Retracing the Steps of a National Hero
As the keeper of our heritage, the National Park Service preserves places and interprets stories that weave together this nation’s fabric. The over 400 sites of the National Park System represent where we’ve been as a nation, both in times of triumph and tragedy, and who we aspire to be. They share the stories of a nation molded through transformational democratic philosophies, seemingly insurmountable struggles, atrocities never to be forgotten, and deeply inspiring examples of the resilience and power of extraordinary individuals.
Among the national parks that honor the modern civil rights movement, these four have a special connection with the leader who wholly espoused the ideologies we cherish and embodied the strength of the human spirit. Learn more about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s revolutionary work and legacy at these sites in Alabama, Georgia, and Washington D.C.
Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park stretches across several blocks of Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn Historic District. Here, visitors can join a ranger-led tour through his birth home and pay their respects at Dr. King and Coretta Scott King’s tomb. An eternal flame perpetually glows before the gravesite in their honor. The park also encompasses the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where both Dr. King and his father served as pastors, the World Peace Rose Garden, the King Center, and the Historic Fire Station No. 6.
On a late summer day in August of 1963, over 200,000 demonstrators gathered in the nation’s capital to join the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech – one of this nation’s most memorable and moving speeches – on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day. The spot on which he spoke is engraved to mark this iconic and defining moment in the civil rights movement.
The fight for the right to vote came to a head in 1965 when activists in Alabama organized to protest the unjust laws preventing African-Americans from this civic right. At Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail, visitors can learn about Dr. King’s involvement in leading the march and about the brave protestors whose actions resulted in the successful trek along the 54 miles from the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery. The events surrounding the march garnered national attention and outrage, particularly with the attacks on what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” and ultimately led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act in August of 1965.
Overlooking the Tidal Basin in Washington D.C.’s West Potomac Park stands the majestic Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. The statue is in line with the Jefferson Memorial – emphasizing his commitment to realizing Jefferson’s promise that “all men are created equal” – and the Lincoln Memorial, from which he delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech.” As visitors walk along, reading the wall of quotes, their understanding of Dr. King’s vision is deepened and the symbolism of the memorial’s design comes to life. The words, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” are inscribed on the side of his statue which protrudes forth from the mountain of despair.
These national parks allow us to learn more about a profoundly important leader in our nation’s history and encourage us to reflect on the traits embodied by those whom we revere as citizens and as individuals. Dr. King’s work, life, and legacy will forever ignite the hearts of those who seek to right the injustices of our time and move us to action. After all, he engrained in us the lesson that, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."