The civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., is by any measure a great man. In his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, the 10-block area around Auburn Avenue is one of the city's most-visited sites, encompassing King's boyhood home and the Baptist church where King, his father, and his grandfather were all ministers. While other civil rights sites may illuminate the issues of that tumultuous era better, this is the place where you'll really get a feeling for this complex, gifted man who dared to change history.
To me the real heart of the site is the historic buildings associated with King. Start out at the gracefully landscaped visitor center, where you can book tours of the sites (get here early in the day, at least in summer, because tickets do run out) and get up to speed on King's life and times with audiovisual programs and exhibits. First off is the Birth Home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 501 Auburn Ave. (tel. 404/331-6922), the modest Queen Anne–style house where Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1929, and lived until he was 12. The house has been restored to its appearance when young Martin lived here -- even the linoleum is an authentic reproduction, and a good deal of King memorabilia is displayed. His father (Martin Luther King, Sr., obviously) was a Baptist minister and pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church down the street at 407 Auburn Ave. (tel. 404/688-7300), a Gothic Revival–style church founded in 1886 and completed in 1922. Years later, from 1960 to 1968 -- at the height of the civil rights struggle -- Martin Luther King, Jr., served as his father's co-pastor here, the two actively using their pulpit to press for social change. The National Park Service operates it as a living museum, with guided weekday tours, periodic church services, and a monthly choir performance. In nearby Freedom Plaza rests Dr. King's white marble crypt, surrounded by a five-tiered reflecting pool.
The district is somewhat dominated by the hulking modern King Center, 449 Auburn Ave. (tel. 404/526-8900; www.thekingcenter.org), a memorial and educational center directed by King's son. It has a huge library and archives on the civil rights movement, including Dr. King's personal papers, but many visitors are most interested in the exhibition hall, where selected memorabilia of King and the civil rights movement are displayed. You can see his Bible and clerical robe and a handwritten sermon; on a grim note, there's the suit King was wearing when a deranged woman stabbed him in New York City, as well as the key to his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was assassinated. The best reason to come here is to settle down in the Screening Room to watch videos of Dr. King's most stirring sermons and speeches, including "I Have a Dream." The man's words still move us.
Nearest Airport: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International.
Where to Stay: $$$ The Georgian Terrace Hotel, 659 Peachtree St., Atlanta (tel. 800/651-2316 or 404/897-1991; www.thegeorgianterrace.com). $$ Marriott Stone Mountain Inn, 1058 Robert E. Lee Dr., Stone Mountain (tel. 888/236-2427 or 770/469-3311; www.marriott.com/atlsi).