Once you arrive at the visitor’s center, be sure to make immediate reservations to tour the MLK birthplace, a modest Queen Ann Victorian home located down the street. The birthplace tours fill up, so it’s important to sign up to get a spot because you don’t want to miss it.
The King Center
The day we were to tour the MLK Center was unseasonably cold. As a matter of fact, there was a Nor’easter blowing through on the East Coast. But that wasn’t going to daunt our spirits. We’d rented a car, and I’m happy that we did. Because driving through the dilapidated neighborhood immediately surrounding the King Center would have been a daunting task on foot. The homeless people shuffling around and the long food bank line made my spirits sink. I thought of the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. and seeing the reality of the neighborhood inhabitants gave me momentary reason to question exactly how far had we come.
But I had to catch my breath when I saw the sign to the Ebenezer Church right in front of me, an image I’d seen so many times since my childhood. MLK preached in the Ebenezer and his funeral was held there as well. The King Center is now part of the National Park Service, so we first went to the Visitor’s Center, which hosts a chronological multimedia display of the history of the civil rights movement. Much of the information is text-heavy, so if your child is not of reading age yet, it might not hold their interest. However, the sheer amount of historical material and media are quite impressive. One of the most touching parts of the exhibit was the actual wooden caisson that carried MLK’s coffin (led by two mules) down the same street in front of the visitor’s center.
My husband and I walked with our boys through the exhibit. I suppose that it is a good thing that so many of the events that happened during that time period are incomprehensible to them. The firehoses, the dogs, the lunch-counter sit-ins. It all seems like it was so long ago, when in fact, I explained it all happened in my lifetime.
We met the park ranger in front of the King family home. An earnest young man who explained that this district was once the richest black neighborhood in the United States, and as such was called “Sweet Auburn.” I understood the neighborhood a lot better ten. Because of desegregation and the sacrifices of people like MLK, African-Americans weren’t limited in our options as to where we could live and work. So those who could leave, did. Rather than a defeat, the neighborhood in its own way was a byproduct of the positive impact of the civil rights movement.
As he opened the door, the mood of the crowd changed. It felt like we were on holy ground. There were numerous children on the tour, and they almost instantly fell quiet and wide-eyed.
We were led through the various rooms of the house that young, mischievous Martin grew up in with his brother and sister. Yes. Young Martin got in trouble, and he and his brother tormented their sister regularly. The children on the tour huddled around his bedroom and marveled at the lack of TV and electronics. Once we were shown the parents’ bedroom the meaning of the word “birthplace” took hold. It was here that Martin, his sister and his b
rother, were born, literally.
After the tour, we walked across the street to the King center, and there in the middle of a reflecting pool, rested the white marble tomb of Dr. King and his wife Coretta Scott King. It was a surprisingly humble tribute to such a great man. But its humility was appropriate too. At that moment, my older son’s cell phone rang. His best friend called, wanting to chat. I seriously could have killed both of them. I ordered him to hang up, which he did with a “Uh, dude. I gotta go. I’m at Martin Luther King’s tomb.”
We left Atlanta the next evening. During the day, we made one final stop at the Cyclorama, which is a large panorama painting highlighting the Battle of Atlanta. Cycloramas were popular in the times before moving pictures. Today’s cyclorama consists of a bank of seats that move inside the circular room holding the painting. Various spotlights point out the scenes from the battle. It was interesting, though I did notice a particularly Southern slant to the narration: “Our valiant Confederate lads fought bravely…”
We returned home, and life continued much as it did before our Atlanta trip. My kids are still regular, suburban kids, aimed on acquiring as many videogames as we will allow. We are still overworked, stressed out, and multitasking to the extreme. However when a friend asked my kids about visiting the King Center, and their experience, they both fell quiet for a moment and the oldest said, “Yeah. It was really cool.”
And I think from a pair of teenage/tweenage boys, that’s about the highest rating I could ask for.