon-shaped crumb remover you can still see in the dining room.

Another after-dinner chore was washing dishes; it was a job the children rotated and one that King protested because he felt it was women's work.

King and his siblings also objected when it came time to learn piano. His mother, Alberta, taught piano to neighborhood children and tried to pass the talent on to her own. Our guide told us, however, that it was common for the young ones to pound on the piano with an aggressive vengeance in hopes that if they damaged it, their lessons would cease.

The sturdy piano still sits in a corner of the parlor, a testament to its indestructibility. The family kitchen might bring back memories to many visitors. It is frozen in the early 1930s. The floor is covered with light-green linoleum, and there's a black stove, ice box and bulky Hoosier cabinet - a multidoored cabinet with shelves and a porcelain work surface.

Similar personal items individualize the bedrooms. The one with the frilly, feminine wallpaper, the doll propped on the coverlet and the little mittens on the bureau belonged to King's sister, Christine, while the big bedroom with the combination makeup desk and mirror belonged to his parents; a Bible rests on the dresser.

Before you leave the upstairs hallway, be sure to notice the antique Singer sewing machine.

While the birthplace reflects King as a child, the museum at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, one block west, focuses on King, the public figure.

The center was founded in June 1968 by his widow, the late Coretta Scott King, and is run by his son Dexter Scott King. Its purpose is to continue King's efforts and promote his legacy, and while the center is only open to researchers, its museum allows one to look at King's personal items and follow his path as a minister and civil-rights activist.

A timeline tracks the important events of his life. But as much as you see King as a crusader for equality, you also see him as a human being.

Like any person who traveled frequently, King had to master the skill of packing lightly; his lightweight suitcase, Artco travel alarm and tidy case with tie tacks and cuff links are on view.

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