For many Americans, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is a time to enjoy a three-day weekend. But for many others, the day holds a far more important distinction – honoring the life and legacy of one of the most respected and influential leaders in American history. While major cities across America will be hosting Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations such as the Freedom Train in San Francisco and the Marade in Denver, there are some cities that are more historically significant to the life of beloved Baptist minister, activist, humanitarian and civil rights leader. Here are five of the most important American destinations for a Martin Luther King Jr. weekend getaway.
Visitors to Georgia’s state capital can help celebrate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday by visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. Located in the Sweet Auburn District east of downtown Atlanta, the site hosts the childhood home of Dr. King, Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church he led, and the King Center, the site of his final resting place alongside his wife Coretta Scott King. The King Center will hold a 10-day celebration honoring the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the annual commemorative church service will be held at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Past keynote speakers at the commemorative service include Jesse Jackson, former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, Coretta Scott King and Bill Clinton, who will be honored along with Kaiser Permanente chairman and CEO Bernard Tyson as recipients of the 2015 Salute to Greatness Award.
Dr. King spent a considerable amount of time in Birmingham during the 1960s, at the time possibly the most racially segregated city in the country. More than 50 bombings of black institutions and homes occurred between World War I and 1964, including the infamous bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four young black girls and 22 others were injured. Leading civil rights demonstrations in Alabama’s largest city led to his forcible arrest and imprisonment. But during his time in prison, he penned “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” considered to be one of the most important documents to come out of the civil rights movement that suggested the use of nonviolent resistance against racism and racial segregation and arguing that people have a moral responsibility to protest laws that are unjust. Visitors to Birmingham to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. are likely to spend time in the Civil Rights District in downtown Birmingham. Located here are the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 16th Street Baptist Church and the Carver Theatre, now home to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.
One of the more moving Martin Luther King Jr. tributes in the country is the former Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The site of the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, the history property has been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum, one of the leading heritage and cultural museums in the country. The museum offers visitors a chance to learn more about the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the life of Dr. King. Additionally, museums guests can enjoy artifacts, short documentaries and stirring permanent exhibitions, such as a replica of the bus Rosa Parks rode in Montgomery, re-creation of the prison cell where Dr. King was held in Birmingham and a section of the original lunch counter where four black students staged an historic sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960.
Named Best Historic City in America, the capital of Alabama has been the scene of many important events of the Civil Rights Movement. Among them were the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sparked by Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of a bus on December 1, 1955, and the 1965 Voting Rights March from Selma to the state capital to protest the “separate but equal” racial segregation stemming from the disgraceful Jim Crow laws. Today, the 54-mile trek is known as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail and this year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic protest march. Visitors to Montgomery should also visit the Dexter Parsonage Museum, former home of Dr. King, Rosa Parks Library and Museum, Civil Rights Memorial Museum and Freedom Rides Museum. A side trip to Selma is also noteworthy, especially to see the National Voting Rights Museum.
The nation’s capital was the scene of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most enduring moment. On August 28, 1963, he led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in what Dr. King described as the “greatest demonstration of freedom of the history of our nation.” Standing on the footsteps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his monumental “I Have a Dream” speech in front of a crowd estimated at over 250,000 people, at that time the largest gathering in the history of the United States. The historic march and Dr. King’s speech eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Visitors to Washington D.C. should take time to visit the enormous Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial located in the southwest section of the National Mall, not far from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where a wreath will be placed on the federal holiday. Other events include the Martin Luther King Jr. Parade, a celebration at the Washington National Cathedral and “Let Freedom Ring” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Related: Your City Guide To Washington D.C.
Randy Yagi is a freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he was awarded a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com Examiner.com.