Despite government shutdown, Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Park to open thanks to Delta donation

ATLANTA -- Just hours before tens of thousands of people descend upon the historic Auburn Avenue, the birth city of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw a sudden change in fate.

“I think we have to go straight to Hallelujah,” exclaimed Georgia State Rep. “Able” Mable Thomas (D). “You go straight to Hallelujah because that's the highest praise!”

Thomas was praising news that Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Park will be open – not just over the holiday weekend commemorating the civil rights icon – but through Feb. 3, the date of the Super Bowl.

Georgia State Rep. Mable Thomas recalls standing in awe as a young girl, watching King march down her home street in Atlanta.

Georgia State Rep. Mable Thomas recalls standing in awe as a young girl, watching King march down her home street in Atlanta. (Fox News)

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Traditionally, there’s nothing profound about guests gaining indoor access to the park’s sites, but considering the partial government shutdown, this is a welcome surprise.

King’s birth home, the church where he delivered his first sermon, one of the South’s first desegregated firehouses and the park’s Visitor’s Center rely on federal funding. As a result, about two-thirds of the park has been shuttered since Dec. 22, when the government reached an impasse over border wall funding, triggering the start of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

The National Park Service announced Thursday several MLK sites will reopen in time for the holiday weekend.

The National Park Service announced Thursday several MLK sites will reopen in time for the holiday weekend. (Fox News)

Martin Luther King Jr. Day has never been affected by a government shutdown before, according to the King Center, so the National Park Service is thrilled to continue that streak.

The federal agency announced Thursday that an $83,500 grant from the Delta Airlines Foundation and recreation fees collected by the National Park Service will re-open and fund operation costs at all four of those sites.

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“As we celebrate his life and legacy this holiday weekend, we felt it was important we do our part to ensure that the historical landmarks be accessible to the public,” Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines and Trustee of The Delta Air Lines Foundation, said in a press release breaking the news.

Thomas, who received special recognition at the King Holiday Observance Kick-Off Reception for her work as a state representative, was ecstatic to hear the change in plans but said the most appreciative group will be folks visiting from out of town.

“People want to have what we call ‘the total experience,’” Thomas said. “So this really makes a difference [for them.]”

But four weeks of closure still caught dozens of disappointed travelers, especially in the week leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“I’m a little sad because I was expecting to show my friends coming from Colombia inside of the house and just a little bit of the history,” Andreina Taylor said, standing in front of King’s birth home.

It wasn’t until Taylor reached Auburn Avenue that she learned of the government shutdown’s effects on some of the most popular sites in Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Park.

Despite bad luck in her timing, her smile spread from ear to ear when she learned of this weekend’s exception.

“That would be so nice,” Taylor grinned, “because it’s the weekend that we’re celebrating his life, it’s just special for the occasion.”

As for the King family, they were mentally prepared to celebrate the weekend without the National Park Service-operated sites.

“[The National Park Service’s sites] are the historical look into the man,” Dr. Bernice King told Fox News inside the newer Ebenezer Baptist Church sanctuary (across the street from the historic site). “The holiday and the work that we do at the King Center are about the now and going forward.”

Bernice King is the youngest daughter of the civil rights icon and the CEO of the King Center, a non-profit founded by Coretta Scott King to preserve the legacy of her husband’s life and dream.

The King Center serves as a centerpiece for Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Park and consists of Dr. and Mrs. King’s tomb, Freedom Hall and the Eternal Flame, which symbolizes the “continuing effort to realize Dr. King’s dream of the ‘Beloved Community,’” according to the non-profit’s website.

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The birth home also used to fall under the King Center’s purview, but the National Park Foundation recently bought it for $1.9 million. The foundation’s president told Fox News there has been a lot of “wear and tear” on the historic site over the years, so the National Park Service will be pouring about $1 million into renovations.

However, even if the purchase hadn’t gone through before the government shutdown, the King Center said the birth home would still be closed because the tours were held by government employees.

While reluctant to talk about the effects of the government shutdown on the holiday weekend, Bernice King was adamant about this: Her father would be commemorated with or without access to the government-funded sites.

Every year, the King Center (which operates regardless of the government shutdown as a non-profit) plans a week of commemorative observances, including nonviolence training, church services and marches.

In one event, speaking before several dozen Atlanta-area students, Bernice King and cousin Dr. Angela Farris Watkins shared childhood memories. They recalled family meals and moments at camp that nearly brought them to tears of laughter.

What they described as a happy and fun childhood seemed to surprise some of the students.

Bernice King explained it was “through all of the unconditional love and examples of forgiveness that we had around us, we were able to weather the storm” – a storm including the assassination of her father and the drowning of her uncle (which, to this day, some believe was a cover-up for murder).

She said she tried to stay positive even when it seemed the site would be closed.

“I try not to look at it as ‘it’s all bad,’ but I think there’s some good that can come from it as well,” she told Fox News.

Despite what some may call ‘a disaster averted’ thanks to Delta’s donation to the National Park Service, Bernice King could see an opportunity for visitors to learn regardless of what doors were open along Auburn Avenue.