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8 places to visit to remember the words and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight for freedom, justice and peace was born out of the segregated American South. But his dream of racial equality echoed around the whole globe, inspiring generations of dreamers and activists. As the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech are relevant as ever today, it’s just as important to connect future generations to his remarkable legacy. In honour of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on 18 January, here are 8 places in the United States where you can remember the life and legacy of Dr King and the American Civil Rights Movement.

1. Atlanta, Georgia

Georgia’s capital city is both Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace and final resting place, and it’s one of the best places to remember his legacy. Atlanta is home to the 38-acre Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, based around Dr King’s birthplace on Auburn Avenue. You can visit the home where Dr King was born and lived for the first 12 years of his life.

There’s also the nearby Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr King was baptised. He and his father served as pastors here during the 1960s and it’s since been beautifully restored. The Ebenezer Baptist Church is also where Dr King’s private funeral for close family and friends was held.

After this service, around 300,000 people gathered along the route to Dr King’s alma mater, Morehouse College. Here, a public funeral service took place and was attended by many political, religious and foreign leaders. The Morehouse College is now home to the King Collection with some of the most important documents on his life.

Both Dr King and his wife Coretta Scott King, are buried in the Historical National Park. You can pay tribute at The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, established by Coretta in 1968. You’ll join almost one million people who visit every year to learn more about the Kings’ life and to pay their respects at their tombs, the reflecting pool and the eternal flame.

RELATED CONTENT: 11 African-American historical landmarks to visit in the USA

2. Dublin, Georgia

Take a two hour drive from Atlanta to Dublin in Georgia, and you’ll find the Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument Park. Here you can see the Atlanta artist Corey Barksdale’s incredible mural and Freedom Ascension sculpture and hear Martin Luther King’s first public speech. You can also see the First African Baptist Church where Dr King gave this speech at the Colored Elks Clubs of Georgia’s state convention on 17 April 1944. 

He was just 15 when he gave that speech, titled “The Negro and the Constitution” as part of an oratorical essay contest that the Elks had sponsored – and he won. But as Dr King and his teacher travelled on the bus back to Atlanta that night, the driver forced them to give up their seats to white passengers. “So we stood up in the aisle for the 90 miles to Atlanta. That night will never leave my memory. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life,” Dr King told Alex Haley in a 1965 Playboy interview.

Today, the First African Baptist Church, founded in 1867, is the oldest black church in Dublin. You can attend services each Sunday and on the second Sunday of April each year, the church sponsors a speech contest in memory of the Elks’ competition.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr giving a speech

3. Memphis, Tennessee

Dr King came to Memphis in April 1968, to prepare for a march to support the city’s striking sanitation workers. He and his group booked rooms at the Lorraine Motel, marketed as a safe and upscale hotel for black travellers during the Jim Crow era. On April 3, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to a massive crowd at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple.

On April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was standing on the balcony of room 306 when he was shot and killed. The Lorraine Motel is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum. Everything inside is still as it was in the 1960s, from the authentic furnishings to the vintage vehicles parked in front. It’s here that you can learn about America’s civil rights history and see the room where this great man spent his final hours. 

You can also break bread in the same place as Dr King at The Four Way restaurant. It opened in 1946 and serves Southern soul food like fried chicken and lemon meringue pie, said to be Dr King’s favourite.

EXPERIENCE IT FOR YOURSELF: Tastes and Sounds of the South

4. Montgomery, Alabama

Dr King had an enormous impact on the segregated capital of Alabama during the 1950s. There are several unmissable civil rights attractions, like the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University (Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her bus seat to a white man here in 1955), The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and The Civil Rights Memorial Centre.

There’s also the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Dr King served as a pastor from 1954 and 1960. The church was founded in 1877 in a slave trader’s pen, and it was from here that Dr King planned the bus boycott and other protests to end segregation. Today you can attend a Sunday service here and tour the church. You’ll see the pulpit where he preached and the desk where he worked, which has remained as it was during his time as a pastor. Don’t miss the moving mural depicting Dr King rising into heaven as an angel. 

