Photograph courtesy of Mary Moon
This article originally appeared in our September 1980 issue.
“On Auburn Avenue, we expect to restore his birthplace and continue the life of Ebenezer Baptist Church, his spiritual home. Together with these, in a memorial park, we plan to locate his final place of entombment and build as well a living, open Freedom Hall which will tell for many generations the story of the movement which he led.”
–Coretta Scott King
January 15, 1969
Since Mrs. King uttered that statement over 11 years ago, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change has had many vocal critics, some in Atlanta, others nationwide.
Boyd Lewis, a reporter for Radio Station WABE in Atlanta, has been among the most critical and caustic. In his probing investigative reports, also carried on the national public radio network, Lewis questioned what happened to $5 million in grants which have come to the Center during the past 11 years; why it took ten years for the organization to file an annual fiscal report with the State of Georgia; the function of the Fund for Peace, Nonviolence and Brotherhood, which received a total of $362,191 from the Center from 1971 to 1977; and the fact that the chairman of the board of trustees didn’t know of the existence of this fund.
Lewis also asked why Jimmy Carter was given the Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace Prize in 1979, implying it was a politically motivated gesture to help the Center receive large sums of money from a variety of Federal agencies. Why did the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which was founded by Dr. King, picket the 1979 MLK birthday week activities?
What, exactly, is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change?
Mrs. King granted ATLANTA Magazine a four-hour interview when the initial research into these questions began, and other Center staff members were equally helpful. Board members were interviewed, along with former directors in an attempt to unravel some of the mystery often associated with what the Center is doing.
To investigate allegations of financial mismanagement and possible violations of the regulations for solicitation and collection of funds for charitable purposes, interviews were held with officials in the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office and with officials in the Office of the Attorney General. Atlanta Constitution reporters who had written a series of articles on the Center in 1979 were questioned, and the publisher of a black newspaper in Atlanta — a critic of what the Center has and has not been doing — was interviewed.
In short, opinions and facts were gathered from friend and foe alike in an effort to gather sufficient information to objectively analyze the organization and its success or failure in reaching its stated goals and objectives.
One conclusion comes across loud and clear after interviewing scores of individuals: there is a great deal of general confusion about the real purpose of the Center.
John Cox, an active board member, chairperson of the steering committee for King Week 1980, and a Delta Air Lines executive, says the Center is “a Mecca for black people. It symbolizes a great person, a great man.” He further states that “it is a national organization,” and that it has “a national and an international mission.” It is not a local center, he says. “It is manifested in Atlanta and in other parts of the country.
Some, however, feel good works should begin at home.
C. A. Scott, owner and publisher of The Atlanta Voice, believes the King Center should be doing more in Atlanta to help the elderly and the needy in emergency situations. He also believes the mission of the Center should be primarily to “carry out the basic non-violent philosophy of Dr. King.” Mr. Scott, an active Republican, also says Mrs. King is too partisan to the Democratic Party and President Carter. (Mrs. King, Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr., and most of the King family have publicly endorsed Carter for President in the 1980 election.)
Mrs. King considers her personal work and efforts as being vital parts of the contribution the King Center is making, and it is difficult to separate the activities of the Center from her activities. From 1971 to 1977, $362,191 was taken from the treasury of the Center and “donated” to the MLK Fund for Peace and Non-Violence. The address for this Fund was Mrs. King’s home, and there is no public accounting for how these funds were spent. Official King Center records indicate Mrs. King received a salary of only one dollar per year from 1968 through 1978. Her annual stipend as of October, 1979, is $12,000 per year.
Mrs. Christine Farris, treasurer of the Center and sister of the slain Nobel Prize winner, says the Fund was used to pay for the Center’s non-profit business affairs. (The Fund has since been succeeded by the President’s Program.)
In 1978 Mrs. King spent $80,000 to attend conferences and do whatever she felt was necessary to accomplish the goals of the Center. Nonviolent Change, an occasional newsletter put out by the Center, noted in its Winter, 1979, edition that the President’s Program “includes Mrs. King’s work as she travels across the country speaking out on social change issues as Chief Executive of the King Center.” (In 1979 her work also took her to Europe and Asia.)
