THINGS TO DO

Atlanta is a key spot in civil rights tourism

City is home to several institutions important to history.

By Shelia M. Poole spoole@ajc.com

Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Anne Elizabeth Barnes grew up in Atlanta and attended Chamblee High School and Georgia State University.

Despite those deep ties, Barnes delighted in discovering even more about her hometown when she went on a Civil Rights Tour a year or so ago.

“There are a lot of things we don’t experience,” said Barnes, who went on the tour with her husband, Tom Banks, who lives in New York. “We say, ‘Oh, I can save that for when someone comes in from out of town.’ We don’t take advantage of the rich resources we have in Atlanta.”

The tour took her along historic Auburn Avenue, to South View Cemetery and to the home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., where he and wife, Coretta, raised their family.

“It touched me so much,” said Barnes, 61. “Here I was walking where Dr. King walked, where they (the King family) were probably frightened but also where so many great things happened.”

Atlanta’s role in black history and the civil rights movement has long been a part of the tourism industry. Atlanta is also a short drive to Birmingham, Ala., and Savannah, which both have civil rights legacies.

Thousands of Atlantans have journeyed to Washington, D.C., to visit the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Many, though, may not know that there are so many jewels in their midst back home. Atlanta has long been an important stop for people interested in learning about the movement. It is the home of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Atlanta Life Insurance Co., Ebenezer Baptist Church, Big Bethel AME Church and the Atlanta University Center. Civil rights leaders such as U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Hosea Williams, Ralph D. Abernathy, Joseph Lowery, James Orange and C.T. Vivian also called it home.

“Visitors from around the world come to Atlanta annually to explore the history of the American civil rights movement,” William Pate, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, said in a statement. “Our city is fortunate to have several attractions and cultural institutions dedicated to telling this important story.”

Tom Houck, a former driver for King and a SCLC organizer, started Civil Rights Tours. The hourslong tour starts and ends on Auburn Avenue at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site and near the crypts of the Kings. Today, Houck says it goes by nearly two dozen spots.

“So much of that civil rights history has evolved from here,” he said. He estimates more than 8,000 people have taken the tour. Riders have included family reunions, civic associations, business groups, foundation members and elected officials.

In 2014, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights opened its doors in Atlanta near the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola. The center had more than 194,000 visitors last year, and officials expect that number to increase slightly this year.

“Few cities can boast of such a civil rights history,” said CEO Derreck Kayongo. “Atlanta is the city of rights, in my view. … No other city has so many historic members of the civil rights movement. When you come to Atlanta, you can see that diversity and inclusion. … In my view, we are the nexus.”