Just for a moment, close your eyes and conjure up an image of a park ranger…got it? What picture comes to mind? For some, an immediate image is the no-nonsense Ranger Smith, the nemesis of Yogi Bear. But there is nothing at all fictional about Ranger Marty Smith, Park Ranger of the Martin Luther King National Historic Site.
Smith, a Detroit native, visited national parks occasionally with his family, but never imagined he would grow up to become a steward of one. But fate stepped in when a college professor told him about opportunities with the National Park Service, and he hasn’t looked back in two decades of service. On a recent trip to Atlanta for a conference, my group was fortunate to have Ranger Smith as a tour guide at the King Site. His knowledge about the details of Dr. King’s boyhood was a perspective not usually shared in textbooks. “King did not just emerge from a vacuum,” Ranger Smith said. In his tour of the King childhood home, he told stories about the day-to-day life of the King family home, now restored with many original furnishings, and of the neighboring homes to show how solid family and community support nurtured Dr. King to become the visionary leader for which he is remembered.
Not exclusive to the wilderness or rough terrain, National Historic Sites fall under the domain of the U.S. Park Service, and can be found anywhere, including urban centers, like the King site, which is comprised of both renovated historic and recently built structures and monuments. Located within a couple blocks of each other is the King childhood home, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the Visitor Center. These areas, and the surrounding monuments are federally protected, and make up the site tour that conveys the magnitude of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
According to Smith, the Park System has also acquired more neighboring homes over the years, each now in various stages of restoration, with plans to recreate the look and feel of the neighborhood as it existed during King’s early life. Dr. King is actually buried at the neighboring King Center, which is within the park area, and founded by the late Coretta Scott-King after her husband’s assassination.
Ranger Smith is glad to share the message of Dr. King’s legacy with people from all walks of life. “Everyone comes here,” he says, “from dignitaries to celebrities to everyday people.” And Ranger Smith takes pride that the park tours are helping add greater depth and awareness that extends beyond what is commonly understood about Dr. King. He especially enjoys helping youth get involved with the site through the Youth Conservation Corps. Overall, he hopes visitors leave his tours understanding the elements that helped to develop King: a strong family, solid community, and a spiritual foundation, then take these values back home to nurture youth as torch bearers and leaders of the future.
Want to learn more? Visit the Martin Luther King Historic Page