Auburn Avenue, located in the neighborhood fondly called Sweet Auburn, is famous for its place as the heart of Black enterprise and the Civil Rights Movement. Take a walk down Auburn Avenue and discover the rich history packed into this thoroughfare.Less
A good place to start is at the APEX Museum, which gives a view of history from an African-American perspective. There is a focus on the origins and introduction of the slave trade. Exhibits explore the contributions of Blacks throughout American history with displays such as “Africa the Untold Story” and “Sweet Auburn Street Pride.” Look for a replica of Yates and Milton Drug Store, one of the city’s first African-American owned businesses.
Need a little more perspective before venturing out? Visit the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African-American Culture and History, the Southeast’s first public library to offer specialized reference and archival collections dedicated to the study of African-American culture and history. The museum’s vast collection covers everything from the roots of rap to African-American comic books.
The highlight of Auburn Avenue is the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park, which includes several sites. The Visitor Center holds the original farm wagon that held Dr. King’s casket during his funeral procession. There is a film on the civil rights icon and so much more.
Across the street is The King Center, which houses exhibits on Dr. King as well as the tombs of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King. A block away is the Martin Luther King Jr. birth home where the National Park Service gives a 30-minute tour every hour (registration is required, post pandemic). Also at the center is the King Library and Archives, the largest repository of primary source materials on Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement.
As you continue down the street, you’ll see the signs of businesses, many long gone, that played a vital role in the Civil Rights Movement. Look for the Atlanta Daily World sign. The first Black daily newspaper published news that Blacks couldn’t get anywhere else at this site from 1928 to 2008. Among the issues the paper regularly covered were lynchings, police brutality, school segregation and racial discrimination in the military.
There are several churches on Auburn Avenue that have a place in history, with the most important being Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King, his father and grandfather preached. Dr. King was baptized there and his funeral was held at this historic church. Dr. King’s mother, Alberta Williams King, was murdered as she played the organ during a morning service in 1974.
It’s hard to miss the Big Bethel AME Church; just look up and see the “Jesus Saves” sign on the steeple. Founded in 1840 by enslaved members of the white Union Church, it housed the city’s first public school for African-Americans, and, in the basement, Morris Brown College. Big Bethel, the oldest African-American church on the street, hosted a weekly radio broadcast during the ’50s and ’60s. Dr. King appeared at Big Bethel for an NAACP rally shortly after the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1957.
The Wheat Street Baptist Church is another with a rich civil rights history. The church’s pastor, William Holmes Borders, was a prominent civil rights activist who worked to desegregate the city’s public transportation system in 1957 and influenced a young Dr. King. His daughter, Lisa Borders, was president of the Atlanta City Council between 2004 and 2010. Part of the movie “Selma” was filmed in the church.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was founded in the Ebenezer Baptist Church and moved to offices in the Prince Hall Masonic Temple, where many of the movement’s activities were planned, including the March on Washington, the Selma Voting Rights Campaign and the March to Montgomery as well as efforts to desegregate cities such as Albany, Birmingham and St. Augustine.
Many notables served as SCLC president, including Dr. King, Ralph David Abernathy and Joseph Lowery. The Prince Hall Masonic Temple has a history in civil rights that predates the movement. The building was built in 1937 by John Wesley Dobbs and served as the home of WERD, the nation’s first African-American radio station. In 1936 Dobbs, dubbed the “Mayor of Sweet Auburn,” organized Black voter registration drives and formed the Atlanta Negro Voters League.