Originally created 01/19/98

`Sweet Auburn' rose, fell along with King

ATLANTA -- Huddled together on a cold, gray day along Auburn Avenue are three generations of a black family who have seen the rise and fall -- and rise -- of the fabled street where Martin Luther King Jr. was born.

Rose Simmons grew up here, when the street was the center of black business during segregation. Portia Scott came of age during the civil rights movement and desegregation, a period that saw near ruination of the area.

Alexis Scott-Herman works here amid decaying buildings and construction areas that will become a tourist attraction.

The three women point to Dr. King's legacy as the reason for the avenue's incarnations.

"Dr. King's legacy, if you will, is the paradox of Auburn Avenue. Desegregation, which we sorely needed, led to a fracturing of the community," Mrs. Scott-Herman said. "What's happened has been good over-all. But for dear Auburn Avenue, it's left a chink in its shining armor."

Auburn Avenue was dubbed "Sweet Auburn" by early civil rights leader John Wesley Dobbs because of its opportunities for blacks even under strict segregation laws.

"It was the yellow brick road for black dreamers in the South in the 1930s and '40s," said author Gary M. Pomerantz, whose book Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn chronicles Atlanta's racial, social and political history.

It was a place where blacks could own businesses, get a good education at nearby black colleges and prosper. It was a street that had something for everyone.

"You have to understand, there wasn't a lot of places for blacks in those days," Mrs. Simmons said. "Once you hit Auburn Avenue, it was just like going home. People knew you and greeted you by your name. That was something, then."

There were black-owned night clubs where such musical greats as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington performed. There were big churches, fancy restaurants, clean hotels and a slew of shops.

"Auburn Avenue was a living lab for Martin Luther King Jr.'s dreams," said Mr. Dobbs' grandson, former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.

It wasn't until the 1960s that Auburn Avenue gained recognition among whites nationwide as Dr. King's birthplace and then as his final resting place.

It was also a time that saw the decline of the two-mile street.

"Black people were able to begin to move and work where they wanted to. They left Auburn Avenue," Ms. Scott said.

By the early 1970s, businesses were closing, old buildings were torn down and residents had all but disappeared. Although many former residents returned on Sunday for church, they stopped shopping there.

It was thought by remaining business owners that the construction of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change would bolster the renewal.

Although they are the city's most popular attractions, they are nothing but a quick stop.

Mrs. Simmons remembers when Dr. King stood on the steps of the newspaper building debating the future of the avenue.

"The greatness of Sweet Auburn was the people. King stood on the shoulders of all these men who worked down here," she said.


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