The legislation, a longtime cause of Atlanta congressman John Lewis, whose 5th district includes the King site and surrounding “Sweet Auburn” area, is highly significant.
What's the difference between a historic site and a historical park? According to a spokesperson for the National Park Service, which manages all these locations around the country, a historic site "focuses on one specific building or location" and "a historical park preserves a series of different, but related locations and/or structures."
The change in designation is about more than semantics. It also promises to bring more federal resources, including money and park rangers, to one of metro Atlanta’s top visitor sites. Some 850,000 people visit the site annually, the NPS says, a number that will likely go up along with changes and improvements to the park.
Indeed, the new designation adds another historically important building -- the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge, which became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's headquarters under King in the 1960s when he was its president -- to the historic park.
Some changes will be noticeable very soon, while others will be implemented more gradually. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting what was previously known as the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site:
Location: 450 Auburn Ave., Atlanta. That's where you'll find the Visitors Center, which is a good starting off point for a trip around the park. www.nps.gov, 404-331-5190
Hours of operation: 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily. Exceptions: The Birth Home is open for ranger-led tours 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Fire Station No. 6 is staffed by volunteers and is open based on their availability. All facilities closed on January 1, Thanksgiving Day and December 25.
Cost: Free. That won't change with the new designation.
What is changing: New signage will go up soon reflecting the name change to Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park. A walking tour of Auburn Avenue that the park service will start providing this spring will take visitors past Prince Hall Masonic Lodge, now included in the park. The building will eventually be open for tours, once renovations are complete. In the meantime, the park service says it will start educating visitors about Prince Hall's role as SCLC headquarters and its importance in Dr. King's life and work.
Other things to do and see at the park: The King Center (officially, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change Inc.) features exhibitions (in Freedom Hall, on its campus) and the crypts of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta. There are a number of events and programs taking place there this year as part of "MLK50 Forward," which commemorates the 50th anniversary of King's assassination and the founding of the King Center. Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was baptized as a child and later became co-pastor with his father, is where his funeral was held amidst worldwide coverage in 1968.
Located one block east of the church, The Birth Home at 501 Auburn Avenue is where Dr. King was born and lived for the first 12 years of his life (when his family moved to another house on Boulevard). The carefully restored circa-1895 house is at once moving and utterly human with its formal dining room and parlor for receiving important visitors and its upstairs bedrooms preserved just as King and his two siblings inhabited them. The highly informative tours led by NPS rangers are limited to 15 people at a time and are filled on a first-come, first-served basis on the day of the tour. To sign up, go to the information desk located inside the visitors center.
The MLK Jr. World Peace Rose Garden borders the Peace Plaza in front of the visitors center. Originally planted in 1992, it features hundreds of roses in a variety of colors and is the installation site for winners in an annual "poems of peace" contest open to students around the world. The graves of Dr. and Mrs. King are visible from across the street as you face the rose garden. Fire Station No. 6 was built in 1894 and served the Sweet Auburn community until 1991. When the station is open (it's staffed by volunteers) visitors can view a 1927 American LaFrance fire engine and learn about how the growing Civil Rights movement helped lead to the 1963 desegregation of the Atlanta Fire Department.
Getting there: The park is accessible by car and public transportation. The entrance to the park’s parking lot is on John Wesley Dobbs Avenue (go here to find the GPS coordinates, which are more reliable than entering the street address). On MARTA you can take bus Route 3 (Martin Luther King Dr./Auburn Ave.) or Route 99 (Bouelvard/Monroe Dr.). Find information and schedules here. The Atlanta Streetcar also stops at the King Historic District. The streetcar currently runs approximately every 10 to 15 minutes, depending on demand, and is accessible at 12 stops downtown. A one-way adult fare is $1. For complete information, visit streetcar.atlantaga.gov.