Christina Lu and Jesse Zhao
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home in Atlanta and the Dr. King National Memorial in Washington, D.C. continue to carry on important conversations surrounding the issues he fought for during his life. Dr. King was born in an Atlanta neighborhood on Auburn Avenue on January 15, 1929, and after his death, a National Historic Park and national monument was created in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., respectively, to honor his life’s work. His birth home is currently a part of the MLK Center for Nonviolent and Social Change, which includes several museums, his and his wife’s tomb, among other sites to see. The construction of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. was completed in August of 2011 and this monument stand next to the National Mall. Along the sides of the statue is engraved the quote: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” This monument represents the legacy of Dr. King’s works and contributions toward the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, yet there is still unfinished work left to do. The political and social heat that’s becoming more prevalent in society highlights more and more of the racist nature and ideals that still exist in America. Police brutality, incarceration, crime, unequal access to education, and economic inequality are a few struggles among the many that people of color still experience compared to their white counterparts. The preservation of Dr. King’s birth home and monument continue to serve as a reminder of what work is still to be done about these social issues, and of course, to honor the legacy of Dr. King’s accomplishments.
Historical and Cultural Context
During the late 1800’s, Auburn Avenue became the home for many of Atlanta’s emerging black middle class as a result of Jim Crow legislation. As prominent black churches and successful businesses sprung up, “Auburn Avenue [became] the center of African American life in Atlanta” (Hatfield). However, while organizations such as the NAACP lobbied for the end of segregation for residents of the Sweet Auburn neighborhood, the conditions of the street slowly started to decline as many legal restrictions and barriers were removed, and residents and businesses began moving out to other areas of the city. Once a vibrant community, “Sweet Auburn fell victim to disinvestment and neglect [and] turned into a decaying memorial of a bygone era” (Hatfield). Unfortunately, recent attempts at restoring Auburn Avenue, such as its designation as a National Historic landmark and the construction of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, have failed partially to revitalize the neighborhood and community. Revitalization efforts first carried out during the 1970s by Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson were ineffective at slowing the community’s decline. Since then, Jackson’s successors have failed to continue their commitment to improving the neighborhood’s welfare because their focus shifted to other programs. Despite the King Center and National Historic Site attracting over 600,000 visitors annually since 2005, only a small fraction have actually visited local businesses within the neighborhood. On the bright side, the future of Auburn Avenue appears promising. Beginning in 2006, “a $45 million redevelopment plan to create thousands of square feet of retail space and hundreds of condominiums, spearheaded by the historic Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, suggests that the community is poised for renewal” (Hatfield). In spite of Sweet Auburn’s unsettling past, its supporters are confident that it will return to its former glory with help from the community.
Alongside renewal efforts in Atlanta was the design and construction of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C. The proposal for this memorial was founded upon Dr. King’s lifetime achievements and his pivotal role in ending segregation for African American citizens by his contribution toward the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. During the Civil Rights Movement, probably one of the most notable events that occurred in Washington, D.C. was the March on Washington on August 18, 1963 where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “Dream” speech. Nearly a quarter of a million people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial to protest the growing struggles facing black communities. Not only is the National Monument of Dr. King located in the National Mall where this demonstration took place, the monument serves to remind society about preserving the same ideals that he fought for during the Civil Rights Movement: peace, justice, and democracy. Nevertheless, there still remains much work to be done even half a century after his passing.
Even today, D.C. and Atlanta rank among the top cities in America with the highest rates on inequality. According to an article written by Alan Berube for Bookings, Atlanta ranked #1 as the city in America with the biggest income inequality gap in 2016 (Berube). In addition, Data USA provides statistical data showing that over 80% of the population in Atlanta living below the poverty line are black. Not only does this stark difference highlight the obvious disadvantage black people have in Atlanta, but it helps explain why black communities, such as those surrounding the Auburn Neighborhood, have continued to lag behind. In 2015, Laura Shin wrote for Forbes an article explaining the racial wealth gap in America between blacks, whites, and latinos. In the article, she explains that the median income for an average white household is upwards of $100,000 annually, while black and latino families are only earning a median income of $7,000-$8,000. This huge disparity not hinders the ability for family of colors to reach an equal playing field as their white counterparts, but it also reverberates real effects in public policy. While 73% of white households owned a home as of 2015, only about 45% of black and latino households owned a home. This statistic goes to show not only the disadvantage these minority groups have economically, but their income disparity also complicates dreams of achieving higher levels of education for their children. This then feeds into the ongoing cycle of struggles for these families, which places future generations at a disadvantage by default.
