Volunteer Del Kittendorf, second from right, shares stories with translator Roberto Nogueira and his church group from Brazil. Photo by Melissa Weinman
Volunteer Del Kittendorf, second from right, shares stories with translator Roberto Nogueira and his church group from Brazil. Photo by Melissa Weinman

Living in metro Atlanta, it’s easy to forget there are a number of significant historical and cultural attractions nearby. So for the upcoming Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, why not check out one of those hometown destinations and visit the National Historic Site dedicated to his legacy?

Just east of downtown Atlanta, you can take a self-guided tour around some of the places that were important to King’s life and to the Civil Rights Movement.

“We portray his life from birth to death,” said Del Kittendorf, a volunteer park ranger.

Kittendorf, who has volunteered at the King site for 10 years, said while he regularly meets people from Asia, Africa, Europe and South America, visitors from Atlanta are rarer. “Especially the northern suburbs,” Kittendorf said.

A Cobb County resident himself, he hypothesizes it’s because people often put off seeing the sites in their own city as something they’ll do later, especially when traffic is a factor.

“We’re a backyard site. Coming downtown is inconvenient,” Kittendorf said.

Mickey Goodson, another volunteer ranger, said people just don’t take the time to visit the historic sites near them.

“We’ll travel 500 miles to visit somewhere we’re heard about,” Goodson said. “Folks come from all over the world. It’s the folks from Sandy Springs … we don’t get much of.”

The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site is not just one museum. Maintained by the National Park Service, the site consists of a visitors’ center, Ebenezer Baptist Church, a historic fire station, historic homes on Auburn Avenue, including the one where King was born, and the site where King and his wife Coretta Scott King are interred.

You can move through the site at your own pace. Start at the visitors’ center, where you can pick up a map and read about the history of segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, and the life of Martin Luther King Jr. You can also watch video footage of historic events, such as the march on Selma, Ala. where hundreds of demonstrators were attacked by state troopers. There are also interviews with other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta.

Ebenezer Baptist is the church King grew up attending. His grandfather and father served as pastors of the church, and in the 1960s, King was co-pastor of the church with his father. Ebenezer Baptist is no longer an active church, but it has been restored to its 1960s appearance and it’s open to the public. You can take a seat in one of the sanctuary’s pews and listen to recordings of King’s speeches over the sound system.

As a boy, King liked to visit Fire Station No. 6, which was just down the road from his Auburn Avenue home. In 1963, Atlanta hired its first black fire fighters and Station No. 6 became the first racially integrated fire station in Atlanta.  There’s a 1927 fire engine on display inside as well as information on the history of firefighters in Atlanta.

Though the National Park Service maintains the exteriors of a number of historic homes on Auburn Avenue, it’s still an active neighborhood. Some of the shotgun style houses are used as park offices, but many are leased out as private residences.

During the early 20th Century, the neighborhood was dubbed “Sweet Auburn” and served as the center of black life in Atlanta. Auburn Avenue was the site of the first black-owned businesses in the city and many affluent black families made the street their home.

On a recent weekday morning, Kittendorf shared the story of the historic fire station with a church group from Brazil.

“For us it’s one of the most important places to see in Atlanta,” said Roberto Nogueira, the group’s translator.

Nogueira said touring the site is especially meaningful for the group because of how important churches were to the Civil Rights Movement.

“We came to see a little bit for history, and for the church environment,” Nogueira said. “We have two pastors with us.”

Shawn Jenkins of Greensboro, N.C. visited the historical site for the second time. He said it was important for him to visit because of the huge effect Martin Luther King, Jr. had on the world.

“I wanted to keep it fresh in my mind, and current,” Jenkins said.