Just the mention of Coretta Scott King’s name is enough to bring a reflective smile to the face of park ranger Marty Smith, aka Ranger Marty, the man tasked with preserving part of her life’s work and the legacy of her husband, slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
“We wouldn’t be here today having this conversation if it wasn’t for the legwork that Miss Coretta Scott King did,” Smith said while sitting on a bench inside the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park visitor’s center, where he’s worked for more than three decades
“Miss Coretta,” as he calls her, was the leader who founded the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in the Atlanta basement of her and her husband’s former home in 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
The historic, 35-acre site — located 1 mile east of Downtown — is dedicated to the life of the civil rights leader. The site includes King’s birth home, the iconic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he served as pastor, and a reflecting pool on which sits the tombs of King and his wife. Then-President Jimmy Carter made the location a national park in 1980.
Smith is a Detroit native and Morris Brown College graduate whose unexpected, lifelong career at the King Center began in the early 1990s, not long after he graduated from MBC with a degree in political science and law.
More than 30 years later, now in his 50s, Smith is a married father of two who serves as the chief of interpretation and education at the King Center. The park employs about 30 people, Smith said. He manages a staff of roughly nine tasked with educating visitors on King’s life.
Ahead of the King holiday, Smith spoke to Capital B Atlanta about how he landed the gig, his fondest memories, and celebrating Coretta Scott King’s legacy.
My professor, his name was Dr. [Nasrolah] Farokhi, he shared with me that they was hiring down at the King Center. So I thought I was coming to King Center to get a job, not knowing I was coming to the National Park Service to get a job. So I interviewed at the National Park Service and came on as a seasonal employee.
It was about 1991. And what’s crazy is that now that the same neighborhood that I’m from, Farokhi’s son [Amir Farokhi] is the city councilman over my district, and we live around the corner from each other.
My fondest memory is probably always working with the family. I worked with all of them. The nieces, the nephews, Alveda King. It’s a joy because I had an opportunity to read about them in a book, and now I get to know them on a first-name basis.
I knew Coretta Scott King. Mrs. King was a very sweet person. I mean, she was the type of person that was passionate, of course, about everything. You can actually sit down with her and she would have a conversation with you. People had to pull her away because she would be so involved in the conversation because she really believed in the mission and his dream.
We wouldn’t be here today having this conversation if it wasn’t for the legwork that Miss Coretta Scott King did. We have to always give her credit for the work that she had done in order for us to provide this and continue this legacy to go on even after her passing. Her children that came in have taken the torch in order to carry on. Bernice King is doing an incredible job of carrying on the legacy of what her mother and father spoke about.
We had her wake in the old Ebenezer Baptist Church. So what was incredible was you’ll see all these people coming in, like Oprah Winfrey and Cicely Tyson, and you saw Coretta Scott King’s sisters. It’s like, “Wow.” And we had people lined up. It was a rainy, rainy day, and people were still lined up all the way down the street to come in and view Mrs. King’s body.
We ended up having to close the church. We wasn’t planning on doing it. The carpet in the church was so wet that we had to pull out all the carpet. … I got a chance to help carry her casket out the church and put it into the hearse. And that was to me an honor to be able to do that because of the work that Mrs. King did and how she provided the opportunity that she provided for me today.
It’s important that we learn this history, and learn how to deal with this history, so we won’t be able to continuously keep on repeating this negative history in our lives, and in the history of America.
That’s why a place like the King Center is so important: because you have people who can come down here and experience it and see it. And you’ll find out so many people are like, “Wow, I never knew that happened.”
We always get dignitaries, we always get presidents. I probably met just about every president in my lifetime since I’ve been here. I know I seen Obama. I met Clinton. I never got a chance to meet Trump, but I did see the Bushes.
Rosa Parks was one. … When I was a kid, I grew up loving this basketball player by the name of Bob Lanier. And I got a chance to meet Bob Lanier while I was here. He did a lot of work with the center. I met Robert Smith, the billionaire who did everything for Morehouse, and I got a chance to know him.
Jamie Foxx wanted to go on a tour. When he came up and took him on a tour, Jamie was Jamie. I mean, he started playing the piano and started singing; he was all into it.
This place brings a lot to you. You don’t get that on a regular job. And all these people come here to pay tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King. I tell people all the time, when I leave here, I’ll have an incredible story.
You have to allow your children to come and learn this because not only was this a center around Dr. King, but you’re in a community that was considered to be one of your wealthiest African American neighborhoods in the world. They had about four or five Black millionaires come off the street. It’s important that we get to be a part of it … how it changed the world right here on Sweet Auburn Avenue. The history needs to be learned.