It might not come as a surprise that the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is packed with landmarks and legacies of some of the most important moments in America’s struggle for justice, equality, and dignity. Whether strolling through Dr. King’s old stomping grounds, devouring a plate of fried chicken at Paschal’s, or checking out the nightclub where Ru Paul first performed, you’ll be steeped in a living history of the fight for human rights in the United States.
On this weekend trip, you’ll spend the first day exploring the geography of the Civil Rights Movement and the second day walking through the history of Atlanta’s Gay Liberation Movement.
Day 1: African American Civil Rights
When the landmark Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education brought segregation to an end, Georgia’s officials fought to keep segregation going in its own schools and businesses. Despite (or perhaps because of) the intolerant attitudes of the state’s leadership and many of its white citizens, Atlanta became a key battleground in the fight for African American civil rights.
National Center for Civil and Human Rights
Founded in 2014, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights is newer but it houses a powerful and informative exhibition of America’s Civil Rights Movement. Unlike traditional museums, this space offers a more interactive and engaging display of artifacts and historical events.
One of the most impactful exhibits is a lunch counter visitors can sit at while headphones play recordings of violent threats, and chairs rattle from the phantom kicks — all as a recreation of what it was like for the Black activists who protested segregation laws by sitting at White Only lunch counters, insisting on their right to be served like any other customer.
The experience at the museum will leave a strong impression through videos, interactive displays, and stunning replicas of important sites, like that lunch counter or the burnt rubble of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that was bombed by Klan members, killing four young girls inside in 1963.
What To See And Do
Starting your weekend at this museum will give you an overview of America’s struggle for civil rights that will help provide context for the rest of the sites on Day One.
As the promise of emancipation slowly dwindled to a distant memory and the entangled structure of Jim Crow laws and segregation were taking form, Harriet E. Giles and Sophia B. Packard, two Black teachers from Massachusetts headed south to establish an academy for Black women in the basement of the Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta.
In 1881, the school opened with a budget of $100 and a student body totaling 11 women, most of whom were illiterate since little funding had been given to building schools for recently emancipated African Americans or their children.
Within the year, the college had grown to 600 students and 16 faculty members and received additional funding from Atlanta’s Black churches as well as generous donations from philanthropists, including the Spelmans, a wealthy family that had long fought for abolition through activism and participation in the Underground Railroad.
By 1924, what began as a seminary school intended to teach African American women to be good housewives with cultivated tastes and a head for home economics grew into a full college with a complete undergraduate education program and a landmark agreement with Atlanta University to allow Spelman graduates to pursue graduate studies at the latter college — at a time when Black students were summarily denied admission to predominantly white universities (like Atlanta University).
As the Civil Rights Movement picked up steam in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Spelman students would become key organizers in the movement. Under the guidance and encouragement of Howard Zinn — a historian who taught at Spelman in the 1960s, and is perhaps most famous for his book, A People’s History of the United States — Spelman students would organize sit-ins and other nonviolent acts of civil disobedience.
While the leadership at Spelman disapproved of this political activity and ultimately fired Zinn for encouraging students to engage in civil disobedience, the school continued to be a major source of educated female leaders in the Civil Rights Movement including Stacey Abrams, Marian Wright Edelman, Dovey Johnson Roundtree, and Alice Walker.
Today, it’s one of just 35 active women’s colleges in the United States, and just one of 11 that doesn’t deny trans women admission.
What To See And Do
Spelman College boasts a tranquil, tree-filled campus that’s nice to just wander around in, but it’s also home to the only Fine Arts museum in the country that emphasizes art by and about women of the African Diaspora, featuring a rotating exhibit that changes each semester and is open to the public.
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park
You can’t come to the birthplace of Martin Luther King without seeing the birthplace of Martin Luther King. All within a few blocks, you’ll be able to see the house where the instrumental activist was born, the church where he was a pastor, and his grave.
In 1980 the area around the church and home was designated a National Historic Site and a park was built along with a promenade known as the Civil Rights Walk of Fame where plaques honoring major civil rights figures from around the world can be seen.
The Ebenezer Baptist Church is notable not only because Dr. King once served as its pastor. Founded just nine years after reconstruction ended, it began as a small church serving just a handful of Black Atlantans. In 1894, when Rev. Adam Daniel Williams took over as its pastor, it became not just a place of worship, but a resource for the Black community in the midst of the Jim Crow era.
Rev. Williams was a staunch proponent of financial independence for Black people. He encouraged his congregation to become homeowners. He promoted Black-owned businesses. He fought against segregation laws and worked to improve the quality of public accommodations for the Black community.