You can also tour the Dexter Parsonage Museum, set in the clapboard house where Dr King lived. It was bombed several times during the civil rights movement and has since been restored to appear as it was when Dr King lived there with his family.

5. Birmingham, Alabama

Alabama’s largest city also played a prominent role in Dr King’s life. It was here that he penned his iconic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963, and you can see the real door from his jail cell at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. You can also see important documents and exhibits from the civil rights movement, including accounts of events like the bus boycotts and the arrest of Rosa Parks. There are visual exhibits on the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the South of the United States. 

You can also visit the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. On 15 September 1963, a group of the Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb in the basement of this church, which killed four young girls. There’s also the Bethel Baptist Church where the civil rights leader Reverend Fred L Shuttlesworth became a pastor in 1953. He protested against Birmingham’s cruel segregation laws and in retaliation, his home was bombed on 25 December 1956.

6. Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama

One of the most famous non-violent protests for voter’s rights was the 87-kilometre march from Selma to the steps of the state capital in Montgomery, Alabama. Civil rights activists including Dr King organised it and the first protest took place on 7 March 1965. There were over 600 marchers, led by 25-year-old activist John Lewis. It became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ after police and state troopers attacked the peaceful protestors on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They beat and gassed John Lewis and hundreds of other people, and photographers and TV reporters famously captured the violence. 

Two days later, Dr King attempted another march. They were forced to turn back when troopers again blocked the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On 21 March, after a federal court order allowed the protest, the marchers were finally able to leave Selma with the protection of National Guard troopers. They reached Montgomery four days later, with the crowd growing to 25,000 as they reached the state capital steps.

Today, the Edmund Pettus Bridge is a civil rights landmark. You can visit the Selma Interpretive Centre to explore the exhibits telling the story of the civil rights movement. There’s also the AME Brown Chapel in Selma where activists organised non-violent protests in 1965.

7. St. Augustine, Florida

Martin Luther King Jr and the president signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964

On 10 June 1964, Dr King announced that he would go to jail to fight segregation, less than a month before Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. The next day, he and 17 others were arrested after asking to be served at a whites-only restaurant in St. Augustine. Television cameras filmed Dr King asking the restaurant owner, James Brock, to serve him and his group of eight. Brock refused and said “I would like to invite my many friends throughout the country to come to Monson’s. We expect to remain segregated.”

As more protesters arrived, groups of white men threw bricks at police and state troopers to attack the protestors. A week later, when the protestors jumped into the whites-only pool at the Monson Motor Lodge, Brock threw two gallons of hydrochloric acid in the pool to force them out. Several historians now credit the protests and the “swim-in” at St. Augustine with quickening the signing of the Civil Rights Act.

One day after the “swim-in”, the US Senate passed the legislation, breaking an 83-day stonewall. President Lyndon Johnson then signed the Civil Rights Act into law on 2 July 1964. One of the protestors, J.T. Johnson later said, “I’m not so sure the Civil Rights Act would have been passed had [there] not been a St. Augustine.” 

A local developer has since demolished the motel and restaurant to build a luxury hotel on the site. However, the steps where Dr King was arrested have been preserved and are marked with a plaque.

EXPERIENCE IT FOR YOURSELF: Historic Highlights

8. Washington, D.C.

Dr King’s fight for justice took him all the way from the segregated Deep South to the capital of the United States. His most famous moment came on 28 August 1963, when he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech to more than 250,000 people who filled the National Mall for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

It was from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his powerful speech that became one of the most important in US history and still inspires millions today. Today, you can see an inscription engraved into the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to mark where Dr King stood to give his speech. As you stand at the steps, you can just imagine the stirring atmosphere on that day in 1963, and the immortalised words of the man who changed America.

You can also see the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the first memorial on the National Mall to honour an African American person. Opened in 2011, the memorial features a 9-metre statue of Dr King, with inspirational quotes carved around the site. There’s also the National Museum of African American History And Culture in Washington D.C., where you can see artefacts from Dr King’s life, along with exhibitions on the history and achievements of African Americans. 

RELATED CONTENT: 9 hidden gems to uncover on your tour of Washington DC

Have you ever visited the site where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech?” Let us know in the comments below…

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