“I Have a Dream.” These words were spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 during the March on Washington. We know the dream was for equality of all men, regardless of race. But how did the dream originate? Where did the dream begin? How did an ordinary little boy grow up to become the leader of the American Civil Rights Movement and, at the age of 35, the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize?
The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia immortalizes King and his childhood neighborhood of Sweet Auburn. The Historic Site is a complex of buildings situated in an historic residential neighborhood comprised of a large visitor center, King’s birth home, the King Center, a fire station museum, and an historic church. It is here, in these structures and on these streets, that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream first took root.
I begin the day in Atlanta, Georgia at the Visitor Center of the Historic Site. Well…that’s not true. I begin the day parking my Camry in the parking lot, walking in the wrong direction, after three blocks realizing the mistake, discovering my car is parked in the bus parking lot, moving my car to visitor lot, THEN arriving at the information desk in the visitor center to pick up a free ticket for a guided tour of the King Birth Home. Tours are given several times a day; however each tour is limited to 15 people. After obtaining a ticket, I watch the excellent 30-minute film describing King’s short yet influential life, then move on to the hands-on and video exhibits, pausing at each monitor to watch historic news coverage of speeches, race riots, and interviews, and studying the photographs to better grasp an understanding of what life was like in the South during the 1960s (when I was just a tiny babe). Now I’m ready to step back in time to 1929 and view the world through the eyes of a little boy growing up in a prosperous, working class neighborhood in the segregated South.
On January 15, 1929, a baby boy was born in an upstairs bedroom in a lovely, loving home in a prosperous working-class neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia. The second child, Martin Luther Jr. was the first son of Alberta and Martin Luther “Daddy” King. M.L. lived here with his parents, sister, younger brother, and maternal grandparents. The house at 501 Auburn Ave. has been restored and touring the home gives a haunting sense of a young, playful, smart, mischievous boy that teased his sister, avoided his chores, and conspired with his brother. The volunteer tour guide shares anecdotes and stories from King’s childhood as she leads us from the parlor, where an 8-year-old M.L. was forced to endure piano lessons and hatched a diabolical plan to be rid of the torture; to the kitchen, where a family dined together every evening, but only after Daddy King arrived home from work; to the upstairs window where a 5-year-old black child stood every afternoon and waved to his white playmate across the street, this daily greeting the only interaction allowed once the boys started their segregated schools.
A short walk down Auburn Ave, on the corner of Auburn and Boulevard, stands Fire Station No. 6. During Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood in the 1930s, the fire station was a meeting ground for neighborhood children to play street ball and other games. The white firemen would allow the children to polish the bright red 1927 LaFrance fire engine. Young M.L. and other children would listen, enchanted by tales of adventure and excitement, as the fire alarm sounded and the storytelling, brave firefighters quickly dressed and rushed away to save people and structures from fiery flames. M.L. knew he could not dream about becoming an heroic firefighter; M.L. knew his future was limited by segregation and race inequality. Today, Fire Station No. 6 is a museum. I watch the movie that explains how growing up in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood influenced Martin Luther King Jr. and his life-long commitment to Civil Rights. The rest of the museum is dedicated to the history of the fire station.
Ebenezer Baptist Church, built in 1914, was the spiritual and community center of Sweet Auburn and a second home to Martin Luther King Jr. King’s grandfather, Rev. A.D. Williams and King’s father Rev. “Daddy” King Sr. served as pastors at Ebenezer Baptist Church for nearly 80 years. During the 1960s until his assassination on April 9, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. King served as co-pastor with Daddy King. Both the Heritage Sanctuary and the Fellowship Hall have been restored to their 1960s appearance. I love sitting quietly in a pew, listening to Dr. King preach as his sermon emits from the speakers. In the Fellowship Hall I watch a video interview of King’s sister remembering the day, in 1974, a gunmen entered the sanctuary and fatally shot Mama King and Deacon Edward Boykin.
A long Reflecting Pool surrounding the tombs of Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta is the centerpiece of the King Center. At the foot of the Reflecting Pool, Freedom Hall has exhibits describing the individuals who influenced King’s philosophy. Dr. King believed in the teachings of Jesus Christ and would read and study his Bible late into the night, gleaning truths about relationships. In 1959 Dr King traveled to India to study the nonviolent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. King saw no reason why Gandhi’s methods would not work in America. Dr. King befriended Rosa Parks and learned patience in protests.
I end the day back at the Visitor Center at a special exhibit I saved for last. I walk down a short hallway lined with protest posters and signs. I take my time, focusing in the moment. I enter a small room. A replica of the base of the Lincoln Memorial lines one wall. On the cardboard steps, a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. stands behind a cardboard podium. Standing in the center of a room in Atlanta, Georgia, pretending to be a part of the famous March on Washington, listening to a pretend Dr. King speak behind a pretend podium at the base of a pretend Lincoln Memorial, concentrating on the very real words of a very real speech, I am deeply moved and challenged by a man who dared to turn a dream into reality.