MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.'S Queen-Anne style birth home, his crypt, the church he pastored, and the family-run King Center in Atlanta draw about 1 million tourists a year. But as of yesterday, visitors who came expecting tours of his home found the door shut.
Shut because of a bitter battle that pits the King family against the community and the National Park Service, which runs the King historic district. On Wednesday Coretta Scott King and her son Dexter ordered the Park Service personnel, who administer the house tours, off its property. The move is another chapter in a fast-developing saga that has angered the many city leaders and residents who are siding with the federal agency. The Kings, they charge, are jeopardizing completion of the renovation of Atlanta's leading tourist spot in time for the 1996 Olympics.
``As a community, we're alarmed and kind of disgusted about all of this,'' says Mtamanika Youngblood, executive director of the Historic District Development Corporation, an organization that is building and renovating homes near the King district.
The dispute erupted about two weeks ago. At issue is a visitor's center the Park Service is building across the street from the King Center and scheduled to open for the Olympics. The center would include an exhibit on Dr. King's life and the civil rights movement and provide much-needed parking areas and restrooms. It would be free to the public.
But the King family announced plans to halt the project and build a museum using interactive technology to commemorate King on the same site. The museum would charge a fee. ``We maintain that the King Center, and not the federal government, should be the guardian of his legacy,'' Dexter King said at a Wednesday press conference. ``The National Park Service plan is self-serving. The King Center plan is self-sustaining.'' But some say the Kings are only trying to profit.
The National Park Service established itself in the neighborhood in 1983 at the invitation of Mrs. King. It has received $11.8 million from Congress to renovate the area and has refurbished a number of dilapidated houses near the King birth home. Two and a half years ago the agency began negotiating a deal with the city to build a visitor's center. During this process, Mrs. King was involved in the major decisions regarding the center, says Troy Lissimore, park superintendent for the King Historic Site. Mrs. King, however, has said she wasn't consulted.
Construction on the center, which the city deeded to the Park Service last fall, began two months ago. ``We're not here to inhibit or prevent; we're here to enhance and promote Dr. King and the King Center,'' Mr. Lissimore says. ``The visitor's center is just a place to orient the public, let them have restrooms, give them a place to park their cars in safety.''
The King family has been lobbying in Washington to stop the project and has some local supporters such as former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But other leaders, like Mayor Bill Campbell, are determined the Park Service project will continue. Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, who helped get the funds for the project, will try to mediate on Jan. 21.
Legally, the Kings can't stop the project, says Ms. Youngblood. The family did announce Wednesday, however, that they had received a $100 million ``letter of inducement'' from a corporation to build their museum.
Meanwhile, the family says the King Center will begin its own tours soon. The Park Service still plans to give tours passing in front of the house.