By Sarah Johnson
The nation just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK), addressed more than 250,000 gathered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial and called for an end to racial discrimination. Atlanta provides the backdrop of this historic moment with an offering of cultural landmarks, food and festivals.
In fact, more than 150,000 people are expected to arrive on Atlanta’s most historic street in the Sweet Auburn Historic District Oct. 5-6 to celebrate the Sweet Auburn Heritage Festival. In addition, next May, the largest free outdoor festival in the Southeast – Sweet Auburn Springfest – will celebrate its 30th anniversary. These festivals celebrate an area dubbed "Sweet Auburn" by early civil rights leader John Wesley Dobbs because of the opportunities it afforded African-Americans, even under strict segregation laws.
Today, the community is the center of Atlanta’s African-American history, housing a curb market, bakeries, businesses and nightclubs near the 22-acre Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. This free attraction, run by the National Park Service, includes: year-round tours of MLK’s birth home; the church where three generations of the King family preached; MLK and wife, Coretta Scott King’s, final resting places; the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame; and the MLK Visitor Center exhibiting civil rights memorabilia.
I have visited this historic street many times, starting back in 2007 when I worked as a public relations specialist for the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau and hosted travel writers on tours throughout the area. From restaurants and museums to church services and GPS-guided tours, I enjoy exploring the area’s cultural offerings. Everything except for the tours of the birth home, pictured below, is self-guided and the attractions are very walkable and wheelchair friendly. You will find all ages and races at the park.
Drive down the road and park for free on John Wesley Dobbs Avenue between Jackson Street and Boulevard to spend a few hours exploring the MLK National Historic Site. The park is open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and 30-minute tours of MLK’s birth home begin at 10 a.m. and end at 4:30 p.m. Tours fill up quickly, and it is advised that visitors arrive early in the day. Tickets for the birth home tour are free and are available at the information desk located inside Freedom Hall at the King Center. Reservations must be made in person the day of the tour.
The exhibition currently featured in the D.R.E.A.M. Gallery at the National Park Service Visitor Center is "MINE EYES HAVE SEEN." This exhibition features photographs that capture the struggle of the 20th century civil rights movement and the delivery of MLK’s historic "I Have a Dream" speech.
Bob Adelman used his love of photography to record this historic moment through the lens of his camera to present the civil rights movement as a human rights story. This exhibit includes photographs, a replica of the Lincoln Memorial and the reflecting pool.
Here is a sample tour of Sweet Auburn District, which includes visiting MLK’s birth home, standing in the footsteps of the nation’s civil rights leaders at the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame and downloading a 45-minute podcast walking tour narrated by former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young. Also a must is visiting the APEX Museum, pictured below, to hear stories of early African-American pioneers in Atlanta and of Auburn Avenue. You will also learn about the powerful black families that helped transform Atlanta.
In addition to the above, I recommend stopping by Sweet Auburn Bread first thing in the morning for some of Chef Sonya’s banana, pineapple and coconut-filled naked hummingbird muffins and salmon croquettes topped with homemade fig preserves. My parents always insist I bag up some muffins to bring home for them since they are so amazing! You may also be tempted to take home some chocolate bourbon pecan pie or the sweet potato cheesecake, which is a favorite of President William Clinton.
For lunch, try the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, which first opened in 1918, and later in 1924 when the building was constructed. The historic market still stands in the original location. Originally known as the Municipal Market, it has operated under the name Sweet Auburn Curb Market for the past 20 years. From burritos and soul food to New Orleans pralines to Caribbean-style treats, you will find a wide variety of food vendors at this urban farmers’ market.
If you visit on a Sunday, sing, clap and take in the soul-shaking gospel choir at Ebenezer Baptist Church for an inspiring, unforgettable service. Worship services are at 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Sundays in Horizon Sanctuary.
In 2008, I attended a worship service commemorating the 40th anniversary of MLK’s death with special guests including the Rev. Jesse Jackson. I purchased a DVD of the service as a little souvenir of my memorable experience. All sermon messages are available on DVD immediately after worship in the Bell Tower outside of Horizon Sanctuary. (If you do visit the park on a Sunday, please note that Sweet Auburn Bread and Sweet Auburn Curb Market are closed.)
Atlanta is steeped in history, and visiting Sweet Auburn District is the perfect location to soak in a large chunk of it.
Sarah Johnson, APR, is a guest blogger for Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau (ACVB). She is a communications consultant whose prior roles included working as an internal communications strategist for WellStar Health System and a public relations specialist for ACVB. She resides in Cumming with her husband and their year-old son.