Lloyd Davis, the new Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Center, agrees with Mrs. King that her efforts have been crucial in helping the organization move toward meeting its goals and objectives. He says the nation would not now have the Humphrey-Hawkins full-employment bill had it not been for the King Center and the personal efforts of Mrs. King and other officers in helping persuade key people in Washington to support the bill. Davis also says we would not have other pieces of social-oriented legislation without the efforts which have been put forth through the Center’s President’s Program. He cites the White House Conference on Families (on which Mrs. King was the deputy chairperson) and support of the Equal Rights Amendment and causes of the labor movement as examples of important and meaningful activities of the King Center and Mrs. King.
Some argue Mrs. King could have participated in all of these activities as an individual even if there were no such entity as the MLK Center for Social Change. Her stature as the widow of Dr. King might easily qualify her to sit on numerous boards and commissions. Supporters contend her position as President of an organization dedicated to social change gives her the opportunity to establish her own identity and reputation as an effective leader and organizer, fighting for issues and causes she believes are just and right.
An Atlanta Constitution series on the King Center, published October 17 and 18, 1979, by Carole Ashkinaze, Seth Kantor, Jim Stewart and Tina McElroy, delineated the Center’s ability to raise millions of dollars during the past 11 years for its many projects and activities. Steve Klein, who is in charge of the Center’s pubic relations, says he did not consider the series an objective evaluation of the entire organization, although he did admit the King Center generally got better coverage from the Constitution and the Atlanta Journal than from most newspapers.
In an effort to investigate allegations that the organization might be raising funds for one purpose and using them for another, ATLANTA Magazine examined certain reports which have been recorded with the Secretary of State’s Office. According to the state law which regulates professional fund raisers, every charitable organization which has received contributions during the preceding calendar year “shall file a written report with the department [Department of State] on or before March 31st of each year . . . ” The Center for Social Change, which began receiving funds in 1971, did not file until 1979, after WABE’s Boyd Lewis discovered the Center had never filed a financial report in Georgia.
A careful review of the reports filed since 1979 by this reporter and Boyd Lewis found no evidence of a misappropriation of funds. Officials and board members state their lawyers had not known they had to file a report in Georgia.
But what have they been doing with all that money?
Next Page: A center out of touch with its community
One Atlanta journalist who has covered the Center since its conception says he still does not know what the goals of the organization are. When reminded that the King Center would be a memorial to Dr. King, he replies, “Is this in keeping with the hopes and aspirations of the people Martin Luther King, Jr. struggled to help and to improve conditions for?” He says he does not think so.
Others tend to voice similar opinions. Many say they feel that what the Center is and what it aspires to be do not meet the goals and vision of the person for whom it is named. Over and over again, those in the streets around the Center and in the towers overlooking the city echo the aforementioned reporter: “They do not maintain their ties with the underclass, the underprivileged, the underpaid, etc. And if they don’t do that, then they’re not doing what Martin Luther King wanted done.”
Ms. Ella Mae Brayboy, the Center’s new full-time community organization specialist, is viewed as the staff person who is really in touch with the community. She says her title is Outreach Coordinator. Most of her efforts seem to be directed toward the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, which is described in the organization’s 1979 annual report as a program which “seeks to integrate and coordinate the economic, cultural and physical development of the MLK Historical District with the surrounding ‘Sweet Auburn and Old Fourth Ward’ community.” The long range goal is to “make the District one of the greatest tourist attractions in the nation.”
Ms. Brayboy is involved with the “citizen participation component” of the program, and she was most cooperative in attempting to illustrate how the King Center is really in touch with the poor and oppressed in Atlanta. Aside from two student interns, she is the only staff person who is actively working as a liaison between the poor and the plethora of social service programs in Atlanta. She says the organization is “fast becoming an information and referral agency in the community.” When asked what is the major criticism she most often hears about the King Center, she admits, “The people haven’t really known what the Center is designing itself to do.” She says there is much confusion between the city-owned MLK Community Center and the MLK Center for Social Change. One thing she would like to make clear is the distinction between the two “King Centers.”
The King Center Complex’s programs and facilities are being developed in a four-phase plan which is now in its final phase. Phase I, was the restoration of Dr. King’s birthplace, 501 Auburn Ave., completed in January of 1975. Phase II was the MLK Community Center at 450 Auburn Ave., opened in 1976. Phase III, the Permanent Entombment and the Inter-Faith Peace Chapel, was dedicated in 1977. Phase IV, the Freedom Hall Complex, is the last remaining component. When groundbreaking ceremonies were held in October, 1979, the first spadeful of dirt was jointly thrown by Jesse Hill, Rev. Andrew Young, Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr., Mrs. Coretta Scott King and Henry Ford II, chairman of the Freedom Hall fund-raising campaign. Mr. Ford has helped raise over $8.2 million to construct Freedom Hall.