That progressive and uplifting atmosphere that Rev. Williams created continued under Martin Luther King, Sr. and later, under Martin Luther King, Jr.
What To See And Do
Today, you can take tours of the home where Martin Luther King, Jr. was born; visit his later home where he lived with his wife and fellow activist, Coretta Scott King; walk along the Civil Rights Walk of Fame; visit the Ebenezer Baptist Church; and pay your respects at the final resting places of the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Coretta Scott King.
Paschal’s opened in 1947 and immediately became far more than a place for great soul food. James and Robert Paschal, the brothers who opened the restaurant, were dedicated to the cause of desegregation and civil rights for African Americans.
The restaurant quickly became the hub of the civil rights movement, with leaders like Dr. King, Andrew Young, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Stokley Carmichael meeting there to talk strategy or just rest and eat a hot meal after a long day of marching, arrests, and beatings.
The brothers kept it open all night to provide a safe space for those who were fighting for civil rights. They would also often post bail for those who were arrested and offered free meals to activists.
What To See And Do
Eat! Paschal’s is most famous for its fried chicken which comes with your choice of typically southern sides like macaroni and cheese, collards, cornbread, or biscuits. Portion sizes are generous and the prices are easy on your wallet.
While there are a couple of secondary locations now, the main restaurant is the one on Northside Drive. Although, the very first location was at 831 West Hunter Street (since renamed Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive), but there’s nothing left of the former sandwich shop that it once was.
The oldest Black History Museum in Atlanta, APEX Museum presents American and world history from a Black perspective — a perspective that is all too often left out of the narrative. Beyond preserving that important perspective, the museum’s other mission is to reconnect African Americans with their heritage to reaffirm that their roots are not in slavery but in the rich, diverse, and proud histories of the people on the African continent.
In the words of Dr. Asa Hilliard, a professor whose works inspired the curation of one of the museum’s exhibits, “Whatever you do, never let them begin our history with slavery.”
Exhibits feature world history dating back to at least 6,500 B.C., with an emphasis on recentering the accomplishments and contributions of Africans and the diaspora to art, science, medicine, and architecture.
What To See And Do
Explore the exhibits and check out the replica of the Door of No Return, the infamous passageway that kidnapped Africans walked through on their way to the ships that would carry them to a life of slavery in the New World.
While the artifacts and replicas about chattel slavery are a sobering sight, the overall tone of the museum is an uplifting reminder of all the great achievements of Black people around the world.
Day 2: Gay Liberation
Atlanta was not just a major site of the struggle for African American civil rights. It’s also become the LGBTQ capital of the South. As with the civil rights movement, that honor was earned not by the progressiveness of the city’s government — it was no more willing to embrace its LGBTQ residents than it was its Black residents. The honor was earned by the tenacious and unrelenting activism of LGBTQ Atlantans.
On August 5th 1969, just six weeks after the Stonewall Uprising in New York, Atlanta police raided the Ansley Mall Mini-Cinema, where its predominantly LGBTQ customers were watching a screening of Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys.
While this was far from the first time an LGBTQ safe space had been subject to police raids, the harassment and arrests on that night, combined with the still-fresh memory of Stonewall are often cited as the spark that ignited the birth of Georgia’s Gay Liberation Front.
Six days after the raid, a crowd demanding an end to the police raids gathered outside the office of The Great Speckled Bird — an underground progressive pro-Gay Liberation newspaper whose offices just north of Piedmont Park would later be firebombed and the arsonists never charged.
The protestors were met with mace and several more arrests. Soon after, a group of Atlanta LGBTQ residents, headed by Bill Smith, met at the New Morning Café to form the Gay Liberation Front.
Those activists would organize annual marches down Peachtree Street that eventually grew into today’s Atlanta Gay Pride Festival.
What To See And Do
Although slightly renovated, the mall still exists today. The mini cinema is gone but the LA Fitness gym that now occupies the old Woolworth’s is a favored spot for LGBTQ folks today to work up a sweat and maybe have a meet cute moment.
Stop by to reflect on America’s tragically recent history of terrorizing its LGBTQ community with arbitrary raids and antiquated laws policing gender and sexuality. Unless you’re looking to hit the gym or fill a prescription at the pharmacy, though, this will be a pretty quick visit.
Mrs. P’s Bar & Kitchen
Formerly known as Mrs. P’s Tea Room between 1956 and 1980, this historic restaurant on Ponce de Leon Avenue became one of the first LGBTQ-friendly spaces in Atlanta. Vera Philips opened the bar as an after-work destination for the women who worked at the nearby Sears and Roebuck building (now home to the Ponce City Market).
