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Main Spotlight: Community Preservation in the Modern South

June 28, 2022 | Main Spotlight: Community Preservation in the Modern South | By: Lisa Fareed, Stockbridge Main Street Program Coordinator, and Kira Harris-Braggs, Stockbridge Main Street Program Manager | 
Unveiling of a mural in downtown Stockbridge. Photo courtesy of Stockbridge Main Street.

The other Martin Luther King

Today, the little-known story of Martin Luther King Jr’s father is being explored in a small town in Georgia. Before they became public figures, the Kings lived in the small rural township of Stockbridge, twenty miles south of Atlanta. That is where Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., sometimes known as Daddy King, preached his first sermon at about age fourteen. His son, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK), became one of the most celebrated figures of the Civil Rights movement. Their legacy is honored around the Atlanta area, including Stockbridge.
When Daddy King was growing up, the town was just beginning to take shape. The introduction of the railroad, a post office, and a few shops transformed the downtown. Services such as a blacksmith, a cotton trade, and a general store were essential features in people’s lives. In his autobiography, Daddy King, who was born around 1899, wrote about going into town at Stockbridge with his father in a mule-drawn cart to sell bales of cotton and seed. As a teen, he took a job stoking coal on the same railway that runs through downtown Stockbridge today.

Daddy King was a maverick in his own right. He was a pioneer in American civil rights as a young man. In 1935, he used his influence as a pastor to galvanize support against social injustices like systematic blocking of voter registration (King & Riley, 1980). Later, he fought against disparities in teachers’ pay in Atlanta. In the late ‘70s, he endorsed Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter’s run for presidency. King Sr. also had the honor of speaking at the Lincoln Monument on the day of President Carter’s inauguration in 1977.

Heritage: A Return on Investment

There were merely 836 residents when Stockbridge was incorporated in 1920. The historic downtown area remained mostly unchanged for years and almost became obsolete in the 1980s. Very few quality buildings remained. Gradually, area plantations were sold to build housing developments, and the city became a bedroom community starting in the 1990s. Today, the thriving suburb of Stockbridge has a population of 30,000.

A large percent of current Stockbridge residents are newcomers from around the US. Many of them came from bigger cities, bringing new ideas and skills with them, and they desired a set of amenities and cultural attractions that Stockbridge lacked. Enter, the Stockbridge Main Street Program. Since its inception in 2015, the Main Street staff has worked to generate interest in the community and create a sense of place in downtown Stockbridge. In coordination with the city’s event staff, activities have included summer concerts, movies on the green, car shows, a multicultural fall festival, and a winter extravaganza. New amenities have been introduced such as a dog park, little free libraries, and a three-mile walking trail which cuts right through downtown and connects two beautiful city parks. Most recently, there was the installation of the first in a series of planned murals and public art.
The King family’s origins are no secret, but until now, the topic was not widely discussed. Over the past few years, the City of Stockbridge has begun embracing its role in history as the King ancestral home, and it has become a source of community pride and identity. In 2015, the city, encouraged by community groups, renamed the Main Street “Martin Luther King, Sr. Heritage Trail,” in honor of its native son. With that, revitalization efforts in the downtown district began. Investment in infrastructure, economic opportunities, and promoting heritage tourism has become a priority.

Several historic markers have been installed, including one at Floyd Chapel; the slave-era house of worship where Daddy King was ordained in his youth (King & Riley, 1980). The church is now listed as one of the stops on the State of Georgia’s Footsteps of MLK, Jr. Trail. Pole banners baring Daddy King’s image are hung along the trail leading to the historic rock quarry where MLK’s grandfather once worked in the 1800s.

Looking to the Future

Stockbridge has evolved significantly in a short amount of time. In 2018, the city elected its first all-African American mayor and council. The Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia created a downtown masterplan that will help continue and grow this transformation. The city celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2020.
Although only eight of the original buildings still stand, today’s downtown has grown to include artisan shops, hair and nail salons, a supermarket, and more. The look and feel of the neighborhood are evolving as storefronts have undergone façade improvements with the help of Downtown Development Authority grants. Stockbridge opened a state-of-the-art amphitheater in 2021 and plans for a cultural arts center with a history museum have been solidified for 2024.

Today, Stockbridge is home to the most diverse population in its history. Like many modern communities in the American South, it embraces its complex history and welcomes longstanding residents and newcomers to explore and understand the whole story. Stockbridge, Georgia is where community connects.

Author Bios

Lisa Fareed

Lisa Fareed has been the Main Street Program Coordinator for the City of Stockbridge, Georgia since the program’s inception in 2015. She has earned the certification of Georgia Downtown Development Professional. Ms. Fareed has helped create an identity for a downtown that was nearly invisible.

Kira Harris-Braggs

Kira Harris-Braggs has led the Stockbridge Main Street program since July 2014. She is enthusiastic about the abundant possibilities for Stockbridge, saying that “creating an inviting sense of place, revitalizing the City’s historic commercial area, and establishing a vibrant arts and cultural district downtown,” are her foremost programmatic goals.