The King Historic District is a five-block area which does not technically include the City-owned King Community Center. The Community Center is adjacent to the King Historical District, and the City of Atlanta is responsible for its coordination of services, operation and maintenance. Inside, along with a variety of City and Fulton County programs, is a day care center operated by the Center for Social Change. The other four human service agencies in the Center include a branch of the Atlantic Public Library; a gymnasium, game rooms and a beautiful covered pool operated by the Bureau of Parks and Recreation; an office of the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services; and a neighborhood service center operated by Economic Opportunity Atlanta.
The objective of the Community Center is “to provide direct access to a broad range of human services at the neighborhood level. The Community Center serves as a catalyst or hub from which community life emanates and flourishes.” So states an official brochure published by the Atlanta Bureau of Human Services. At the bottom of the brochure is the statement: “In support of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change.”
What this all means is that the Community Center is not really a part of the Center for Social Change. It is not even a part of the King Historical District. It is, however, a part of the King Center Complex. Along with a display of Freedom Hall in the Center’s lobby, a large sign states: “Freedom Hall will complete the ten-year construction plan of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change. Freedom Hall’s two wings will contain the King Library and Archives, the International Conference Center, Secretariats for the Institutes on Non-Violence and on Policy Research, seminar classrooms for the Scholarship Internship Program and a two-story exhibit area depicting man’s continuing commitment to human rights.”
There is, then, a relationship between the Community Center and the Center for Social Change. Without the efforts of Mrs. King, it is doubtful the Community Center, opened in 1976, would have so quickly received over $3 million from H.U.D., the Department of Interior, the City of Atlanta and a million-dollar grant from an anonymous donor.
When local residents, however, are asked if they think Mrs. King is doing anything for the community, the responses are vague. One man says he thinks she is doing something to help, but he doesn’t know exactly what it is. “She never gets out to walk among the poor in the community or in the projects [which are across the street from the Community Center],” he says and adds that he feels she should be more in touch with the people in the area.
When a group of young working men are asked what they think of the Center for Social Change, they think they are being asked about the Community Center. When the distinction is made clear between the Community Center, (where the gym and pool tables are) and the King Center up the street next to the “birth home,” the response is: “I didn’t even know a center was up there.”
Darell E. Lumpkin, who has lived within five blocks of the King home all his 24 years, says, “They’re not doing nothing as far as I know. I hear about it on the news.” Samuel Perkins, his friend who works at Western Electric, agrees that he also has no knowledge of any activities of the Center.
A janitor in a group of apartments within a few blocks of the King Center is asked what he thinks the Center has done to continue the work of Dr. King. His answer is swift and direct: “Nothing.”
When an elderly woman is asked what she thinks the King Center should do to carry on the work of Dr. King, she answers, “If they own so much property, they should tear down some of these raggedy-assed houses and put up some decent houses for people to live in.”
Wheat Street Garden Public Housing (also known as the Martin Luther King Apartments), where the above interviews were conducted, is a slum area with numerous abandoned buildings, broken windows, derelicts sleeping in empty apartments and doorways. Children living there complain about rats in their homes and in their play areas — play areas which are cluttered with broken wine and beer bottles, frequented daily by winos who make passes and remarks to seven- and eight-year-old children. Most of the play equipment is broken, there are no swings, no see-saws, no semblance of any attention by City officials to the recreational needs of these children. Of the 15 to 20 youths who gather around a tape recorder, eager to talk, playful, at times serious, few even know who Martin Luther King, Jr., really was. To many he is a holiday — a day out of school; to some, a great black man. None of these youngsters, ranging in age from eight to 14, all black, has ever heard of the MLK Center for Social Change.
Harrison Anderson, administrator of the Community Center right next to the projects, admits there is great confusion between the two centers. His primary concern is money to maintain his operation; he has had the same allocation for the last three years, despite inflation. He says they need help from the private business sector desperately. Millions are being poured into building Freedom Hall across the street, but employment programs are being cut back in the Community Center due to lack of funds.
