Love and Justice Begin at Home: Visiting MLK’s Childhood House

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Chez King. MLK’s idyllic boyhood home in Sweet Auburn, Atlanta, Georgia.

Day Two. We visited the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta. (Except I wasn’t there for most of it because I had to take my mother to the ER at 6 am to get treated for a bout of vertigo. Many thanks to nurse Monica Burrell and Dr. David at Atlanta Medical Center for the terrific care). Mom was discharged at 10:30 and we rolled into a cab to catch up with our group, just in time to take the tour of the Sweet Auburn neighborhood home where MLK grew up.

The site is part of the National Park Service and our tour guide, Doug Coyle, is blind. After lecturing us about not touching anything, eating in the house or taking any photos whatsoever, he said we should ask him any questions that came up so I just had to know if he had ever actually seen the house and the answer was no.  Truly, you’d never know the difference. He pointed out family photos on the walls, knew which pieces were original furnishings and which were just period replacements. And after 10 years of giving tours, Coyle was a lively storyteller, well versed in the details of Martin Luther King’s mostly happy childhood.

MLK, Jr. came from a middle class, well-educated family. The home itself was a large and lovely 1895 Queen Anne Victorian, with spacious, wall-papered rooms. After German flight from the neighborhood, the family purchased the home for $3500 and paid a mortgage of $35 per month. In 1956, Fortune Magazine called Sweet Auburn the wealthiest black community in the country.  “M.L.” – as he was called by his family –  was born in this house, in his parent’s bedroom with the help of a doctor.

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Pointing to the parlor, our tour guide told us of how Martin and his brother were forced to take piano lessons and got teased, (called sissies) by neighborhood boys when it was time to stop playing outside and go in for piano lessons with Mr. Mann, their teacher.

The dining room elicited a story about MLK’s love of soul food but also a sad and significant day when six-year old MLK came to the dinner table one night crying because his white best friend was told to no longer play with him. That’s the night his father explained the history of slavery, Jim Crow, racism. For the next nine years, MLK decided to hate whites right back and didn’t have a white friend until age 15, the year he graduated from high school.

In the King home, the kids took turns washing the dinner dishes, but according to Doug Coyle, MLK would lock himself in the bathroom and read comic books in order to avoid the dreaded chore.

As we walked up the stairs, I was curious if MLK slid down the long wooden banister. Of course, he did. Doug recounted an incident in which MLK slid down the banister and accidentally knocked his beloved grandmother Jenny to the floor. Thinking that he killed her, he ran back upstairs and jumped out the second story window, trying to kill himself. He landed on the grass, just fine, and his grandmother was fine, too. Apparently the young M.L. was quite the prankster.

Getting a peek at MLK’s boyhood bedroom revealed the absolute normalcy of this extraordinary man. He shared the room with his brother and uncle Joel. The room was a mess! Baseball mitts are on the bed and scattered around the floor are all of the popular toys of the era: Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, crayons and Pick up Sticks. Doug told us that MLK’s favorite game was Monopoly and he was a whiz at it.

One of the biggest takeaways from visiting MLK’s childhood home was hearing about books. This was a family that read together. Every night, MLK’s grandmother or Aunt Ida read to the kids – from the Bible or the Book of Knowledge – nurturing in MLK a deep love of books and reading. Of all of the comforts of his neighborhood and home, I left 501 Auburn Avenue feeling that the love of knowledge and language were as critical to MLK’s upbringing as his love of God and justice.

Julie Drizin, Silver Spring

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