- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The home where the Martin Luther King grew from Montgomery pastor to national civil rights leader has been restored to its 1950s appearance, providing another tourist site in a city that describes itself as the “Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.”

The white wood-frame house near downtown was the parsonage for the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church for nearly 80 years, but King was its most famous resident, rising to national prominence after black seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat for a white man.

Her arrest set off a yearlong boycott of Montgomery’s bus system, led by the young King and his soaring oratory, resulting in a court ruling integrating Montgomery’s segregated buses.

After the parsonage sat empty for nearly a decade in the 1990s, church members decided to restore it to the way it looked when King lived there, including much of the furniture that was in the parsonage when he called it home from September 1954 to February 1960. Members talked with King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, to make sure they got it right.

With its celery-colored walls, chenille bedspreads, portable record player and metal kitchen table, it matches the period perfectly.

“We wanted to provide for Dr. King as a husband, minister and father, because we feel like that is a piece of history that needs to be put in place,” says Thomas McPherson, vice president of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Foundation.

The home, which was opened to the public Monday, offers tours Monday through Saturday, complementing the tours that already were offered a few blocks away at the church King served, now called the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.

King was still new to Montgomery when Mrs. Parks was arrested Dec. 1, 1955. The current Dexter Avenue minister, the Rev. Michael Thurman, says King hadn’t developed any enemies or any debts in Montgomery, which made him a natural to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association, organizer of the bus boycott.

As a protest against segregated buses and policies that required blacks to go to the rear of the bus or give whites their seats, thousands of blacks refused to ride the buses, walking or car-pooling instead.

Largely empty buses traveled Montgomery’s streets until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Montgomery’s segregated-bus laws on Nov. 13, 1956.

“He was just the pastor until that happened. That is what put him in the limelight,” says Vera Harris, a neighbor of King’s who continues to reside three doors down from the parsonage.

She remembers King as a quiet man. “The only time he spoke loudly was in his sermons,” she says.

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 out two front windows. His wife and daughter, inside the house, were uninjured.

King was leading a mass meeting at the First Baptist Church several blocks away when the bomb went off. Avis Dunbar, tourism manager for the King home, was a 5-year-old girl living a couple of blocks away, and she still remembers the night vividly.

“I felt the ground shaking,” she says.

King rushed home. A huge crowd gathered quickly, some intent on getting revenge. King, however, quickly quieted the crowd and sent everyone home, further establishing his reputation for nonviolence.

The night left Miss Dunbar with a fear that lingered throughout her childhood, but she still has fond memories of King as pastor and neighbor that she wants to convey through tours at the house.

“We want to talk about Reverend King as a pastor and how he lived his domestic life. Everybody in the neighborhood knew him. He was a nice man,” she says.

Restoring the house and opening it to the public cost $450,000, with money coming from federal, state and local funds as well as donations from church members and the community. With tour buses scheduled even before the house opened, Miss Harris is excited about what is happening on her street.

“After Reverend King passed, I thought that was the end of it. I didn’t think they’d ever produce anything on Jackson Street,” she says.

The King home joins a growing list of black heritage attractions in Montgomery, including the Rosa Parks Museum and the Civil Rights Memorial, which honors people slain during the civil rights movement.

Alabama’s tourism agency once sought tourists by billing the state capital as the “Cradle of the Confederacy,” where Jefferson Davis took the oath as president of the Confederate States of America. About 20 years ago, during the last term of King’s old nemesis, Gov. George C. Wallace, the agency realized the potential of a different lure. It put out a brochure to promote Alabama’s civil rights history, and since then, nearly 1 million have been distributed.

Lee Sentell, state tourism director, says black heritage and civil rights attractions are becoming an important part of Alabama’s $6.8 billion travel industry.

In a few years, Montgomery will add museums recognizing the Freedom Riders, who integrated interstate buses before being beaten in Montgomery in 1961, and the Selma-to-Montgomery March, which led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which opened Southern voting booths to blacks.

King, who won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968.

His birthday — Jan. 15 — is a national holiday, and his “I have a dream” speech, delivered during the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights, is one of the most famous orations in modern U.S. history. It is studied by schoolchildren nationwide and replayed on tape so often that King’s distinctively deep and quavering tones and his sonorous, passionate delivery are instantly recognizable to most Americans, even those too young to have heard the original.

Yet seeing tour buses filled with people soaking up civil rights history still amazes Johnnie Carr, who succeeded King as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association and still heads the group at 92.

“When we first started, we weren’t thinking about history. We were thinking about the conditions and the discrimination,” she says. “We didn’t think about preserving things.”

• • •

The Martin Luther King home, 315 S. Jackson St., Montgomery, Ala., is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and until 2 p.m. Saturday. Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for children younger than 12.

Take the Union Street exit off Interstate 85. From Union Street, turn right on High Street and left on South Jackson Street. The King home was built around 1912 and was purchased by Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1919 for use as parsonage.

For more information, call 334/261-3270 or visit www.dakmf.org.

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