When the proposed Freedom Hall was shown in a slide presentation, previewed during 1980 King Week festivities, the narration (spoken by critically acclaimed actor James Earl Jones) stated, “This is the way he would have wanted it.”
Some, it is obvious, doubt that.
Leon Hall, now a City official, is one of six past administrators of the Center for Social Change. A close friend of Dr. King and one of the leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, Hall is a firm supporter of the Center and its objectives. He was very much in the middle of things from 1875 to 1979, and he was director of the 1979 January program with the title Special Assistant to the President. He admits there were many problems getting the Center off the ground and many mistakes were made. He also says people expect much from this organization, perhaps too much, just as they expected so much from Dr. King.
One journalist says the problems with the Center might be more image oriented, more psychological than concrete, adding, “But if it is psychological, then surely there is something that can be done about it.”
One of the things which could possibly be done is to let people know more about programs the Center is working on. Steve Kline, the PR man, says no one looks at the programs; they just keep focusing in on the activities of Mrs. King. He feels there has been no good press recently on the success of the Center’s programs.
Next page: Measuring the benefits
In its annual report for the 1979 program year, the Center for Social Change gives a lengthy report on nine programs and under “New Directions” briefly discusses three on the drawing boards. Also under the “New Directions” are nine institutes, all reported to have been established.
One of the primary programs seems to be the President’s Program (of the King Center), which gives Mrs. King “an opportunity to pursue those interests where she can make a unique contribution.” During 1979, it permitted her to chair the Full Employment Action Council, which the annual report states “made possible the passage of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act.”
Many people, of course, are critical of the usefulness of this act. “It is a goal — which is easy to set forth — but it does not mandate that these goals must be reached,” says one critic, while others say, “It simply set another goal. How many people does it feed? How many businesses has it persuaded to hire unemployed and under-employed poor people?” and “How many minds has it changed that are prejudiced against black people?” Another sums it up this way: “The HH Bill is meaningless when it comes to actually changing unemployment.”
The President’s Program has allowed Mrs. King to attend the United Nations as the first voting public delegate and “to represent the Center in a wide range of activities from board membership on the National Alliance of Business to serving as Commissioner during the International Women’s Year.” Also under this program, Mrs. King “utilized press conferences, congressional testimony, media interviews, articles and countless speaking engagements to focus public attention on a variety of critical issues ranging from unemployment, crime and violence to disarmament and self-determination for developing nations.”
The Archives Project, which was the center of a minor controversy and the focus of an Atlanta Constitution article in October, 1979, recently lost its archivist, David Levine. It is operating under a three-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and is supposed to be “one of the most complete historical records of the organizations dedicated to carrying on the work of Dr. King.”
Prior to leaving the staff, Levine was quoted as saying the Archives may not be open to the general public in Freedom Hall. As of that interview, he said no final policy decision had been made on whether to restrict access solely to “qualified” scholars.
Day Care, or The Early Learning Center Program, is housed within the Community Center across the street from Ebenezer Baptist Church. It provides basic day care and meals for an average 68 pre-school children. The director, Ms. Brunetta Lucas, has a highly trained staff of ten full-time and three part-time teachers. Four of the ten “lead teachers” are fully accredited four-year college graduates; the other six are graduates of the Atlanta Area Technical School who are certified in early childhood education.
Despite some criticism, the program appears to be’ an excellent one where children are being taught nonviolent problem-solving techniques and families are being counseled to relieve domestic and economic problems. There are over 200 applications on file for persons requesting and needing child care. The problem has received ratings of excellence from many State and Federal agencies.
The Reading Academy has enrolled more than 600 students and trained more than 500 tutors since 1976. During the 1979-1980 school year, it attempted to establish several satellite reading programs in the inner-city of Atlanta. Among students pre-tested for the program during 1978-1979, 467 read below the fourth grade level, and of those, 37 were illiterate. Eighty-five per cent of all students from 1976 to 1979 were between the ages of 26 and 45. The greatest gains were made by those whose reading levels upon entrance into the program were from the first through the sixth grade.
The Scholars Internship program is in its fifth year and is supposed to involve 11 weeks of intensive study, discussion and field work. The initial two weeks are intended to be devoted to seminars and discussions in which the interns explore the theories, history, key movements and strategies which give nonviolent social change its spirit and power. More than 80 college students have participated in this program as of January, 1980.
