Fifty years after the civil rights leader’s death, the Atlanta home where he was born celebrates an American icon.
This Queen Anne-style house on Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue is one of the most important homes in American history. Here, in an upstairs bedroom on Jan. 15, 1929, a boy was born to minister Michael Luther King and his wife, Alberta Christine. They named the child Michael Jr.
Later the father would change both his and his son’s names to Martin Luther, in honor of the German theologian. It was as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that the son would become the foremost leader of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s — minister, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, author and orator, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and passionate force behind the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.
Fifty years after King Jr.’s assassination, in April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, his Auburn Avenue birth home is the centerpiece of Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historical Park. The 34-acre park also contains famed Ebenezer Baptist Church, where both father and son served as pastors, the World Peace Rose Garden and — newly added — the Prince Hall Masonic Temple, first headquarters of the SCLC. Together these historic buildings form one of Atlanta’s top tourist destinations and are an essential stop for anyone wanting to understand America’s civil rights era.
The exterior. The two-story clapboard house with its welcoming porch was built in 1894. In 1909, King Jr.’s maternal grandfather, the Rev. Adam Daniel Williams, bought the house for $3,500. King Jr.’s mother grew up here. When she married, his father moved in with her and her parents. All three of the couple’s children — Michael (later Martin), his older sister, Christine, and his younger brother, Alfred (usually called A.D.) — were born here.
In her book My Brother Martin, King Jr.’s sister, Christine King Farris, recalls a happy childhood on Auburn Avenue “filled with adventure stories and Tinkertoys, with dolls and Monopoly and Chinese checkers.” He also had warm memories of family life. But he recalled the daily instances of discrimination that African-Americans faced as well. “A Negro child in Atlanta could not go to any public park,” he would recall decades later. “I could not go to the so-called white schools.… I couldn’t go to a lunch counter to buy a hamburger or a cup of coffee. I could not attend any of the theaters.”
In 1941, when King Jr. was 12, the family moved to a home (since demolished) a few blocks away. They continued to own the Auburn Avenue house, which they divided into a duplex and used as a rental property. After King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, the nonprofit King Center began to restore the house so it could be opened to the public; it became part of the National Park Service in 1980.
The parlor. The Kings’ parlor was used by both the family and the community. It’s where the elder King conducted political and church meetings; his wife, who was the choir director at Ebenezer Baptist Church, held rehearsals; and their daughter helped serve choir members cookies and hot chocolate.
King Jr.’s maternal grandparents gave his mother the upright piano that occupies the corner of the room. It’s a testimony to the family’s love for music — although both he and his brother fought lessons. “They preferred being outside to being stuck inside with our piano teacher,” Farris recalls in My Brother Martin. Above the piano hangs a photograph of King Jr.’s grandparents, the Rev. A.D. and Jennie C. Williams.
The kitchen. King Jr.’s grandmother ruled the kitchen, preparing many of the family meals. She was an important family figure, Farris recalls, because the Kings’ work as a minister and choir musician often took them away from home.
The kitchen was a comfortable room in a comfortable house. The Auburn Avenue home had electricity and, by the 1930s, central heating, the latter somewhat unusual in Atlanta at the time. A box of Wheaties — said to be the young King Jr.’s favorite breakfast cereal — has a prominent spot on the kitchen table.
The dining room. The elder King wanted his family to gather for a formal dinner every night, with guests frequently joining them at the table. Meals began with the children reciting a Bible verse, and the siblings were encouraged to take part in adult conversations about current events. The King family wasn’t wealthy but was financially comfortable: “I have never experienced the feeling of not having the basic necessities of life,” King Jr. would remember. “These things were always provided by a father who always put his family first.”
Many of the furnishings now in the home are 1930s period pieces that did not belong to the King family, but the dining room’s built-in cupboard is original, and the table is set with china the Kings owned and used.
The parents’ bedroom. All three children were born in this master bedroom, largest of three on the house’s second floor. (A fourth bedroom, belonging to King Jr.’s sister, is on the first floor.) Farris recalls in My Brother Martin that because she arrived early, her parents hadn’t yet bought a crib, and they had to place her “in the chifforobe drawer that stood in the corner of their upstairs bedroom.”
One family story has it that when King Jr. was born, the elder King was so overjoyed by his first son’s entrance into the world that he jumped up and touched the bedroom ceiling — quite a feat, given that he was about 5½ feet tall and the ceiling was 10 feet high.
King Jr. felt fortunate in his parents. “I have a marvelous mother and father,” he wrote. “I can hardly remember a time that they ever argued (my father happens to be the kind who just won’t argue) or had any great falling out.… I grew up in a family where love was central and where lovely relationships were ever present.”
The boys’ room. Like all the rooms in the house, the boys’ bedroom was restored under the guidance of King Jr.’s mother and sister. For example, they chose the rug because it resembled what they remembered from the 1930s.
Rumpled beds, toys on the floor — the upstairs bedroom that the King brothers shared was always in “great disarray,” Farris recalls. King Jr. was a precocious child. He learned to read early, and his parents tried to enroll him in school at age 5, only to have him refused because he was a year too young. He started David T. Howard Elementary School at age 6.
Although the Kings moved in 1941, the youngest sibling — by then the Rev. A.D. Williams King — and his family eventually returned, after the house had been converted into a duplex. In the 1950s and 1960s, they lived on the second floor.
Anniversary events. In the 50 years since his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy as an indefatigable fighter for African-American freedom has only grown. A bill by fellow civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis to upgrade the King birth home and adjoining buildings from National Historic Site to National Historic Park was signed by President Donald Trump this year.
To mark the anniversary of King Jr.’s death, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is sponsoring a yearlong commemoration of his life and work, MLK50: Where Do We Go From Here? In Washington, D.C., the National Museum of African American History & Culture is featuring a special exhibit, City of Hope: Resurrection City & the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, about his final human rights crusade.
Visiting the King Jr. birth home: Part of Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Park, King Jr.’s birth home, at 501 Auburn Ave. in Atlanta, is open for ranger-led tours daily (except for New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day). The tours are filled on a first-come, first-served basis on the day of the tour and are very popular; for the best chance of joining a tour, the park service advises visiting early in the day and early in the week or on Sunday morning.