M O N T G O M E R Y, Ala., Nov. 20, 2003 -- The home where Martin Luther King Jr.changed from Montgomery pastor to national civil rights leader hasbeen restored to its 1950s appearance, providing another touristsite in a city that describes itself as the "Birthplace of theCivil Rights Movement."
The white wooden frame house near downtown was the parsonage forDexter Avenue Baptist Church for nearly 80 years, but King was itsmost famous resident, rising to national prominence after blackseamstress Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seatto a white man. Her arrest launched a yearlong boycott ofMontgomery's bus system, led by the young King and his soaringoratory, that resulted in a court ruling integrating Montgomery'ssegregated buses.
After the parsonage sat empty for nearly a decade in the 1990s,church members decided to restore the way it looked when King livedthere, including much of the furniture that was in the parsonagewhen he called it home from September 1954 to February 1960.Members talked with King's widow, Coretta, to make sure they got itright.
With its celery-colored walls, chenille bedspreads, portablerecord player, and metal kitchen table, it matches the periodperfectly.
"We wanted to provide for Dr. King as a husband, minister andfather because we feel like that is a piece of history that needsto be put in place," said Thomas McPherson, vice president of theDexter Avenue King Memorial Foundation.
The home, newly opened to the public on Nov. 17, offers toursMonday through Saturday, complementing the tours that are alreadyoffered a few blocks away at the church King served, now called theDexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.
King Only Loud in Sermons
King was still new to Montgomery when Parks was arrested on Dec.1, 1955. The current Dexter Avenue minister, the Rev. MichaelThurman, said King hadn't developed any enemies or any debts inMontgomery, which made him a natural to lead the MontgomeryImprovement Association, the organizers of the bus boycott. As a protest against segregated buses and policies that requiredblacks to go to the rear of the bus or give whites their seats,thousands of blacks refused to ride the buses, walking orcar-pooling instead. Largely empty buses traveled Montgomery'sstreets until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Montgomery'ssegregated bus laws on Nov. 13, 1956.
"He was just the pastor until that happened. That is what puthim in the limelight," said Vera Harris, a neighbor of King's whocontinues to reside three doors down from the parsonage.
She remembers King as a quiet man. "The only time he spokeloudly was in his sermons," she said.
Bomb Exploded at Home
Leading the bus boycott put King's life at risk. On Jan. 31,1956, a bomb exploded on the front porch of the home, knocking outtwo front windows. His wife and daughter, inside the house, wereuninjured.
King was leading a mass meeting at First Baptist Church severalblocks away when the bomb went off. Avis Dunbar, tourism managerfor the King home, was a 5-year-old girl living a couple of blocksaway, and she still remembers the night vividly.
"I felt the ground shaking," she said.
King rushed home. A huge crowd quickly gathered, some intent ongetting revenge. But King quickly settled down the crowd and senteveryone home, further establishing his reputation for nonviolence.
The night left Dunbar with a fear that lingered throughout herchildhood. But there were also fond memories of King as pastor andneighbor that she wants to convey through tours at the house.
A Nice Neighbor
"We want to talk about Rev. King as a pastor and how he livedhis domestic life. Everybody in the neighborhood knew him. He was anice man," she said. Restoring the house and opening it to the public cost $450,000,with money coming from federal, state and local funds, anddonations from church members and the community.
Now, with tour buses already scheduled the first week the houseopens, Harris is excited about what is about to happen on herstreet.
"After Rev. King passed, I thought that was the end of it. Ididn't think they'd ever produce anything on Jackson Street," shesaid.
The King home joins a growing list of black heritage attractionsin Montgomery, including the Rosa Parks Museum and the Civil RightsMemorial, which honors people slain during the civil rightsmovement.
Civil Rights Label Lured Tourists
Alabama's tourism agency once sought tourists by billing thestate capital as "The Cradle of the Confederacy," where JeffersonDavis took the oath as president of the Confederate States.
But the agency realized the potential of a different lure 20years ago when, during the last administration of King's oldnemesis, Gov. George C. Wallace, it put out a brochure to promoteAlabama's civil rights history. Since then, nearly 1 million havebeen distributed.
Lee Sentell, state tourism director, said black heritage andcivil rights attractions are becoming an important part ofAlabama's $6.8 billion travel industry.
In a few years, Montgomery will add museums recognizing theFreedom Riders, who integrated interstate buses before being beatenin Montgomery in 1961, and the Selma-to-Montgomery March, which ledto passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that opened Southernvoting booths to blacks.
"It creates a compelling destination not just forAfrican-Americans, but for all people interested in Americanhistory," Sentell said. King, who won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, was assassinated inMemphis, Tenn., in 1968. His birthday — Jan. 15 — is a nationalholiday, and his "I have a dream" speech, delivered during the1963 March on Washington for civil rights, is one of the mostfamous orations in modern U.S. history. It is studied by schoolchildren nationwide and replayed on tape so often that King'sdistinctively deep and quavering tones and his sonorous, passionatedelivery are instantly recognizable to most Americans — even thosetoo young to have heard the original.
Yet seeing tour buses filled with people soaking up civil rightshistory still amazes Johnnie Carr, who succeeded King as presidentof the Montgomery Improvement Association and still heads the groupat 92.
"When we first started, we weren't thinking about history. Wewere thinking about the conditions and the discrimination," shesaid. "We didn't think about preserving things."
If You Go…
LOCATION: 315 S. Jackson St., Montgomery, Ala. GETTING THERE: Take Union Street exit off Interstate 85. FromUnion Street, turn right on High Street and left on South JacksonStreet. HOURS: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.Saturday. COST: $3 adults; $2 children under 12. HISTORY: Built around 1912; purchased by Dexter Avenue BaptistChurch in 1919 for use as parsonage; King's residence fromSeptember 1954 to February 1960. CONTACT: (334) 261-3270 or http://www.dakmf.org.