Auburn Avenue, heading east from Peachtree Street and downtown Atlanta, was the center of Atlanta’s black community in the first half of the 1900s. Like on Beale Street in Memphis and South Central Avenue in Los Angeles, there was something for everyone. Office buildings, businesses, churches, fashionable shops, and night clubs lined the two miles of what Atlanta civil rights leader John Wesley Dobbs called “the richest Negro street in the world.”
Dobbs gave the street its nickname, “Sweet Auburn,” for the opportunities it gave black people to own businesses, attend college, and establish an identity in an era of segregation. America’s first black-owned newspaper, the Atlanta World, and its first black-owned insurance company, Atlanta Life, were headquartered on Auburn Avenue.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in his grandparents’ home at 501 Auburn on January 15, 1929. His father was pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, at 407 Auburn. His grandfather had also been the church’s pastor. In 1948, he graduated from nearby Morehouse College.
The end of segregation in the Sixties meant decline for Sweet Auburn. Now that black people could live and work anywhere, many moved away. The new Interstate 75 freeway cut the Auburn neighborhood in half. Empty storefronts and boarded-up houses became a fact of life.
Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, envisioned a library, archive, and memorial center for a site directly east of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. In 1970, Dr. King’s tomb was moved from a suburban Atlanta cemetery to a space next to the church. Work began in 1974 on The King Center — formally named the Martin Luther King Jr. Center For Non-Violent Social Action. It opened in 1981.
Atlanta civic leaders saw in the historic significance of the neighborhood a way to revive Sweet Auburn. In 1980, the 400 and 500 blocks of Auburn Avenue, between Jackson and Howell Streets, became the Martin Luther King National Historic Site. The Site, administered by the National Park Service, comprises Dr. King’s birth home, the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta Fire Station Number 6 — the city’s oldest, built in 1894 – and a visitor center.
At 330 Auburn is the Prince Hall Masonic Temple building. The Atlanta Prince Hall lodge, named for the first master of America’s first black Masons, organized in 1871. Construction for its Auburn Avenue home began in 1937 and finished in 1941. John Wesley Dobbs was the lodge’s Grand Master and supervised the fund-raising.
The Prince Hall building was also home to WERD, America’s first black-owned radio station, purchased in 1949 by Atlantan Jesse B. Blayton, Georgia’s first black CPA.
Next door, at 334 Auburn, is the Tabor Building, former home of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC was founded in 1957, and Dr. King was its first president. Its goals were equality through non-violent protest and appeals to America’s Christian conscience. To achieve those goals, the SCLC co-ordinated efforts of local chapters throughout the United States as they planned marches, sit-ins, and voter registration drives, The SCLC also took on poverty, organizing the Poor People’s Campaign in the mid-1960s.
The story is often told of Dr. King, or his treasurer Ralph Abernathy, pounding on the wall that separated the SCLC offices from WERD when they wanted to record an announcement or go on the air live. A microphone on a long cord would then be taped to a broomstick, extended out the radio station’s window, and passed over to them.
WERD — pronounced “word” – was licensed for daytime operation only and ran a perennial third to Atlanta full-time soul stations WAOK and WIGO. In the late Sixties it switched to black gospel music. With new call letters WAEC, it now broadcasts 24 hours a day, airing Christian ministry and talk shows as “Love 860.”
The Atlanta lodge of the Prince Hall Masons still occupies 330 Auburn Avenue. The SCLC remains in Atlanta, although in a newer, larger facility, and is faithful to Dr. King’s vision of a non-sectarian, inter-denominational organization seeking economic and social justice.
The King Center never became a part of the National Historic Site. Its future is uncertain. Two of Dr. King’s four children, all of whom administer the center, want the Park Service to assume control. The others want it maintained as a separate facility.
Dr. King’s tomb in centered in a shallow reflecting pool that brings a feeling of serenity to the King Center’s brick paved, flower bordered, courtyard. Hundreds of visitors daily pause to consider the meaning of Dr. King’s life, how American society has progressed with regards to civil rights since Auburn Avenue became Sweet Auburn, and the work remaining. Carved on the tomb’s marble surface is a paraphrased quote from Dr. King’s August 28, 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech: Free At Last, Free At Last, Thank God Almighty (I’m) Free At Last.