It soon became a hangout for the lesbian community. By the early 1960s, however, it transformed into a leather and western bar for a predominantly white gay male crowd. While it was a safe space for the LGBTQ community, it was not always a peaceful one.
Throughout the decades of its existence, it would be subject to periodic police raids that had become so common that regulars at the bar would sometimes form a conga line as the officers led them into the back of police vans to take them to jail.
The bar closed in the early 1980s (the exact date is unknown) and the space fell into disrepair until the building was purchased in 2019 and renovated into a boutique hotel with the former LGBTQ-friendly bar reopening as a dining spot in June of this year.
What To See And Do
Stop in for a drink at the bar or book a table for brunch. The newly-opened restaurant plans to host Sunday drag bunches in the future so check the website to see if you can catch one while you’re in town.
This year 306 Ponce de Leon Avenue became the city’s first designated historic landmark dedicated to the city’s LGBTQ history. In the 1980s, the building was home to the Celebrity Club, a night club hosting drag shows where the now legendary RuPaul got his start.
Between 1987 and 2020, it was home to the leather and levi bar Atlanta Eagle. With three bars, a dance floor, and a large back porch area it was one of the few places in Atlanta where LGBTQ folks could feel welcome and celebrate who they are openly.
A frequent target of Atlanta police throughout the 80s, 90s, and early 00s, the bar was subjected to its last police raid in 2009, when the vice squad handcuffed 62 patrons and employees while yelling anti-gay slurs, on the pretense of looking for illegal drug use and public sex acts.
A lawsuit following the raid led to a $1 million settlement and the official disbanding of Atlanta’s infamous Red Dog unit — a war on drugs era special force whose use of aggressive tactics to fight crime led to multiple constitutional violations and accusations of excessive force.
It was that 2009 raid that galvanized LGBTQ Atlantans once again to demand that the city do better and do more. Responding to that public outcry, the city worked with LGBTQ residents to reform its police training process, appointed LGBTQ community liaisons, and enhanced anti-discrimination and LGBTQ protection laws.
Since implementing the reforms sparked by this raid, Atlanta has maintained a perfect score on the Municipal Equality Index every year since 2013, making it one of the safest and most inclusive cities in the United States.
What To See And Do
Although still a designated landmark, the bar unfortunately closed last fall but has plans to reopen as soon as possible. Stop by on your way to Mrs. P’s Bar & Kitchen (right up the block) to see if it’s open yet, if not, snap a picture of the outside of this historic LGBTQ landmark.
Future Atlanta, a massive nightclub, is a newer addition to Atlanta’s landscape but it represents a core feature of LGBTQ history. Nightclubs played a pivotal role in the history of gay liberation. Catering to nightlife and late-night revelers, they were often the only spaces that were free of the social prejudices and judgments of “polite” society.
Black activists had Black churches and Black-owned businesses to gather in and build a movement. For LGBTQ activists, it was the nightclub that provided that community-building and movement-organizing safe space.
By the early 1970s, Atlanta started to see the emergence of bars and clubs that openly and intentionally catered to an LGBTQ clientele, unlike earlier bars that tended to sort of become LGBTQ-friendly spaces by chance.
Backstreet, opening in 1975, for example, was a massive three-story venue that became an icon of the shift in the LGBTQ community that, after decades of arbitrary raids and abuse, was no longer content to hide out in secret safe spaces or to live their lives in the closet.
After 30 years of nonstop partying, Backstreet, unfortunately, closed in 2004 after city officials refused to renew its liquor license. But it was because of its enduring and proud commitment to giving LGBTQ Atlantans a place to be open and be proud that the Midtown neighborhood around it became the hub of the LGBTQ community in Atlanta.
That legacy remains today as the neighborhood is home to dozens of LGBTQ bars, restaurants, and shops.
Future Atlanta, just south of Midtown, is one of the best examples of the revelatory and proud atmosphere that Backstreet once provided for LGBTQ Atlantans.
What To See And Do
With drag shows and performances scheduled almost every weekend and 14,000 square feet of space to dance, you’ll have no trouble figuring out what to do here. It’s one of the best places to get a sense of what it must have been like to go to Backstreet back in its heyday.
If you’re looking for more of a chilled vibe, however, head north to the center of midtown. There’s a rainbow crosswalk at the intersection of Piedmont Avenue and 10th Street and you’ll find tons of LGBTQ bars, restaurants, and hangouts along both streets.