A few years ago, I visited the fascinating city of Atlanta for a conference. The three photos below are the view from my hotel room – we were located in the downtown and a vibrant, bustling, urban city.
I joined a conference-led tour of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s (MLK) neighborhood. As we boarded the bus, we shared our excitement at seeing such an historic site. As we moved through downtown, our tour guide asked us to notice how the freeway divided the vibrant downtown from the neighborhood. The photo below shows the freeway, downtown to the left, the MLK neighborhood coming up to us from the right. Things definitely felt different once we passed under the freeway.
Once in the neighborhood, our tour progressed from the family home (1), to other homes in the neighborhood (2), the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church down the street (3), The King Center and Dr. King’s Tomb (4), and the National Park Visitor Center (5).
Standing at the home, looking up and down the street – what do you notice? (the next photos marked with “1”) Can you see how close it is to downtown as the high rises peek over the homes?
Down the street and around the corner, you can see that the condition of homes in the neighborhood varies tremendously. The Historic District Development Corporation (HDDC) has been very active in revitalization while retaining the historical flavor of the area. Our tour guide had worked with the HDDC and lived in this neighborhood.
Seeing such historical places brings a sense of awe, but also a realization that these buildings are just buildings.
On the tour when you hear what happened here, and what is still happening here, it gives one pause. Seeing historical sites can make history more real but it also helps one connect with the struggles that occur at these sites. There is a newer Ebenezer Baptist Church across the street from this one – in which MLK’s mother was shot to death in 1974.
Once you step onto the grounds of the King Center, you see the tomb and its pool from many different vantage points. You can’t avoid seeing it. The physical setting clearly tells you that this is a cemetery, a resting place. Thus people behave very differently in this space than they do outside the gates and across the street.
Stepping across the street to the National Park Visitor Center, your perspective is enlarged as you see monuments to peaceful protest of injustice around the world, the Gandhi statue and International Civil Rights Walk of Fame.
After I took the tour I had a much better sense of the history of this place. Hearing the park ranger’s anecdotes about the King family when touring the house, seeing how the neighborhood is so compact with the homes and churches in close proximity, and identifying how the neighborhood was separated from the city center by the freeway helped me to better understand some of the nuances of this particular part of Atlanta’s --and our country’s-- history.
Freeway construction has separated and in some cases destroyed vibrant African American communities in many other cities, like Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York.
My trip to Atlanta gave me new appreciation for the ongoing struggle that we have to live up to our ideals. Equality and justice for all are certainly good ideals for which to strive but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy to achieve them.
While conflict sometimes erupts about how to best maintain historic areas such as this, it is paramount that such sites are both available to the public but also remain as livable areas. There are many other historic areas that we have already lost or that are in danger of being lost.
How might the issues represented by this neighborhood resonate or connect with other communities? Does the oppression that African Americans faced historically equate with the situation of others who are protesting a lack of civil rights or representation now?