A history of Atlanta transit in the days of Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, grew up in Atlanta, became a minister in Atlanta and was memorialized in Atlanta after his death in 1968. Even so, many local residents drive by his resting place on a regular basis without really considering the history of the neighborhood and what was around before Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room set up shop near Ebenezer.
But the Sweet Auburn neighborhood, visible from the new streetcar route, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site do preserve a piece of Atlanta’s past. King’s birth home, tomb and Ebenezer Baptist Church where he ministered sit quietly in an area that has seen better days, though new apartments, nightlife and restaurants are slowly replacing vacant buildings and empty lots that once were a part of a thriving business and arts district.
To help peel back the layers of history to the time when King walked the nearby streets and rode public transit, here’s a look at Atlanta in the days of King, and how the Civil Rights Movement and Atlanta transit milestones overlapped between 1929 and 1968.
King was born at his grandparent’s home at 501 Auburn Avenue on January 15, 1929 (the house on the left in the photo). At the time of his birth, the Atlanta streetcars had been in service for 58 years, since 1871. Atlanta’s beautiful Terminal Station also provided regional passenger rail service on Spring Street and the third Union Station was about to open across the street from today’s Five Points MARTA station, providing service to the following railroads: Atlantic Coast Line, Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis, Louisville & Nashville, Georgia Railroad and Atlantic, Birmingham & Coast.
In the 1930s, Atlanta streetcar line 3 provided service on Auburn Avenue, Boulevard and Irwin (old streetcar map pictured here). This line would have stopped close to King’s residence — he lived near the intersection of Auburn Avenue and Boulevard until he was 12. During this time he may have seen domestic servants taking the streetcar to and from work, as pictured here in 1939, or rode the streetcar himself. Today’s MARTA bus 3 travels a similar route and fittingly also travels on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, formerly Hunter Street and Gordon Road.
The last streetcar in Atlanta did its final run in 1949 before trolleybuses took over, covering similar routes as the streetcars. King had just graduated from Morehouse College was in his first year as an ordained minister at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, at a time when segregation on buses was still in effect. It wasn’t until January 1959 when black citizens in Atlanta could choose where they wanted to sit on the bus. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, ridership significantly dropped at this time with white flight out of the city and a greater dependence on the automobile.
In the same month as King’s Selma-to-Montgomery March for voting rights, another major voting issue was happening: the vote to establish the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority in Atlanta. The Georgia Assembly voted in favor 205 to 12. Fun fact: the demonstrators in Selma who walked the entire route to Montgomery traveled further than what would become MARTA’s 48 miles of track.
Two years before King’s death, and in the same month as his 37th birthday, MARTA was officially created. However, King wasn’t in Atlanta at the time. He was moving to Chicago’s West Side to launch a housing campaign that later became known as the Chicago Freedom Movement. Chicago’s rail system had already been up and running over 70 years at that point and into its second year of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which according to the Chicago Transit Authority, they have been upholding since that time. You can view MARTA’s online notice here, thanks to that man in Atlanta born near the streetcar.