Students enrolled during the 1980 winter quarter were an integrated group of males and females, bright and eager to become involved in promoting social change.
These six students were somewhat disappointed there had been no intensive two-week preparatory period because of a recent change in staff at the Center. The new director had only been on board for a month, and the promised seminars had not been organized beforehand. Most of the students had field assignments, and most were pleased with what they were learning at the King Center.
One girl, from Antioch University (Mrs. King’s alma mater), was very upset because the Center was not as socially active as she had expected. She asked at one meeting, “How can a place that is institutionalized promote social change?” She felt if the King Center became a part of the system, it would have to give up many of its values and ideals. Most of the students had no prior knowledge of the Center until they were told about it by college officials. Martin Luther King Week is the most widely known activity of the King Center. Annually, during the week of MLK’s birthday — January 15th — scores of dignitaries come to Atlanta from around the world to honor Dr. King.
Speakers at the 1980 observance described the Center for Social Change as “the centerpiece of Atlanta, Georgia and the heartbeat of the nation. The week-long program was stimulating and often inspiring. The question on many minds was what do we do for the next 51 weeks? Freedom Hall was discussed extensively, and a strategy session outlined a scheme for network building. There were solemn presentations on topics such as “Solutions to the Problems of Crime and Violence” and emotional discussions of ERA and the power of the gay lobby.
Mrs. Rosa Parks, known as the “Precipitator of the Montgomery, Alabama Bus Protest (1955-56)” was this year’s recipient of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize. (The award last year went to President Carter, provoking protest from the SCLC and several organizations representing the poor and oppressed.)
Freedom Tours is a major income-producing program of the Center. Managed by Isaac Farris — husband of Dr. King’s sister, Christine — the Tours are estimated to attract more than 200,000 people per year to Atlanta. The King Center says this is the “the largest number of visitors for any site in Atlanta.” The Atlanta Chamber of Commerce estimates this number will have approached 500,000 by mid-1980. The charge for the tour is $2 per person.
Buses can be seen rolling up Auburn Avenue daily, stopping in front of Ebenezer Church, the permanent entombment, the birth home, the Community Center or the organization’s headquarters. The doors do not open, however, until the buses reach the area of the MLK Complex. After the tour, the visitors get back on the bus and roll out of the area to their hotels and motels. Officials at the Center say the Tours “have a very positive effect on the local economy.”
Auburn Avenue businessmen would disagree.
“Sweet Auburn” is now a depressed area, suffering from urban decay and neglect. There is no visible evidence to suggest the Tours are helping local black businesses in any significant way. No food is purchased locally by those on tour, and all souvenirs are purchased from the souvenir shop operated by the Center and located in front of the ongoing Freedom Hall construction.
Under “New Directions” in its annual report, the King Center discusses the Neighborhood Revitalization, Chaplains, Scholars Intern and Communications Programs, in addition to new programs such as Volunteer and Committee on Research and Program Development. These efforts are still in the developmental stage.
Also in the planning stage — becoming operational over a five-year period, beginning this year — are nine Institutes: those for Policy Research and Dissemination, Youth Policy, Cultural Affairs, Theology and Philosophy, Economic Development, Labor, Governmental Affairs, International Affairs and Nonviolence. The latter recently completed a summer program in cooperation with the National Education Association.
The Center also proposes to create at Freedom Hall one of the world’s major “think tanks.” Mrs. King said at the annual board luncheon during this year’s MLK Week, “I believe that if we can get enough people committed to the nonviolent struggle, we will see even more wondrous change than has taken place since Martin Luther King, Jr., was born half a century ago. Just think of it! A world-wide nonviolent movement could lead to an end to the arms race and a genuine process of disarmament.”
The goals of the King Center, clearly, are ambitious and extensive. Local board members stress that the past decade has been dedicated to building a vehicle to promote meaningful change, that the next decade will be used to get that vehicle in motion, and the following decade will be a period of serious reflection and analysis to determine if the nonviolent approach is an effective strategy to humanize a nation contaminated with racism and economic exploitation.
Those eager to judge, it seems, will have to be patient for a while, to wait and see if the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change will address the experiences of all people, especially those who are poor and oppressed, those for whom it was intended.