ATLANTA — As the nation pauses today to remember the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., my mind returns to the sanctuary and Fellowship Hall of the Ebenezer Baptist Church on the corner of Jackson Street and Auburn Avenue within walking distance of downtown Atlanta.
In many ways, the red brick Ebenezer is the spiritual home of America’s civil rights movement, given the central role it played in King’s life, his leadership development and the pivotal gatherings held there. King was born less than two blocks from the church and was baptized there. For nearly 80 years, his maternal grandfather and his father were Ebenezer’s pastors. King himself preached his first “trial” sermon at Ebenezer in 1947 and served as the church’s co-pastor in the turbulent 1960s when he was front and center in the civil rights movement.
It was at Ebenezer in January 1957 that black activist clergy and others gathered to form the organization that became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which coordinated civil rights protest activities in the South. King served as president of the SCLC until his assassination in 1968, leading the organization through efforts such as the 1963 March on Washington.
Finally, Ebenezer was chosen as the site of King’s funeral.
Given this history, it is hard to enter the sanctuary and walk in the rather dimly lit Fellowship Hall in the church’s basement without sensing the American history that was made within the church’s walls. I had the privilege of visiting the church, as well as most of the accompanying Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, during a recent visit to Atlanta.
Besides the church the site includes King’s birth home at 501 Auburn Avenue; the Historic Fire Station No. 6; the tomb containing King and his wife, Coretta Scott King; Freedom Hall; an eternal flame; the National Park Services Visitor Center; and the new Ebenezer Baptist Church Horizon Sanctuary.
While I enjoyed the entirety of the park — I didn’t visit the birth home because of time constraints — I spent the most time in Ebenezer. I was greeted by two very genial volunteers who made sure I knew that I was welcome to walk into the sanctuary and to spend time in the Fellowship Hall. It was great advice.
You can almost hear King’s oratory echoing off the stained glass windows and to the parishioners sitting enraptured in the polished wood pews as you walk on the red carpet toward the central lectern from where King preached in 1966:
“It seems that I can hear the God of the universe smiling and speaking to this church, saying, "You are a great church because I was hungry and ye fed me. You are a great church because I was naked and ye clothed me. You are a great church because I was sick and ye visited me. You are a great church because I was in prison and ye gave me consolation by visiting me.”
“The church has always been a second home for me,” King once wrote.
Two restoration projects since 2001 have resulted in the preservation of Ebenezer and the return of the sanctuary and Fellowship Hall to the appearance they had in the 1960-68, when King was co-pastor. The stained glass windows were preserved, the furnishings were either restored or made period-accurate, and the infrastructure was renovated and improved. The project also allowed the iconic Ebenezer Baptist Church sign hanging over the entrance to be lighted for the first time since 1990.
This is what Ken Salazer, the former secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, said at the completion of the $8 million restoration project in 2011: “Dr. King's legacy as leader of the civil rights movement had its spiritual roots at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Today, we have completed a restoration that returns Heritage Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall to the way they were in the 1960s, when Dr. King and his followers stirred the conscience of a nation and played an integral role in bending the arc of history toward justice and freedom.”
As everyone knows, that arc of history ended for King in 1968 at the hands of an assassin in Memphis. (The marble tomb of King and Coretta Scott King is surrounded by a beautiful and serene reflecting pool immediately east of Ebenezer.)
But, thankfully, we can still visit places like Ebenezer Baptist Church and the rest of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site to bring that arc of history alive for ourselves.
Mell is a freelance writer from Eau Claire.