My husband and I were in Atlanta over the weekend for a family event, and since it was Martin Luther King’s birthday weekend, it was the ideal opportunity to pay our respects to the great Dr. King. We set out for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Park Service historic site, which includes a number of facilities like the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King was baptized and ordained, and the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which is the memorial created by his family. There are banners hanging in the center that remind the public that his birthday is a day of service, a day to use his teachings to solve social problems. The banner’s tagline is “A day on, not a day off.”
The center has biographical rooms devoted to Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I found the MLK room particularly moving because there were seemingly ordinary objects used to illustrate the life of an extraordinary man. In one gallery we see his suitcase, clothes, monogrammed wallet, and the Lorraine Motel key from his last day in Memphis. Outside of the gallery, displayed with subtlety and humility, are the replica of his Nobel Peace Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded posthumously in 1977. Blink and you might miss them.
In the D.R.E.A.M. Gallery in the Historic Site’s visitor center there are photographs that trace Dr. King’s journey from April 3 – April 9, 1968, from his speech in Memphis protesting the conditions of the sanitation workers, to photos taken in the aftermath of his assassination, through the funeral procession, and the actual memorial service. I learned that Harry Belafonte flew Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King to the funeral on his private plane. In the middle of the room is a-cart (not sure if it was the real one or a replica) that carried MLK’s plain coffin through the streets of Atlanta pulled by two mules.
In the main exhibition hall, Jim Crow laws are printed on a wall that seems to stretch from the ceiling to the floor. They are categorized by subject and written after each law is the state in which it was enacted. Here is a sample from the NPS site. In 2013 it is still inconceivable to me that elected officials thought these ideas were sensible. Truly frightening.*
At the conclusion of our visit to these important sites, we walked around the Reflecting Pool and stopped at the tomb that holds the remains of Dr. and Mrs. King. It was a powerful visit that left me in search of his texts. I purchased a book of his speeches at the Ebenezer Baptist Church Shop, but here is a link to his “I Have a Dream” speech from the National Archives.
*To learn about the Jim Crow laws in a different light, see the exhibition we curated in 2009 called Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges, now on view at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
Photo by John Henderson