“The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question.” –MLK
When I asked friends who’ve lived in Atlanta what I should see in my short time there, many didn’t recommend the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. In fact, many have never been. But given how much I enjoy the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, the FDR Memorial in D.C., and the Clinton Library in Little Rock, I knew this look at such a prominent American figure would be something I needed to squeeze in.
It’s a bit farther afield than some of Atlanta’s other popular attractions, but there’s a lot to see in one area. I got there using the MARTA East/West line, and from the stop, it’s about a five-minute walk if you’re moving briskly. (Side note: While the area around the MLK site is quite populated, the walk up from the station included significant stretches with no one else around and quite a few people asking for money. A cab is another option.)
A good starting point for the area is the visitor center, where park rangers will answer questions and help orient you to what’s around. Everything is free, including tours of King’s birth home (but the tours fill up fast, as only 15 people can go at a time, so sign up early if this is something you want to do). There are some really compelling exhibits on King’s life and death, as well as the history of segregation in America. Reading through a long list of Jim Crow laws, I was horrified; it made the section on Rosa Parks and the bus strike all the more moving.
As I missed out on the birth home tour, I took another ranger-led one through Sweet Auburn, which went over how the area was once the richest black neighborhood in the world; the fire station that was one of the first to be integrated; Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King co-pastored with his father from 1960 to 1968; and the significance of some of the statues and monuments in the park.
As I walked back to the train, I thought about that small amount of fear I felt when no one was in sight or as I passed by homeless people who called out to me — it doesn’t even compare to the fear civil rights leaders and others faced on a daily basis because of their race or station in life or the fact that they chose to speak out against injustices.
The history of any country is filled with good and bad — and at the MLK National Historic Site, true heroes and true tragedies are both remembered.