Jan 18, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Resurrecting Martin Luther King's office

Martin Luther King, Jr, points to Selma, Alabama, on a map at his Atlanta Southern Christian Leadership Conference office in January 1965.

King points to Selma, Alabama on a map at his Southern Christian Leadership Conference office in Atlanta in January 1965. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Contributor

Efforts to save the office where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., planned some of the most important moments of the civil rights movement are hitting roadblocks amid a political stalemate.

Why it matters: The U.S. Park Service needs to OK agreements so a developer restoring the historic Prince Hall Masonic Lodge in Atlanta — which once housed King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference — can tap into private funding and begin work.

  • The space where the office sat is empty, and advocates want former aides who are still alive to help recreate the atmosphere.
  • In 2018, President Trump signed a bill sponsored by the late Rep. John Lewis that designated the lodge, King’s birth home, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and King’s burial site as a national historic park.
  • Trump later complained that Lewis didn't attend any of his State of the Union speeches, and the administration stalled on agreements for the lodge.

What we’re hearing: Some Department of Interior projects, run by the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, have halted as employees seek to remain low key in the final weeks of the Trump presidency and avoid his wrath.

  • The National Park Service said it was waiting on the masons who still own the building to proceed with the project, and the agency has offered technical assistance.

Flashback: “For many years, I worked with my congressional colleagues and the National Park Service to preserve these Atlanta landmarks and to enhance visitor experiences and services,” Lewis said in 2017 as he tried to push his proposal.

  • As part of the package, the Prince Hall Masonic Temple donated land to the National Park Service. The lodge was build in 1938 and served as a meeting place for Atlanta's Sweet Auburn Black neighborhood.
  • Lewis died last year.

What they're saying: "Since that law was signed by Trump, nothing really has happened between the Park Service and the Prince Hall Masons in terms of the agreements ... so they can interpret Dr. King's former offices," said E.W. Bowen & Co. founder Edward W. Bowen, the project's developer.

  • Bowen said private donors and the city of Atlanta will help fund the $10 million project to recreate King's mid-century Southern Christian Leadership Conference office for visitors to experience.
  • Further delays into the Biden administration may cause private funders to pull money for more shovel-ready projects, Bowen said.

Details: King operated the Southern Christian Leadership Conference beginning in 1957 in the lodge, and the masons provided security and protection in a fortified space with exit tunnels.

  • This is where King and his aides planned the Selma march, the Chicago desegregation fight, opposition to the Vietnam War, and the multiracial Poor People's Campaign.
  • It was there that King defied aides and told them he would go to Memphis to help striking Black sanitation workers where he delivered his final speech on April 3, 1968.
  • King was killed the next day.

Don’t forget: Projects like these allow visitors to have a tangible connection to the past and experience a multilayered story to civil rights, said Lawana Holland-Moore of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

  • "You are touching what they touched. You are literally walking where they walked."

The big question: The fight to resurrect King's office comes as advocates work to save other historic sites linked to civil rights.

  • A clubhouse of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Houston recently was deemed a landmark after a long battle. It was the site where Mexican Americans planned desegregation battles and a crucial meeting with President John F. Kennedy.
  • Advocates are trying to bring attention to the birthplace of United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta. It's currently an abandoned field in northern New Mexico.
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