Preserving both Maynard Jackson's and MLK's legacy on Sunset Ave.

By Maria Saporta

My life was transformed at 234 Sunset Ave. – the home of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King and their four children.

As I have written before, my closest friend in 1966 to 1968 was the oldest of the King children – the late Yolanda King. I had the incredible good fortune to spend the night in the home, to get to know Martin Luther King Jr., and the entire family, and to have gone to church with the family on several Sunday mornings at Ebenezer Baptist Church where I heard King preach.

So I am thrilled the home where King lived until his assassination in 1968 is now the property of the National Park Service, and eventually the home will be opened up to the public, which will be able to see how modestly the King family lived. It’s a history that Atlanta needs to embrace and share with the rest of the world.

King home

A view of the Martin Luther King Jr. home with 220 Sunset Ave. in the background (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

But that should not come at the expense of Vine City’s other significant historical sites – namely the adjacent four-unit apartment building at 220 Sunset Ave.

The King Center, which has owned the building since 1970, has received a permit from the City of Atlanta to demolish the building, but the Vine City Civic Association and legacy residents are pushing back.

That red brick building holds an important place in Atlanta’s history. The building was built by Maynard Jackson Sr., the father of Maynard Jackson Jr., for $8,000 in 1949.

Jackson Jr., elected in 1973, was the first African-American mayor of a major Southern city. He was instrumental in the integration of Atlanta’s business power structure as the father of the minority-majority joint venture.

Although his father died in 1953, the younger Jackson and his family continued to live in the apartment building until 1961, with the exception of some time the family spent in Toulouse, France. Then in 1961, his mother – Irene Dobbs Jackson – moved to take a teaching job in North Carolina. The house continued to be owned by the family until the mid 1960s.

220 Sunset

A front view of 220 Sunset Ave. (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Eventually – in October 1970, the Martin Luther King Fund acquired the building. Coretta Scott King was running the King Center from her basement at 234 Sunset.

After acquiring 220 Sunset, the King Center used the building for visiting scholars and other uses. But the King Center’s base of operations moved to the Interdenominational Center around 1972 and then to 503 Auburn Ave., which was next to the birth home in 1977. Then in 1981,  the King Center’s headquarters were moved to a multimillion dollar facility on Auburn Avenue strategically located between King’s birth home and Ebenezer Baptist Church.

The King Center has owned the 220 Sunset since 1970. In 2010, the Sunset Avenue Historic District was established, but for some unknown reason, the map of the district did not include 220 Sunset even though it was mentioned several times in the application. Residents believe there must have been a mistake.

Bernice King, CEO of the King Center, issued a statement last week, that said the building needed to be demolished “because it is filled with asbestos, is structurally unsound, has a caved in roof, unstable bearings and flooring, and rapidly decaying bricks. The building is beyond remediation and needs to be demolished for the sake of public health and safety.”

But the King Center owned the building during the time it deteriorated. In preservation circles, that is known as demolition by neglect. In the King Center’s defense, it is a nonprofit with a mission of nonviolent social change rather than in the real estate business. Either way, it is important that we don’t demolish buildings just because they weren’t properly maintained by the owners.

220 Sunset Ave.

A view of the four-unit apartment building that Maynard Jackson Sr. built 70 years ago (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Bernice King’s statement also said the “property is currently under conditional sale to the National Park Foundation, charitable partner of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) for the benefit of the public. It is our understanding that the NPS is committed to working with the community to determine the best use of the space in terms of public safety and heritage.”

Since the NPS is going to ultimately own the property, the building should undergo the same kind of scrutiny required of federally-owned historic facilities.

Judy Forte, superintendent of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, issued a statement on Friday.

“The property located at 220 Sunset Avenue currently lies outside the boundaries and jurisdiction of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park,” Forte stated. “In the event the park’s boundaries are legislatively expanded to include and authorize acquisition of the property, the National Park Service would actively engage the community in determining its best public use. The National Park Service intends to foster an open and thoughtful process that unearths meaningful stories about the King family and civil rights movement in the Sunset Avenue community.”

Bernice King also admitted that “the King Center had no knowledge of the Jackson family living at 220 Sunset Ave. and was unaware of the possible connection.”

220 Sunset

A view of 220 Sunset from the street (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

So what should happen now?

First, the Sunset Avenue Historic District should be corrected to include 220 Sunset.

Second, the King Center and NPS should hit the “pause” or “stop” button on the building’s demolition so an independent assessment can be made of how the building could be preserved to complement the King home and the rest of the Vine City’s historic destinations. One of the great untapped opportunities for the Westside is cultural tourism that spotlights black and civil rights history.

In short, honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and his family should NOT be mutually exclusive of honoring the legacy of former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson Jr., someone who transformed the city, the state and the nation when it came to integrating our economy.