Themes and Style
Established on October 10, 1980, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park is made up of several buildings including Dr. King’s birth home. King’s birth home was restored as a historic museum to commemorate his life’s work and honor his legacy, attracting thousands of visitors each year. Likewise, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial serves as a message to reinforce and protect the core American values that may be taken for granted today. Its location alongside the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial in the National Mall demonstrate for Americans the level of grandeur that Dr. King stands with respect to other national heroes. Every aspect of the memorial was designed to convey meaning. For example, the memorial’s open atmosphere and many entrances symbolize the openness of democracy, and its walls are engraved with Dr. King’s famous quotes, representing ideals of peace, justice, and democracy. Referencing Dr. King’s “Dream” speech, the words “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope” are inscribed on one side of the actual statue. The separation of the Stone of Hope as it thrusts forward from the Mountain of Despair symbolizes his triumph born from hopelessness. This aspect of the monument directly alludes to the resolve and determination of African Americans as they continue to fight for equal rights during times of violence and setbacks. One of the quotes along the north wall of the monument said by Dr. King during a church meeting in Alabama, reads “we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Referencing a verse from the Bible, Dr. King powerfully demonstrates the tenacity of African Americans and empowers them throughout their fight for equal rights. As significant as they were during the 1960’s, these themes of racism, violence, and freedom are more important than ever as America struggles to uphold equality and nonviolence towards African Americans.
The Dr. King center in Atlanta, which includes his birth home, several museums, and a visitation center, is located in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood right on Auburn Avenue. The home itself still stands as it did during Dr. King’s life, however it has gone through several structural repairs throughout the years to ensure the building’s construction still stands stable. During the time of visitation in March, the home was closed to visitors because it was undergoing more structural repairs inside. However, the exterior of the home was still open for visitors to walk around. At the front steps of the home on the concrete pavement is a metal plaque which notes Dr. King’s birth date in this home.
Surrounding the home was the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King served at throughout his life. Visitors were allowed to roam freely inside, and there were many photos and captions hung on the walls and inside the chapel that illustrated the significance and history of the church. Right down the street from the Ebenezer church is The King Center, where Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King’s, tombs are located inside a fountain. Walking alongside this fountain was surreal in that all along the marble walls were inscribed quotes from Dr. King. The fountain ran down the length of The King Center and in the same courtyard was a fenced in bonfire known as the Eternal Flame. This flame was put in place to represent Dr. King’s everlasting efforts to fight for his community. Inside The King Center itself was many photos and timeline illustrations of Dr. King’s childhood and life accomplishments. There were two levels inside the building. The lower level included a spacious foyer where videos during the Civil Rights Movement were broadcasted on TV’s hung up on the wall. On the second floor was where the exhibits were mostly located. There was a room that was solely dedicated to Dr. King and Coretta Scott King’s relationship. There were preserved outfits, notebooks, pamphlets, documents, and other artifacts in glass cases that were all accompanied by captions explaining the relevance of those objects. In another room was Dr. King’s relationship with Rosa Parks, and how her defiance led to the rise of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. These sites around Dr. King’s birth home in Atlanta are preserved in almost the exact same way as they were in the 60s. This helps showcase the environment where Dr. King grew up in its near purest form, and for visitors, it creates a very real and raw experience for what the conditions were like at the time.
Besides merely acknowledging the civil rights struggle throughout America’s history, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial continue to honor Dr. King’s legacy and serve as inspiration for others around the world who are still fighting for civil rights.
Both Dr. King’s birth home and the national memorial continue to see visitors each year. However, criticisms and opinions surrounding the intent and symbolism of these cites vary based on who one’s talking to. Probably one of the most notable controversies surrounding the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument in Washington, D.C. is the quote inscribed on the side of the monument, which was removed later due to backlash of the quotes meaning.
“I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.”
Although this particular line was adapted from Dr. King’s own “The Dream” speech, many people have mistaken it to mean something else. Gene Weingarten and Michael E. Ruane of the Washington Post wrote an article in which they mentioned Maya Angelou criticized the quote as making Dr. King look “arrogant” (Weingarten and Ruane). In the article, the writers explain how Angelou thought the quote could have very easily been taken out of context, and reading it itself makes Dr. King appear very egotistical. This quote was later removed in August of 2013 .
In the beginning of 2018, President Donald Trump upgraded the status of Dr. King’s birthplace to a National Historic Park (The Hill, Greenwood). This achievement not only further enhances the importance of this area, but also officially recognizes the cultural and historical importance of the surrounding area. This small act signifies the continuing conversation Americans should be having about issues stemming from the Civil Rights Movement, and how many of those issues continue to exist. Being that most of Dr. King’s efforts have yet to be completed, continued efforts to commemorate his life’s work and working toward equality for all is something that must not be forgotten.
The Sweet Auburn Neighborhood in which Dr. King’s birth home is currently located is not in its golden days as it was prior to the Civil Rights Movement. Ever since the rise of Dr. King’s influence in the neighborhood and surrounding area, businesses have started to relocate and investments began to decrease. Crime, homelessness, and poverty slowly became widespread in the area. Even now, the neighborhood remains neglected, with very few visitors coming each year, despite being a part of the National Historic Park .
Dr. King’s birth home itself was closed for two months starting March of last year due to structural repairs that had to be done on the 122-year old home. Being that 2018 marks the 50th anniversary since Dr. King’s assassination, the National Historic Park anticipates more visitors this year than any prior year. Such actions to preserve these sites help to continue the conversation about race and culture in society. In 2018 and considering the current role that race plays in economic, social, and political issues, there’s no doubt that the problems Dr. King fought against still persist. Nevertheless, there’s still a lot of work left to be done, and it’s the responsibility of everyone to continue fighting for equality.
