National Park Service ranger Marty Smith talks to visitors at the birthplace of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta on Jan. 20, 2020, the holiday honoring King. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Branden Camp / Special to the AJC
Photo: Branden Camp / Special to the AJC

Caretakers of MLK’s legacy: Rangers help visitors absorb importance of key King sites

As Marty Smith comes barreling up the stairs and through the front door, he removes his rain-soaked ranger hat, coated in a shield of plastic to protect it from the elements.

He looks around at the small crowd gathered in the house at 497 Auburn Ave. and asks in a deep, but kind voice, “Y’all here for the tour?”

He’s just come from up the block, where he spent the morning with nearly 500 students.

On this day in mid-January, it’s dreary and drizzly in Atlanta, but that doesn’t stop the droves of visitors from coming.

A fleet of yellow school buses is lined up on the block that houses the King Center, the current Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park.

It’s the busy season around here.

Which means Smith, the park’s lead ranger, has his plate full.

National Park Service rangers Marty Smith (left) and Rebecca Karcher pose together at the birthplace of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta. In their job, they help visitors understand the history that happened at sites key to King’s life. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Branden Camp / Special to the AJC

On this afternoon, he’ll take guests on a tour of the home where King was born and lived until he was 12 years old — usually just called “the birth home.”

But first, they gather next door in a historic house that doubles as the meeting place for the free hourly tours and a bookstore selling things like “I Have a Dream” posters, fedora hats similar to those worn by King, and Barack Obama bobbleheads.

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Before the tour gets underway, Smith guides the group of a dozen people into a small room off the shop’s main entrance, where he explains some ground rules (no photography is allowed in the birth home, please stay on the maroon carpet, etc.). Then he asks them to share their names and where they are visiting from. For each person, he has a quick-witted response.

“South America? Oh, so you’re from around the block,” he says.

“Minnesota? This is like a spring day to you.”

The remarks seem to put his guests at ease.

After everyone has introduced themselves, he says, “Again, I’m Marty Smith. I’m originally from Detroit, Michigan.”

A special duty

Smith is one of about 10 rangers who work full time at the national historical park. Their jobs entail everything from conducting tours to pointing out the nearest bathroom. When guests walk into the visitor center, a ranger is there to greet them, offer a brochure and give a brief orientation.

Out on the site, a ranger is a compass, a guidebook, a caretaker.

Along with the nonprofit King Center and current Ebenezer Baptist Church, the campus spans about 40 acres in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood.

An eternal flame burns at the tomb of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, on Jan. 20, 2020, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Branden Camp / Special to the AJC

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This time of year attracts a lot of foot traffic to the Auburn Avenue site for a series of commemorative events: King’s birthday on Jan. 15, the King holiday celebrated on the third Monday in January and Black History Month in February. This year, the park is buzzing with activity, but that wasn’t the case last year.

A partial federal government shutdown, which spanned more than a month, closed the park for most of January 2019. That meant the rangers, employees of the National Park Service, were temporarily out of work — a fact that made the Rev. Bernice King emotional. When announcing the 2019 King holiday programming at the King Center, which operates separately from the park, she got choked up.

“As I stand here today, I feel a little bit of sadness because our main partner in this area and this district is the National Park Service … and they’re not here with us today,” she said at a King Center press conference.

Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and other parts of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta were affected by the January 2019 partial federal government shutdown. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Just before the King holiday, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines provided the park a grant, which allowed the site to open and the rangers to return.

On Jan. 25, 2019, the shutdown ended, and Smith and his fellow rangers returned to their posts for good.

A gentle giant in ranger green

Smith, who recently turned 50, came of age in what he calls a “pretty tough community” in Detroit in the 1970s.

It was a tightknit environment and a happy childhood, but his mom wanted more for him, which is what led Smith south to Atlanta’s Morris Brown College.

By 1991, he had earned his degree in political science and was working at the Fulton County library on Margaret Mitchell Square when a former professor told him about a job down at the King site, which Smith assumed meant the King Center, where he could put his librarian skills to work doing research.

When he showed up for his first day, he had never heard of the Park Service. But so began his tenure as a federal employee, which now spans nearly three decades.

Marty Smith has a long history with the National Park Service. Here, he poses on the fender of a restored fire engine inside Atlanta Fire Department Station No. 6 at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Boulevard on June 25, 1996. The station was restored as a fire department museum in the historic district. AJC FILE PHOTO / DAVID TULIS
Photo: AJC file photo / 1996

While it’s customary for Park Service employees to move around, seeking career advancement and higher pay, Smith has stayed put, and it has afforded him a front-row seat to history.

There was the day a woman came up to ask him a question and he turned around to see it was Rosa Parks. Or, the sad day in 2006 when he helped usher in crowds of mourners at Coretta Scott King’s wake. And the times he has been able to sit and talk to people who knew and worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr.

The kid from Detroit says this historic site is where he did a lot of growing up and he’s done so with the help of giants in American history.

