Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s activism and message reverberated across the United States and the world in the 20th century and continues to do so decades later as the fight for civil rights rages on. While many schools and workplaces close during MLK Day, the national holiday is often referred to as a day “on,” rather than a day off as many employers encourage their workers to engage in acts of service and reflection. Although publicly observing MLK Day in 2021 can be a challenge due to the continued risk of COVID-19, there are many public outdoor statues, monuments and significant locations throughout the country that are safer to visit or worth planning to visit in the future.
Here are just five of the dozens around the country — and the world — to put on your travel list.
The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee
In its early days, the Lorraine Motel became one of the nation’s earliest Black-owned establishments and housed many prominent Black figures such as jazz artists Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan. The storied site’s history turned much darker when it became the location of Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. In 1991, the motel was transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum, a facility that now hosts interactive exhibits, historic collections, dynamic speakers and special events. In 2013 and 2014, the museum underwent a $27.5 million renovation, adding new interactive media to its galleries and facilitating a rotating showcase of exhibitions such as “Voices of the Civil Rights Movement” and “The Negro Motorist’s Green Book and American Story.”
Due to COVID-19, the museum is temporarily closed, but visitors can still catch a glimpse of its historic exterior, including its iconic and retro signage, which is ideal for social media posting.
Located at: 450 Mulberry Street, Memphis, TN
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta, Georgia
Homage to King, a striking massive piece of steel artwork designed by Barcelona-based artist Xavier Medina-Campeny, the MLK memorial in Atlanta, GA depicts a silhouetted Dr. King in his mid-speech oratory glory. The piece was installed prior to the 1996 Olympics at Freedom Parkway and Boulevard, welcoming visitors to the historic city. Atlanta is also the home to Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park, which includes 35 acres and several buildings that were significant throughout Dr. King’s life. These locations include Dr. King’s birthplace on Auburn Avenue and Ebenezer Baptist Church (still a practicing congregation) one block east. Dr. King’s gravesite, The King Center, is also located close to both the church and the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame, which was created in 2004 to honor all civil rights leaders.
Although the indoor museum locations are not currently permitting guests due to COVID-19, walking around this historic area is still encouraged and is a powerful and memorable way to reflect on Dr. King’s life and legacy.
Located at: 450 Auburn Avenue NE, Atlanta, GA
The Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King Memorial in Allentown, Pennsylvania
Sculptor Ed Dwight crafted the Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King statue, which was unveiled in 2011. The bronze sculpture, which shows the historic activist couple walking arm in arm is thought to be the only sculpture in the world that depicts both Coretta Scott and Martin Luther together. Allentown community leader and military veteran Harry A. Roberts spent years trying to bring an MLK statue to his hometown but sadly died before this piece was finally unveiled. His brother attended the unveiling in his honor, and the plaza where the statue is displayed is now named after Roberts.
Noteworthy for his own historic story as a former military test pilot and the first Black man to participate in NASA’s Air Force training program prior to his career as a sculptor, Dwight was also one of the original advisors to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C. He ultimately left the controversial project which was eventually awarded to Chinese artist Lei Yixin. In 2007, Dwight told NPR that Lei’s portrayal was too grandiose and too close to the Social Realist style to depict King’s true humanity and lasting legacy.
Located at: Union Street & Martin Luther King Drive, Allentown, PA
Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama
This historic, 4-acre park which covers a full city block is a significant, central location to the Civil Rights Movement. The park sits across the street from the 6th Street Baptist Church where four Black girls were tragically murdered in 1963 after a white supremacist staged a firebombing. It was also the site of many famous protests, including one notorious incident in which Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor (who would go on to become a symbol of institutional racism and police brutality) notoriously turned firehoses and police dogs on protesters during the 1963 fight against legal racial segregation.
Today, the park (which is still open to the public during the pandemic) includes a statue of Dr. King; Foot Soldiers (a depiction of the famous photo of officers attacking protestors with dogs); Four Spirits (an homage to Cynthia Wesley, Carol Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson who were killed in the church firebombing); and several other installations that chronicle the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.
Located at: 5th Avenue North and 16th Street, Birmingham, AL
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I Have a Dream Monument in Denver, Colorado
This bronze 26-foot-high statue of MLK is likely the largest rendering of King outside of D.C. It was unveiled in 2002 and was also created by sculptor Ed Dwight (whose later works include the aforementioned Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King Memorial in Allentown). Standing below King and surrounding his pedestal are life-sized depictions of some of his greatest personal inspirations, including Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi and Rosa Parks.
The city of Denver commissioned Dwight to create this sculpture to replace another artist’s controversial piece. Sculptor Ed Rose had first created a sculpture depicting Dr. King walking alongside Emmett Till, who was 14 when a mob brutally lynched him — an event which ultimately sparked the 20th century Civil Rights Movement. Although the concept of this piece was powerful, many claimed its execution wasn’t ideal, with critics saying that Dr. King’s head seemed vastly out of proportion to his body. This statue was taken down and eventually moved to Friendly Harbor Community Center in Pueblo, Colorado and replaced by Dwight’s work.
Sadly, both Dwight’s statue and Rose’s statue in Pueblo were defaced in the summer of 2020 by racist vandals. Luckily, both have been fully restored. While masks and social distancing are required due to COVID-19 precautions, the park housing the statue is still currently open to the public.
Located at: 2001 Colorado Blvd, Denver, CO
Coming soon: King Boston Memorial in Boston, Massachusetts
King Boston is a privately funded nonprofit organization in Boston that’s working with the city and the Boston Foundation to develop programs — and a memorial — that will honor the legacy of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King. In 1965, Dr. King delivered a historic speech in the city’s Boston Common park, challenging citizens to address racism in their community.
The Embrace, a statue by acclaimed Black artist Hank Willis Thomas will portray two pairs of arms intertwined, symbolizing compassion and comfort. The bronze sculpture is set to be a massive two and a half stories tall and will be unveiled in October 2022.