Ebenezer helps bring back a business ministry and mission to historic Auburn Avenue

By Maria Saporta

The inscription couldn’t be more appropriate.

On the tomb of Dr. Martin Luther King Sr., the message is: “I LOVE EVERYONE. STILL IN BUSINESS. JUST MOVED UPSTAIRS.

The legacy of “Daddy King” — as he was known to close friends and family — will live on through the M.L. King Sr. Community Resource Complex, which is under construction next to Ebenezer Baptist Church. King Sr. was a pastor at Ebenezer — a role he shared with his son — Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

On Sunday afternoon, Ebenezer held a program spotlighting the “business” side of Daddy King — someone who combined his religious teachings with economic lessons of self-sufficiency.

His daughter, Christine King Farris, said Daddy King had a mind for business.

“He knew how to handle his funds,” Farris said. “That’s how he got on the board of directors of Citizens Trust Bank. I almost followed him. I worked at Citizens Trust, and I majored in economics.”

King Sr. joined the board of Citizens Trust in the 1950s, where he served for several decades.

“Daddy King struggled with whether he wanted to be a businessman or a preacher,” said John Hope Bryant at the Ebenezer program on Sunday. “He did both.”

In that tradition, Ebenezer also is doing both. The Community Resource Complex will be a 30,000 square foot, three story building that is costing about $7 million to build. In a delicious twist of history, Ebenezer has secured a loan from Citizens Trust for $2.8 million as part of the project.

But Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer, said the church hopes to raise enough money to repay the loan so it won’t have to hold a long-term mortgage on the property.

The M.L. King Sr. Community Resource Complex also will house three nonprofits — Bryant’s Operation Hope, the Center for Working Families and the Casey Family Programs.

“I don’t know of any church that has all this going on — the kind of services that will be offered,” Warnock said, adding that the church will continue its other social service programs, such as its crisis closet and its food pantry.

The focus on the economics of race relations is, in many ways, an outgrowth of the messages that Martin Luther King Jr. was preaching before he was assassinated. In fact, when King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, he was there as part of the Poor People’s Campaign urging for fair wages.

“The next movement is about money,” Bryant said. “The 21st Century is going to be about class, poverty and economics.”

Bryant went on to say that the Occupy Wall Street movement has touch the global consciousness, and that “financial dignity is the new Civil Rights issue.”

Bryant pointed out that there are more poor whites in the United States than there are poor blacks, but the general public’s images of poor people in America tend to be people of color.

That’s why it’s so important for our nation’s black population to seek economic self-sufficiency — which is part of Operation Hope’s mission.

“There’s a difference of being broke an being poor,” Bryant said. “Being broke is economic. Being poor is a disabling state of mind.”

So when the new community complex opens, residents of the Auburn Avenue neighborhood will be able to receive mentoring, financial counseling, economic literacy and other tools to help them get stability in their lives.

If the overall community could help improve its credit scores by 100 points (from the mid 500s and the mid 600s), then the community would see “liquor stores turn into convenience stores” and “check-cashing places turn into banks and credit unions.” It would transform a neighbor of poverty into a promising emerging market.

Amazingly, a third of America’s black population “are unbanked,” which makes it hard for them to establish a sound credit rating, Bryant said.

But the issues go deeper than that. “In the last 20 years, we have made dumb sexy,” Bryant said. “Now we have got to make smart sexy.” In response, Operation Hope is encouraging entrepreneurship with a “Business in a Box” tool kit to help people establish their own companies.

Andrea Young, daughter of former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, said that Atlanta can be a place where leaders can “use our political power as a foundation for economic power.” And it makes sense for Auburn Avenue, once called the “Black Wall Street” because that’s where a host of African-American businesses were founded, to be the place where such a transformation takes place.

“We have had a tradition of business development,” Young said. “And we continue to inspire the world.”

So between the legacy of Martin Luther King Sr., Ebenezer Baptist Church and the strategic location of a new center as another one of Auburn Avenue icons, Atlanta’s Historic District is re-establishing itself as a mecca for black business and entrepreneurship.

“This is not the end of he story,” Bryant said. “This is the beginning of the story.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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