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Atlanta’s Civil Rights Legacy

In the American civil rights story, Atlanta sometimes plays a starring role and sometimes a supporting one but always provides a vital stage and support for the key characters.

Following the Civil War, institutions of higher learning such as Spelman College and Clark University drew in and educated African-American intellectuals, many of whom settled in the city and became key figures in local for-profit and nonprofit operations. Even while segregation existed, there was an exchange of ideas and a level of mutual respect that makes it easy to understand why Atlanta is the birthplace of one of the most notable figure of the movement, Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, groups in Atlanta can visit King’s home and his memorial, as well as historic attractions that predate the civil rights era and exist as part of its legacy. Clark Atlanta University Galleries tells the story of African Americans from the first voyages to present day, and the Herndon House preserves the story of Atlanta’s first black millionaire. At the newly opened Center for Civil and Human Rights, personal effects of King sit on display along with multimedia exhibits on the ripple effects of the American civil rights legacy around the world today.


Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site

In the midst of bustling modern-day downtown Atlanta, one block stands completely frozen in time. The Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site, at the heart of the historically African-American area, preserves King’s birth home, the church where he preached and other neighborhood homes exactly as they were in the 1930s.

Judy Forte, park superintendent, recommends that groups begin in the visitors center with an orientation video on the layout of the site and the timeline of the civil rights movement before exploring the museum.

Tours of King’s birth home, administrated by the National Park Service, are given by park rangers to groups of 15 people at a time each hour on the hour. These tours, 30-minute walk-throughs, cannot be specially arranged or booked more than two hours in advance, so Forte advises group leaders to be flexible in their itineraries.

For groups of more than 15, one subset can visit the birth home with a ranger while the rest of the group explores the King Center, home of the burial sites of Rev. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King. Approaching the center via the Civil Rights Walk of Fame, groups can make their way through the International World Peace Rose Garden to the King memorial.

To round out the morning, groups can picnic at the picnic pavilion on the grounds or visit the adjacent Ebenezer Baptist Church, which has been restored to how it looked in the 1960s when King preached there, to hear recordings of sermons he gave during that period. If time allows, visit the bookstore in the visitors center, one of the best repositories in the world of hard-to-find civil rights literature.

During Black History Month and on the anniversary of King’s assassination and burial, the home is open for walk-throughs beyond the standard schedule.


National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Though a newcomer to Atlanta’s skyline, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights opening this May will add a crucial interpretive element to a civil rights itinerary in Atlanta.

Designed so that visitors can explore the museum in the manner that speaks most to them, the three galleries of the center weave together personal effects from King, the larger story of the American civil rights movement and a contemporary gallery on human rights movements around the world told through the highly visual and narrative design of two-time Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe.

In the Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr., Collection, the personal papers of King, collected by his wife after his death, will be on view for the public for the first time. The 10,000-item collection, which also includes personal effects, features pieces such as the original version of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech and his report cards from high school and graduate school. Every four months, the collection will rotate to highlight a different focus.

The civil rights wing will explore the stories of both the leaders and the foot soldiers of the movement, and their ties to Atlanta in particular. Immersive multimedia elements, such as a lunch counter where visitors can sit with headphones and hear what it was like to be part of a sit-in, both relay and re-create the experience of the civil rights movement for visitors.

Gabi Logan

Gabi Logan is a freelance travel journalist whose work has also appeared in USA TODAY, The Dallas Morning News and Italy Magazine. As she travels more than 100,000 miles each year, she aims to discover the unexpected wonder in every destination.