Photograph by Kevin Hazzard
At the national park bearing his name, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a crowd that did not arrive today. There would be no students, no awestruck pilgrims, no laughing children. His voice, and his incomparable “I have a dream” speech, was broadcast from speakers perched above his crypt, which is in the center privately run by his family. King’s words echoed over Auburn Avenue: “Free at last! Free at last!”
When federal lawmakers failed to pass a budget by their self-imposed deadline of midnight yesterday, a government shutdown went into effect, closing federal facilities and suspending non-essential services. Nearly 800,000 government employees, furloughed without pay, were told to stay home. Among the casualties were Georgia’s eleven national parks, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site on Auburn Avenue and the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in Cobb County.
As I walked around the NPS-run King visitors center today, the only visible signs of life came from photographers searching for an elusive park ranger who’d disappeared the moment he saw the news trucks arrive. He finally surfaced at another building in the historic site—Fire Station 6, Atlanta’s oldest standing firehouse. He would not comment, but as I stood watching, he hung a sign on the firehouse door declaring the site closed due to the government shutdown.
It was the same at Dr. King’s birthplace further up Auburn Avenue, and at historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, both of which are operated by the National Park Service.
As I was leaving David and Deborah Wilson, tourists from northwest England, were just learning the effects of American partisan politics. They had no idea what was happening until I told them. They were stunned.
The Wilson’s U.S. itinerary included what they called “the MLK Loop,” a tour of the South starting in Atlanta and finishing in Memphis—the sites of Dr. King’s birth and death, respectively—before flying north to DC.
Exhibiting that famous British dry humor, Deborah Wilson said, “We’re here for eighteen days. I’ll bet that’s how long this lasts.”
Thirty minutes north, Kennesaw Mountain was packed. Crowds of hikers streamed past a ranger posting red “Do Not Enter” signs at the park’s visitor center lot. Though he declined to give specifics, the ranger said law enforcement staff would remain at the park throughout the closure.
While we spoke, a hiker asked if she was allowed to go in. He told her the park was “officially” closed. She flashed a conspiratorial smile, then disappeared into the lush green hills.
Government can close a park maybe, but not a mountain.