We should celebrate both men and their families for their incredible contributions. The building at 220 Sunset could become a place to tell that history.

220 Sunset

A view of the King home from the vantage point of 220 Sunset (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Another point we can’t ignore. If we let 220 Sunset Ave. be demolished, how will we be able to preserve Gaines Hall, Fountain Hall, Paschal’s Restaurant/Paschal’s Motor Lodge as well as the Grace Hamilton homes across from the elegant Herndon Home museum (which also could benefit from extra love and care from the larger community).

And while we’re at it, let’s find a way to preserve West Hunter Baptist Church, the Phyllis Whatley YWCA and the numerous other historic treasures throughout Vine City, English Avenue and the Atlanta University Center.

Sunset Avenue is a good place to start. Let’s show how we can honor our past as we welcome our future.

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.

6 replies
  1. Avatar
    Bonnie O'Neill says:

    As usual, well written and informative article. Atlanta is too often a city "too busy to remember and honor its history" Thanks for reminding us that understanding our past is the first step to chartting a wiser future.
    Love your Report! BonnieReport

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  2. Avatar
    Van Hakk says:

    I worked at 220 Sunset Avenue in 1970-71 for Southern Rural Action, a group doing economic development in southern rural areas affected by the Movement, headed by Randy Blankwell, the former Program Director of SCLC. My feelings about the building's demolition are mixed. Although I worked there as part of the Movement, and it has relationship to the King Center and the King family, I'm not sure it's important enough to be preserved. It is architecturally unremarkable, both inside & out. Its link to the Movement is more financial than historic. The lot frankly would be of more use if it were repurposed in some way to support the King family home's use by the U.S. Park Service. A plaque in front of the building commemorating the site as the original home of the King Center and Southern Rural action would be fitting.Report

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    • Avatar
      Deborah says:

      As Maria stated, this building has value to be preserved in it's own right. Maynard Jackson not only changed the face of Atlanta, but put us on the world's map with his strategic building of the World's Busiest Airport and bringing the 1976 Olympics to Atlanta.Report

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Phillip Scott Wallace says:

      I disagree. This is about *Atlanta* history proper, and not MLK per se, nor what he fought for. It is about a man who benefited from that struggle….and sense his victory was not a conquest per se, also about a city that benefited from that struggle.

      I do not agree with set-asides today…but that does not mean I thus despise Maynard Jackson. On the contrary. He is of Atlanta (city and region, [thanks to the airport], I am of Atlanta (city and region). He should be remembered, in an appropriate way, so that we may remember Atlanta, city and region. This house serves as notice of the icing on the cake of the efforts of the man who baked that cake, next door. Where one address is the promise, the other is the beginning of the fulfillment. It needs to be independent, in spirt, if nothing else.Report

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    Deborah says:

    As Maria stated, this building has value to be preserved in it's own right. Maynard Jackson not only changed the face of Atlanta, but put us on the world's map with his strategic building of the World's Busiest Airport and bringing the 1976 Olympics to Atlanta.Report

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    Phillip Scott Wallace says:

    Now let us remember our Toqueville…for as he noted, Americans–that unique breed–band together to do something where elsewhere, in oher nations they would have the govenrment do it, or have it not be done at all (in this case, government would have torn it down.). "Associations", he called it. Burke–"Little platoons." Myself–Ownership, stewardship." Others would call it "passing it forward." At any rate, after overpaying for other historic Atlanta real estate (despite having for decades having spent large sums to prevent similar ruination as now faces this particular home), I'm not sure the federal fisc has much more it needs to spend. Besides, I'm fairly sure the phrase "The Lord helps those who help themselves" is universal, and Atlanta is a prosperous town. So I'm told.

    Naturally, the campaign will be whatever it will be, but from my own sense, the dwelling would ideally be best served as (perhaps) a Visitor Center West (though surely the NPS has its own plans, an third building in the vicinity is not to be despised), as well as gratis or cheap lodging for visiting scholars (always a necessity to those doing research on limited budgets, and which would preserve the original feel of the house.) A good bit of the King Papers, after all, are at Morehouse, and the Georgia State Archives, the King Center library, other AUC collections, as well as those at Georgia Tech are nearby (with Atlanta History Center within driving distance.) "Jackson Scholars", I should think. This to me is the path to long term support and sustainability of the place, linking it to the adjacent King property while at the same time providing enough independence as to keep funding at a suitable level….while maintaining the fact that it is Maynard Jackson we are talking about, and not Dr. Martin Luther King. Maynard Jackson was a pol, and all pols have their vices, but by and large he was a good man, and we should give him some unique and worthy commemoration of an appropriate sort–and I think continuing this home as a home, for those engaged in study (as surely Jackson so used the home while at Morehouse), is appropriate.Report

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