MLK Jr.’s birth home in Atlanta saved from destruction after attempted arson

Suspect is decorated U.S. Navy veteran who served 4 years
Marty Smith, chief interpreter for the National Park Service, looks at the birth home of Martin Luther King Jr. from across the street Friday.



Marty Smith, chief interpreter for the National Park Service, looks at the birth home of Martin Luther King Jr. from across the street Friday.

A piece of Atlanta history could have been permanently destroyed Thursday had it not been for a group of quick-thinking tourists who stepped in when a woman allegedly tried to burn down Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home.

Laneisha Shantrice Henderson, a U.S. Navy veteran who earned medals for good conduct among other accolades during her four years in the service, was detained by the bystanders at the historic home on Auburn Avenue and taken into custody Thursday night. The 26-year-old former Navy sailor has been charged with second-degree criminal attempt to commit arson and interference with government property.

“That action saved an important part of American history tonight,” Atlanta police Chief Darin Schierbaum told reporters at the scene.

Officers were called to the location around 5:45 p.m., police said. Unlike many national monuments, there is no gate restricting access to the civil rights leader’s birth home, which attracts more than 700,000 visitors from around the world annually. The two-story Queen Anne-style house sits about 10 yards off the street in a historic preservation district, but Auburn Avenue is a busy public street with no traffic restrictions, making it difficult to secure the area.

Laneisha Henderson was being held Friday at the Fulton County Jail.

Credit: Fulton County Sheriff's Office

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Credit: Fulton County Sheriff's Office

Utah resident Zach Kempf, who was in town for business, was visiting the site after wrapping up his last day of work. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he and his coworker saw the woman approach the property with a can. At first, they thought she was a groundskeeper using the can to water plants, he said.

“She seemed a little agitated,” said Kempf, whose suspicions rose when the woman rushed passed them and up the porch steps, into a roped-off area, and started yanking on the front door. Those suspicions were confirmed when she started pouring the can’s contents onto the porch and bushes, and the smell of gasoline hit them.

That’s when Kempf started recording on his cellphone as police were called.

“What are you doing?” he is heard asking the woman.

In the video, obtained by the AJC, the woman is dressed in all black with no shoes and waves him away.

“No, that’s gasoline,” Kempf responds.

Before police could arrive, Kempf said he and two other bystanders — who turned out to be retired New York City police officers — realized they had to step in.

Kempf first saw her car keys lying in the grass, so he grabbed them to prevent her from leaving. He then saw her grab a lighter that had fallen onto the ground and quickly ran to block her from going up the steps to the porch. He said when she realized he wouldn’t let her by and that he had her keys, she started to rush away. At that point, the two officers stepped in to restrain the woman until authorities arrived. The entire ordeal lasted less than six minutes, Kempf said.

“If the witnesses hadn’t been here and interrupted what she was doing, I mean, it could have been a matter of seconds before the house was engulfed in flames,” Atlanta fire Battalion Chief Jerry DeBerry told reporters.

Kempf said the woman was never violent or aggressive and didn’t say much when asked what she was doing and why.

Police confirmed she poured gasoline onto the property. An incident report noted that several security cameras in the area captured the incident.

The historic home sits just off Auburn Avenue and attracts thousands of visitors each year.

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Once in custody, Henderson was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital for a psychological evaluation. She was eventually released and booked into the Fulton County Jail.

Before leaving the Navy in 2020, Henderson was an enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist and received several awards, including the Navy “E” ribbon, good conduct medal, national defense service medal and global war on terrorism expeditionary and service medals.

By Friday morning, there was no evidence at the scene of what had happened the previous day. Aside from news crews gathered outside the home, it seemed to be business as usual with tour groups being led around the site by park rangers. One group posed for photos in front of the historic home after listening to a ranger’s presentation.

The home, which is part of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta, was purchased by King’s grandfather in 1909 for $3,500. King was born there Jan. 15, 1929, and lived in the home until he was 12 years old.

In 2018, the National Park Service officially purchased the home, as well as a house on Sunset Avenue in Vine City where King lived until his death. The NPS is scheduled to pump millions of dollars into the infrastructure of the historical park over the next five years to make significant changes. The birth home was recently closed for major renovations expected to take at least two years.

Judy Forte, the retiring superintendent of the park, said she was stunned by the incident.

”It is hard to understand how a resource as important as Dr. King’s birth home, where someone was born who changed the world, was close to being burned down and destroyed,” said Forte, who is retiring Dec. 31. “I am grateful to the people who stopped it from happening.”

Forte said the park works closely with Atlanta police to provide patrols during the evening and a network of cameras provide surveillance. But due to it being an urban park right off a busy street, it’s hard to barricade. Even while the home is closed, tourists can walk up the path and take photos on the porch steps.

“The preservation of that home is important,” Forte said. “It is the heart and soul of America, and the public has charged us with protecting it.”

Address records show that Henderson lives in Brandon, Florida, about 15 miles outside of Tampa. She previously lived in Eufaula, Alabama, and Tallahassee, Florida, records show. Officials have not shared information about why she was in Atlanta.

Kempf told the AJC that he spoke with Henderson’s family, who arrived at the scene. He said they told him they’d been looking for her and were concerned.

On a Facebook page that appeared to belong to Henderson, she posted several photos with a caption “Fam(ily) Affairs” on Thursday. In that post, she included a hashtag that said #FreeMalachiZYork.

York, also known as Dwight York, was the founder and leader of the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, a Georgia-based extremist group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. In 2004, York was sentenced to 135 years in prison for various crimes, including molesting children.

Thursday’s incident remains under investigation by Atlanta police and fire, as well as the National Park Service. The FBI said it is aware of the allegations but did not confirm if it is investigating.

It’s not the first time that one of the civil rights icon’s homes has been attacked. On Jan. 30, 1956, one month after the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott, King’s home was bombed while his wife Coretta, 7-week-old daughter Yolanda and a neighbor were inside. The front of the home was damaged, but no one was injured.

Then, in April 1960, after King and his family returned to Atlanta, Ku Klux Klansmen burned crosses in front of several Black homes in the city. King’s residence, where he lived with Coretta before they moved to Sunset Avenue, was targeted.

The park service said it is “dedicated to maintaining the safety and sanctity of this historic site, ensuring that it remains a place of inspiration and reflection for all” and will take precautionary measures to prevent such incidents in the future.

— Staff writers Henri Hollis and Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.