A group of people gather outside the Martin Luther King Jr. home on Sunset on the anniversary of his death (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Column updated to include video from April 2 Transform Westside Summit

By Maria Saporta

As the sun was setting on Easter Sunday, Vine City community members gathered on Sunset Avenue to commemorate the 53rd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

It was a solemn occasion to honor the civil rights leader and the community where he and his family were living at the time of his death.

People participate in a candlelight vigil to honor Martin Luther King Jr. by walking to his former home on Sunset Avenue (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

“These are sacred grounds,” declared Bishop John H. Lewis, chairman of the Vine City Civic Association. Lewis, who has lived on Sunset almost all of his seven decades, now lives in the home next to former King home at 234 Sunset.

Lewis invited neighbors and visitors to meet at the Vine City Civic Association center at the corner of Sunset and Joseph E. Boone Boulevard NW. to share remembrances of the community and to participate in a candlelight walk and vigil to the King home less than two blocks away.

Just two days earlier, the Westside Future Fund’s Transform Westside Summit focused on the history and future of Sunset Avenue – with special emphasis on the King home, which was purchased by the foundation of the National Park Service in January 2019 as an important addition to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park.

NPS Superintendent Judy Forté said it is unusual for a historic park to encompass a cradle-to-grave reflection of someone’s life. The MLK historic park now does just that – incorporating King’s birth home on Auburn Avenue, the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached as well as the home where he was living when he was tragically killed in Memphis.

Forté said NPS is working to restore the home as it was when King and his family were living there, and eventually it will be open for the public to tour and see how modestly the family lived when it moved to Vine City in 1965.

Maria Saporta with Bernice King after a video interview about what it was like to grow up in the home on Sunset (Special)

As part of the WFF summit, I was able to interview Bernice King, who was only 2 years old when the family moved to Sunset. Bernice King is now CEO of the King Center, which was founded by her mother – Coretta Scott King – the year after her husband’s death in the basement of the family home.

Bernice King lived in the home until she enrolled at Spelman College in 1983, and her mother continued to live there long after the neighborhood declined, and her neighbors had moved away. In the conversation, she shared how initially she had a hard time letting go of the home where she grew up. But she was able to feel joy knowing the home would be restored and open to the public, which had been her mother’s wish.

Atlanta is overdue in shining a spotlight on Sunset Avenue, Vine City and the Westside.

So much of Atlanta’s history has been taken for granted that many people don’t know and understand why these places are so sacred – from being a mecca for Black colleges and Black culture to the emergence of Atlanta as the cradle of the civil rights movement.

Walking along Sunset, one can see the Atlanta home of the late Julian Bond and his family. Bishop Lewis was a walking history book of who lived in which home, and how they contributed to Atlanta’s history.

A group of people gather outside the Martin Luther King Jr. home on Sunset on the anniversary of his death (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

In fact, it was Lewis who sounded the alarm when the King Center applied for a demolition permit for the four-unit dilapidated apartment building (220 Sunset) next to the King home. Lewis knew the building had been developed by Maynard Jackson Sr., who lived there with his family in the early 1950s. His son, Maynard Jackson Jr., went on to become Atlanta’s first African American mayor – elected in 1973.

Fortunately, the King Center – once it realized the significance of the apartment building – agreed to withdraw its demolition permit. Then the Westside Future Fund stepped in to buy and renovate the apartment building with the plan to turn it into four affordable housing units geared to students, faculty and staff at the Atlanta University Center.

Karcheik Sims-Alvarado, CEO of Preserve Black Atlanta, told viewers of the Transform Westside Story that buildings tell a story. And she described many of the stories of people who have lived and worked on the Westside, and the contributions they’ve made to Atlanta and the nation.

Two of those structures – the King home and the Jackson apartment building – have been saved. They will be historical anchors for us as we learn about what happened in Atlanta over the last 150 years.

Bishop John Lewis inside the Vine City Civic Association building (Photo by Maria Saporta)

But we can’t stop there. We need to save Gaines Hall. Fountain Hall, the old Paschal’s Restaurant and Lodge, the two homes of Grace Towns Hamilton, the first African American woman elected to Georgia’s General Assembly, to name a few of the buildings in greatest need of repair, renovation and reuse.

Just as the King Center, the National Park Service and the Westside Future Fund were able to find a way to preserve 220 and 234 Sunset, we as a community must find a way to protect the other historic jewels – reviving the spirit that used to exist along Sunset and in Vine City.

As night fell on April 4 and as people left their candles along the front wall of the King home, Lewis remembered how Martin Luther King Jr. used to walk from his house to Paschal’s – stopping multiple times to chat with neighbors and friends along the way.

A bird on one of the trees in front of King’s home chirped loudly as we shared a moment of silence to remember his death 53 years ago. It felt as though King’s spirit was with us – leading us to work on creating a world without poverty, racism and war.

In that moment – on a beautiful Sunday evening among old friends and new friends enveloped with the hope of Spring in the air – King’s vision of a beloved community felt within our reach.

Note to readers: I have a special relationship with 234 Sunset and the King family, which I wrote about in 2013.

A tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. in front of the Vine City Civic Association building on Easter Sunday (Photo by Maria Saporta)
Candlelight tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. in front of the family home on Sunset Avenue (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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1 Comment

  1. Hello Maria,

    I enjoyed your article about the King family on Sunset Ave. Sunset belonged to my great-grandparents, Philippe and Elizabeth Charlotte Breitenbucher. They named it Sunset and raised their children there, including my beloved grandmother, Charlotte Elizabeth Breightenbucher Oliver.

    Whenever I get to Atlanta, I always go out to Oakland Cemetery. Fifteen years ago, the last time I got to come down there, I drove my mother and three of her cousins to Sunset. There is a rehab or some sort of a medical facility where “The Hill” was. The Hill was the name of my great-grandparents home, not the Breightenbucher House, that was up on a hill, facing the sunset, I believe. I have photos of my ancestors and the home where my mother, her fifteen cousins, and their parents met every Sunday to get-together and have Sunday dinner.

    My great-grandmother died there on Christmas Day, 1935, with Aubrey by her side. (It was one month before my mother turned 20) Aubrey was a black servant, who supposedly adored my great-grandmother. All of my great-aunts and uncles were college graduates, including my grandmother. All of the servants were sent to be educated, but Aubrey brought his teacher back to The Hill, married her, and stayed.

    My great-grandparents owned the first Pierce-Arrow, Marmon, electric car and some others, in Atlanta. Aubrey and my great-grandmother hated the electric car, because it was too slow, so Aubrey usually drove her in the Pierce-Arrow. Mom said the Marmon just sat in a back field, where the children played in it, and it rotted away.

    When I drove my mother and her cousins out to the property, where we walked around and talked, I stopped on the way home, at a smaller house, next to the medical facility. I learned that the two identical houses, side by side, were built for two of my great-uncles when they got married. I knocked on the door, met the nice people who lived there, and went inside just for a few moments, because they had to get to a college graduation. Although, my mother and her cousins told me not to knock on the door, as we drove away, Mignon Breightenbucher Smith sounded as if she might cry, saying, “Oh, I wish I had gone in with you. I was born in that house.”

    I always wished that I could have taken them all back there again, but they are all gone now. All I have are the wonderful memories and stories they told me. So, thank you, Maria, for your article, it made me feel that I was there, again.

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