Picture Martin Luther King Jr., and you likely imagine him leading marchers across Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, or speaking before a quarter million civil rights supporters on the mall in Washington D.C. But perhaps no place is more closely connected to King than Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. His father, Martin Luther King Sr., was pastor there, as was his grandfather Adam Daniel Williams. Seventy years ago this fall, MLK delivered his first sermon from the pulpit of Ebenezer, and 60 years ago the Southern Christian Leadership Conference grew out of meetings King held at the church. Ebenezer is where King was baptized and where he was eulogized in 1968.
Although years ago the congregation moved from the small Auburn Avenue building—now a federal historic site—to a larger space up the street, Ebenezer remains the spiritual home of not just the King family but many prominent members of Atlanta’s black community. Every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, hundreds gather there for a commemorative service honoring MLK’s message and work. Previous keynote speakers have included Cornel West, Rick Warren, Andrew Young, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, and Coretta Scott King. (This year’s keynote will be delivered by Father Michael Pfleger of the Faith Community of Saint Sabina in Chicago, along with a tribute by Sen. Bernie Sanders.) In 2008 then-senator Barack Obama spoke there on the eve of MLK Day. Recalling King’s appeal for unity, Obama said, “We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing someone else down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we must purge from our politics, the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late.”
This article originally appeared in our January 2017 issue.