Formerly enslaved individuals helped found Ebenezer in 1886, and its roots in civil rights activism predate King. His grandfather, A.D. Williams, was the church’s second pastor, and he helped start the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP. The church’s historian Benjamin Ridgeway tells TIME that King’s father, known as Martin Luther King, Sr., was an early advocate for Black police officers in Atlanta and equal pay for teachers as a pastor at Ebenezer. But Martin Luther King, Jr. helped raise the church’s profile on the world stage.
Ebenezer is the church where King was baptized in 1929 and he credited it for laying the foundation of his success. King wrote in 1950 that Sunday School “helped me to build the capacity for getting along with people.” It was the church where he served as a co-pastor with his father in the 1960s, even preaching there on Bloody Sunday, according to Ridgeway. And it was the church where his funeral service was held on April 9, 1968, five days after MLK Jr. was assassinated. In the Black Lives Matter era, the church has also hosted the funerals of recent victims of police brutality like Rayshard Brooks.
“It’s been a place of freedom, and aspiration for many generations,” as Andrew Young, 88, a veteran of the ’60s civil rights movement and friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., explained to TIME in a recent phone call.
“The church was the only place that Black people controlled and owned, and nobody could censor them, so all our mass meetings were held in churches,” explains Young. “All our civil rights, voter registration training, most of my campaign headquarters and all of the get-out-the-vote efforts were in churches. All the way back to slavery, the natural leadership in the Black community ended up being religious leaders because they were people of more courage and more faith. To this day, politics in a place like this can cost you your life, and the ministers had a base in their membership and they had a place, but then they had the vision and the courage and the faith to take it on.”
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