Located within Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn district, the reputed cradle of the civil rights movement, Ebenezer Baptist Church was the home church of Martin Luther King Jr. and arguably the movement’s spiritual hub. A Progressive National Baptist Convention affiliate, one of three African American Baptist conventions in the country, Ebenezer remains socially and politically active while serving the community through various ministries.
Ebenezer was founded in 1886, in a small structure on Airline Street. John A. Parker, who had been born into slavery, served as pastor until 1894, when Alfred Daniel Williams took the position. Membership spiked during Williams’s first year, and a larger sanctuary was erected on McGruder Street. The congregation relocated twice more before settling at 407 Auburn Avenue in 1914. Parishioners occupied the basement of this facility until its completion in 1922.
Williams, an important figure in the struggle for racial equality in Atlanta, was a charter member of the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served the organization from 1894 until his death in 1931. He led Black registration and voting drives and played a pivotal role in integrating the Atlanta police force.
Martin Luther King Sr., who married Williams’s daughter, Alberta, served as an assistant pastor at Ebenezer from 1926 to 1930 and assumed the full pastorate upon the death of his father-in-law. In 1960 King recruited as copastor his elder son, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who had been ordained as a minister in Ebenezer. Four years later, King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. After King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, while leading a garbage workers’ strike, Ebenezer received international attention as the site of his funeral. Attendees included dozens of notable entertainers and such prominent statesmen as U.S. vice president Hubert Humphrey. The service was conducted by Ralph David Abernathy, secretary-treasurer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and an organizer of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.
Following his son’s death, King Sr. copastored Ebenezer with his younger son, Alfred Daniel Williams King, who died unexpectedly in 1969. Otis Moss became Ebenezer’s third copastor, serving through 1971.
On Sunday, June 30, 1974, Ebenezer members again experienced tragedy when Marcus Chenault, a Black college student from Dayton, Ohio, fatally shot church organist Alberta Williams King—the mother of Martin Luther King Jr.—and deacon Edward Boykin.
Following four decades of ministry at Ebenezer, King Sr. retired in 1975. His successor, Joseph L. Roberts Jr., became the church’s fourth full-time pastor. During Roberts’s tenure, to accommodate a growing congregation and hundreds of weekly visitors, Ebenezer built its new 2,000-seat Horizon Sanctuary, designed by the architectural firm Stanley, Love-Stanley, across the street from the old sanctuary. The original building, now known as the Heritage Sanctuary, is a popular destination for tourists visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site, a unit of the National Park Service.
Roberts announced his retirement in 2004, and in October 2005 Raphael Gamaliel Warnock, a native of Savannah and graduate of Morehouse College, delivered his first sermon as Ebenezer’s new senior pastor.