“Atlanta, GA.” Data USA, www.datausa.io/profile/geo/atlanta-ga/#category_industries.
Berube, Alan. “City and metropolitan income inequality data reveal ups and downs through 2016.” Brookings. The Brookings Institution, 5 Feb. 2018. https://www.brookings.edu/research/city-and-metropolitan-income-inequality-data-reveal-ups-and-downs-through-2016/. Accessed 4 April 2018.
Carson, Clayborne. “American civil rights movement.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 28 March 2018. https://www.britannica.com/event/American-civil-rights-movement.Accessed 22 Feb. 2018.
Carson, Clayborne. “The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project Articles: Reconstructing the King Legacy: Scholars and National Myths.” Stanford University Library, 18 Dec. 2014, swap.stanford.edu/20141218230000/http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/additional_resources/articles/reconstructing_the_king_legacy.htm.
CNN Staff. “Controversial MLK Memorial Inscription to Be Removed.” CNN, Cable News Network, 12 Dec. 2012, www.cnn.com/2012/12/11/us/mlk-memorial-inscription/index.html. Accessed 2 April. 2018.
“Frequently Asked Questions about Dr. King’s Birth Home.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/malu/faq_birth_home.htm. Accessed 7 March 2018.
Greenwood, Max. “Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace becomes national historic park.” The Hill, Capitol Hill Publishing Corp., 9 Jan. 2018. http://thehill.com/homenews/news/368057-martin-luther-kings-birthplace-becomes-national-historic-park. Accessed 22 Feb 2018.
H. Rep. No. 108-203, at 3 (2003).
Hatfield, Edward A. “Auburn Avenue (Sweet Auburn).” New Georgia Encyclopedia, 2 June 2006, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/counties-cities-neighborhoods/auburn-avenue-sweet-auburn.
History.com Staff. “March on Washington.” History. A+E Networks, 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/march-on-washington
Kazin, Michael. “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Meanings of the 1960s.” The American Historical Review, Volume 114, Issue 4, 1 October 2009, pp. 980–989. https://academic.oup.com/ahr/article/114/4/980/23383.
“King, Martin Luther, Jr., Historic District.” Wayback Machine, Links to the Past National Park Service, web.archive.org/web/20090131023247/http://tps.cr.nps.gov/nhl/detail.cfm?ResourceId=1430&ResourceType=District.
Lewis, David Levering. King : A Biography, University of Illinois Press, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.prx.library.gatech.edu/lib/gatech/detail.action?docID4556935.
Ruane, Michael and Gene Weingarten. “Maya Angelou says King memorial inscription makes him look ‘arrogant’.” The Washington Post, 30 August 2011. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/maya-angelou-says-king-memorial-inscription-makes-him-look-arrogant/2011/08/30/gIQAlYChqJ_story.html?utm_term=.9b9e9156ea43.
Shin, Laura. “The Racial Wealth Gap: Why A Typical White Household Has 16 Times The Wealth Of A Black One.” Forbes. Forbes Media, 26 March 2015. https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurashin/2015/03/26/the-racial-wealth-gap-why-a-typicalwhite-household-has-16-times-the-wealth-of-a-black-one/#c17465e1f45e
Suggs, Ernie. “King Birth Home to Close for Additional Repairs.” MyAJC, Cox Media Group, 7 Mar. 2017, www.myajc.com/news/local/king-birth-home-close-for-additional-repairs/UlmTfHJU2yz86gZGatvAYP/.
Sullivan, Laura, et al. “The Racial Wealth Gap.” Demos, 2015. http://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/publications/RacialWealthGap_1.pdf
“The King Center.” Atlanta, Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.atlanta.net/things-to-do/history/the-king-center/.
United States of America. U.S. Department of the Interior. National Park Service. Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial. National Park Service, 29 Nov. 2016, https://www.nps.gov/mlkm/learn/building-the-memorial.htm. Accessed 24 Feb. 2018.
Wallenfeldt, Jeff. “Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 8 Jan. 2014, www.britannica.com/topic/Martin-Luther-King-Jr-National-Memorial.
Wagner, Meg and Veronica Rocha. “America marks the 50th anniversary of MLK’s assassination.” CNN. Cable News Network, 4 April 2018. https://www.cnn.com/us/live-news/mlk-50th-anniversary/
Alpha Phi Alpha. Alpha Rho. The Alpha Rho Chapter, 2017. www.alpharho1924.org/history.
Cohen, Patricia. “The King Memorial: Dreams at Odds.” New York Times. The New York Times Company, 24 September 2007. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/24/arts/design/24statue.html
History & Culture. National Park Service, 16 August 2017. www.nps.gov/linc/learn/historyculture/index.htm.
Steckelberg, Aaron, et al. “The history of the National Mall.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 23 August 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/lifestyle/the-evolution-of-the-national-mall/
Sweet Auburn. Spirit of Sweet Auburn, 2018. www.sweetauburn.com.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil Rights, segregation, slavery, racism, discrimination, inequality, poverty, Atlanta, Washington D.C., national monuments, Auburn Avenue