“I studied Daddy King and studied Martin Luther King, and they have helped me with my thought process,” he said. “I studied so much of it that I kind of feel sometimes like I might be like a distant family member or something.”

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Smith, who is 6 feet, 2 inches tall with broad shoulders, has the presence of a sort of gentle giant, dressed in the signature ranger green uniform and brown work boots.

More than a decade ago, Smith was promoted to lead ranger, which means he now spends more time at a desk than he once did. But he still goes out on the front lines with guests every chance he gets.

“I lead by example. I never have a problem with other rangers because they know if they don’t do it, I’m gonna do it,” he said. “I like to stay busy. I like to move around. I love doing the talks and tours and dealing with the youth.”

His colleague Derrick Smith, no relation, affectionately calls the lead ranger one of the “old-timers” at the site.

“He knows everything,” Derrick Smith, a Park Service maintenance employee, said of Marty. “He keeps it exciting.”

Visitors walk around the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta on Dec. 22, 2018, shortly before a partial federal government shutdown closed the park for most of January 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sharing the site’s story

For Marty Smith, his motivation boils down to two things: his passion for the subject matter and his respect for King’s legacy.

It’s why he reads all he can on the civil rights movement and talks with those who experienced it firsthand.

“People come from all over the world to come here to pay tribute to Dr. King, and you have the opportunity to give them the history of something that they might not know,” he says.

Inside the birth home, Smith shares stories about a young King learning to play the piano and playing Monopoly with his family.

He also stresses the values taught in this home: The King family would all sit down to eat dinner together, where the kids were encouraged to speak their minds and required to recite Bible verses. Smith says he wants to remind visitors that King’s greatness didn’t happen in isolation, he was molded by his community.

“You can see the roots of Dr. King’s tree were already planted before Dr. King even grew up,” he tells the tourists.

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That amount of detail is what Diane Johnson says she appreciated about Smith’s tour.

Despite living in nearby Lawrenceville, Johnson had never been inside the yellow-painted home at 501 Auburn Ave.

“Thank you,” she tells Smith on her way out of the home. “This is the best birthday ever.”

The day of the tour, Jan. 14, Johnson turned 53. The next day marked 91 years since King’s birth in the house.

“I thought that was just excellent,” she says of her visit. “Just to look inside the home. This is history.”

Smith, a husband and a father of two, lives, worships and works in this neighborhood.

“My day is hectic and I’m constantly on the move, but I’m not complaining, because sometimes I wonder, wow, I get paid to do this? This is something I love to do, it’s my passion,” Smith says.

It’s those qualities that make Smith’s supervisor, Rebecca Karcher, call him her “right-hand man.”

“Marty’s great,” she says matter-of-factly. “He’s very passionate about his job … about Dr. King and about the story. He’s great to work with.”

In Karcher’s book, a good ranger is someone who is resourceful, passionate and independent — someone like Smith.

National Park Service ranger Rebecca Karcher, shown at the birthplace of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., worked at several other notable historical sites before coming to Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Branden Camp / Special to the AJC

Working where history happened

Karcher, who is 43, is relatively new to Atlanta, but she has spent her entire career with the Park Service — which she calls “an honor.”

Earnest and unflappable, Karcher started here in 2015 as the chief of interpretation, education and cultural resource management. Basically, that means she’s in charge of all of the park’s visitor services.

Before this post, the New Jersey native held various other positions at some of the nation’s most notable historical sites, beginning as a college intern in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

In the decades since, she’s worked everywhere from the site of President Abraham Lincoln’s famous address to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where King gave his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. She’s also done stints at Maryland’s Antietam National Battlefield, Independence Hall in Philadelphia and Chickamauga National Military Park in North Georgia.

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Coming to Atlanta was a chance to advance her career, but also to follow a lifelong interest.

“I’ve always had a passion for Dr. King and civil rights,” she said. “I have a Civil War background, but you know, going from civil war to civil rights … it’s a perfect tie-in.”

Spectators watch the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commemorative March head down Auburn Avenue on Jan. 20, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Steve Schaefer / Special to the AJC

For the park rangers, like Karcher and Smith, this plot of land along Auburn Avenue is the office. But both say that they try to never forget that this is where history happened — they remind themselves of all King accomplished here and all Coretta Scott King did to preserve it.

“You know, when you go to the Ebenezer Baptist Church and you open those doors, those are the same doors that Dr. King would have opened and his family would have opened,” Karcher said. “I think we should never forget that.”

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On the eve of this year’s King holiday, people lined up around the corner on a blustery afternoon to walk through those doors.

Inside, as singers were warming up for the annual gospel tribute, Smith stood ready to spring into action.

As the late afternoon light poured in through the stained glass, the ranger walked up and down the aisles, helping guests find a seat.

“Y’all can take any seats y’all want,” he said, waving people in. “Get together, we have a lot of people coming in.”

He shook hands, gave hugs and joked with a youngster toddling toward him.

As the service got underway, Smith approached the microphone to welcome the guests.

“Today we are going to honor and do a tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King,” he said.

Of course, that’s what Smith tries to do here every day.

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