Sweet Auburn Avenue: Public History & Memory

In the article from Dr. Hobson,”The King of Atlanta: Martin Luther King Jr. and Public Memory,” he has a quote that says “public spaces purportedly transmit notions of what is right and true because they are “authorized by the government” or corporations on behalf of all citizens.” Sadly, this is true, and it even holds true when taken out of the context of public spaces. The truth in a lot of situations surrounding African-American history is whitewashed and fed to us by the government. This is why we view Malcolm X as only violent and MLK as only peaceful. They paint two of America’s biggest “leaders” of the civil rights movement as total opposites, almost forcing you to choose whose methods were right and whose were wrong. Ultimately, they choose for us, as we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King, and Malcolm X is not often mentioned once you’re past middle school.

To stay on the topic of “places,” I’d like to talk about a major place that comes and goes from public memory due to how it is treated.

My sophomore year at GSU, I had to pleasure of taking African American Studies under the instruction of Dr. Hobson. During this class, we took a day to walk around Auburn Avenue, better known as Atlanta’s “Sweet Auburn District.” The picture I chose to highlight is a mural of John Lewis, a civil rights hero who passed away in 2012. He was considered one of the “Big Six” leaders of the movement and was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Now, this image alone does not tell the full story of what Sweet Auburn District really is, but it does give a glimpse as to how important it is for the public memory and history of the civil rights movement. However, it also shows how an important landmark falls victim to abandonment and can be easily forgotten from public memory.

In the About South episode “To Atlanta, With Love,” Dr. Calinda Lee is quoted as saying that “doing good history means you do complete history.” (“To Atlanta, With Love”)  The Sweet Auburn District is full of many different landmarks that represent civil rights history as well as the history of many black businesses and overall life of black Atlanta dating back as early as 1904. It housed many offices of black leaders from the civil rights movement, and if you go there today, you will find many statues and other landmarks celebrating the impact of these civil rights leaders.

While the Sweet Auburn District in present-day Atlanta is in a poor state and not kept as presentably clean as it should be in order to be celebrated and observed properly, the history here is still intact. From the churches that line the avenue to the Royal Peacock Club that opened in 1938, all the way to the Atlanta Life Insurance Company building founded by a former slave in 1905, there are lots of pieces of history that are here for the public to study and embrace. No matter the state of the district now, there’s no denying the history as long as it remains. However, the state that it is in is what causes the memory of the location to come and go. 

In one of the most notable monuments in the Sweet Auburn District, a statue of John Wesley Dobbs titled “Through His Eyes” can be found, and it is meant to serve as an interactive historical piece. As Auburn Avenue was once the most active area in business, the idea is to look through Dobbs’s eyes and see what he presumably envisioned as a bright future. However, the statue now stares down Auburn Avenue, looking only at an underpass of a bridge or the homeless population of Atlanta streets. This undoubtedly is not what he thought the district would become, and to the average tourist, the history of Sweet Auburn Avenue is an easy sight to forget.

Works Cited:

Hobson, Maurice. ““The King of Atlanta: Martin Luther King Jr. and Public Memory.”

“To Atlanta, With Love.” About South from Soundcloud, November 2019, https://soundcloud.com/about-south/as-s04e10-to-atlanta-with-love#t=0:00.

Photo Credit: Wally Gobetz, 2013

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