Wayne Hinshaw column: Visiting the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Site

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 22, 2015

ATLANTA — Having the opportunity to visit the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Site at the same time the State Department sponsored Institute of International Education for first-year foreign Fulbright scholars was a real treat. Seeing and observing the reactions of the 138 college students, many coming from countries that do not have good records on civil rights, was special. Most just quietly looked at the displays, reading the captions, while some made photos of each other in front of the exhibits.

The 35-acre site is managed by the National Park Service. Included on the site are the Visitor Center with exhibits on the history of the civil rights movement, an 1894 fire station, a Mohandas K. Gandhi statue, International World Peace Rose Garden, a Civil Rights Walk of Fame, Ebenezer Baptist Church, the King Jr. grave site crypt, Eternal Flame, Freedom Hall, King Jr.’s birth home, a row of “shotgun houses” and other Victorian homes. The small 1894 Fire Station No. 6 is included on the site because it was the first Atlanta fire station to racially integrate in the 1960s. A preservation district surrounds the historic site protecting the Sweet Auburn Community.

The entire community was known as the “Sweet Auburn Community” in earlier years, with Auburn Avenue running through the community. During King’s life here, it was known as the most prominent black community in Atlanta. On one end of the street, the “shotgun houses” (a house that you can stand at the front door and look out the back door since all the rooms line up in a row along a long hallway) were home to hard-working blue-collar workers. Victorian homes lined the other end of the street where doctors, lawyers and teachers resided. Interestingly, the King birth home is in the center of the block at 501 Auburn Ave.

The King birth home is a two story Queen Anne style home with a front porch. There is the parlor where King took piano lessons as a boy and the King family listened to the Victrola. It also doubled as a meeting place for “Daddy King Sr.’s” civil rights meetings and, at times, the church choir rehearsals. The study was where Daddy King Sr. prepared his sermons. In the dining room, each night there was a formal meal and the children recited Bible verses before eating, according to the Park Ranger tour guide.

The house had a kitchen where Grandmother Jennie Williams did most of the cooking for the family. Other rooms were the laundry room, bathroom and six bedrooms. King Jr. was born in an upstairs middle bedroom on Jan. 15, 1929. Martin Luther King Sr. didn’t trust the segregated hospitals so he had a doctor and midwife come to the home to deliver his children. At birth, Martin Luther King Jr. was named Thomas Luther King Jr. Daddy King was also named Thomas. Before Rev. A.D. Williams’ death, he convinced Daddy King and King Jr. to change their names to Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr. The birth home where King Jr. lived 12 years of his childhood has been restored back to the way it looked in the 1930s to 1940s and refurnished.

The tour guide said that the young Martin Luther was a mischievous youngster. He once engineered the piano stool in the parlor so that it would break when his teacher sat on it to give him and brother A.D. a lesson. The plan failed, and the boys still had to take the piano lesson.

King, Jr. hated washing the dishes, saying it was not a man’s job. However, he loved going to the basement to carry in coal for the furnace to heat the house.

Only about 20 percent of the home furnishings are original. The piano in the front parlor, the desk in the study and the chinaware in the dining room are original and used by the King family.

The Visitor Center houses historic photos of the civil rights struggle with videos and displays giving you a feel for lifestyles of African-Americans in the 1960s.

Recorded speeches, photos of freedom marches and the funeral farm wagon that was pulled by mules carrying Dr. King Jr. to his burial at South View Cemetery in 1968 are part of the archives. While I studied the farm wagon, a group of 7- and 8-year-old school children marched in and stood in silence at the farm wagon. No one spoke as they stood before the shrine.

I was moved by an original black and white photo of King photographed in the Birmingham jail in 1963 with King looking out a window. I viewed the photo through jail bars of the jail door that stood between the photo and me. Having been arrested in Birmingham and jailed, King wrote the “Letters from Birmingham Jail.”

Through my years of attending photojournalism seminars in Atlanta, I have had the privilege of listening to lectures and viewing the photos of many of the news photographers who covered the civil rights marches and events in the 1960s in the South. Many of these photojournalists are no longer with us. I heard their stories and saw their images as only they could describe them. All of their words and images came back to me as I stood looking at some of the same photos again. There were photos of the Birmingham March, the Memphis March with 6,000 sanitation workers protesting, the Selma March over the bridge, the speeches, the beatings, the threats and the deaths. The important March on Washington in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial and the “I Have A Dream” speech is there. These images are burned in my memory.

The famed sacred Ebenezer Baptist Church sits on the edge of the historical site. The church was served by King Jr.’s maternal grandfather, Rev. Adam Daniel “A.D.” Williams, and Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. (Daddy King). King Jr. served as the co-pastor in the 1960s with his father. The church was known for generations for its spiritual, social and political involvement in the Atlanta black community.

Many civil rights meetings and sermons were preached in the church sanctuary. It is now called the Heritage Sanctuary. Dr. King Jr.’s mother, Mama King, and Deacon Edward Boykin were shot to death there in 1974. Three others were wounded in the shooting.

Dr. and Mrs. Coretta Scott King’s burial crypts are located in the center of the blue waters of a reflecting pool in what is known as the King Campus. There is a brick and concrete plaza around the pool. King’s remains were moved from the South View Cemetery to the crypt in 1970. The inscription on the King crypt is, “Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. 1929-1968, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last.’”

Two children stood seemingly paralyzed staring across the blue waters of the reflecting pool at the crypt. Others around the plaza stood in a reverent silence.

The Eternal Flame on the plaza facing the crypt “symbolizes the effort to realize Dr. King’s dream of the ‘Beloved Community.’” His dream was for a world of justice, peace and equality for all mankind.