"I was scared the first day I started working here. I thought I was going to get robbed," said Sherrill Lynn, 22, behind the counter of Bronner Brothers Hormone Hair Food shop on Auburn Avenue. "It's supposed to be a bad street."
In dangling earrings and designer overalls, she was talking about the street where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was born, where he and his father preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
"Sweet Auburn," as it was named by a black political leader in the days of rigid segregation by law, was a thriving 18th- and 19th-century hub for black entrepreneurs and entertainers. But no more.
This week, of course, it is the center of the universe for many who are celebrating King's birthday Wednesday and a new federal holiday Monday, the first in honor of a black.
Festooned with King holiday banners, the street where historic civil rights strategies were plotted reflects graphically the paradox on the minds of many of those history-makers: that in the wake of their successes, millions of their brothers and sisters have been left behind.
Walk a few blocks east of Lynn's shop, past countless boarded-up storefronts plastered with King posters, clusters of idle, sometimes glazy-eyed people and a surviving assortment of small businesses such as the Auburn Rib Shack. Next to Ebenezer Baptist is the manicured, modern sprawl of the $15 million King Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
Its plush auditorium, its wind-rippled, five-tier reflecting pool descending to King's marble crypt, its arcades and gift shop selling "We Shall Overcome" tapes and "I Have a Dream" T-shirts, contrast starkly with the world just outside its walls.
Mayor Andrew Young, who marched with King in the '60s, said last week that he is "embarrassed" about Auburn Avenue's down-at-the heels condition. At a news conference this week at the King Center, Young said he was caught off guard by the holiday's creation and did not have enough time to restore the neighborhood.
"I never thought a president like Ronald Reagan would sign the holiday into law," he said.
Expecting half a million visitors and numerous dignitaries, including Vice President Bush, for its 10-day celebration, the city spent $50,000 to clean, paint, hang bunting and put planters on Auburn Avenue, a Young aide said.
Eddie Black, 35, plans to celebrate the holiday in much the same way he spends most of his days: wait at the neighborhood "labor pool," a hiring hall just off Auburn, with other men looking for work, and then head over to Big Bethel Baptist Church for the free meal it serves at 4:30 every afternoon.
"Nine out of 10, I be there," he said.
Black watched as a group of marchers in jogging suits, preceded by a loudspeaker truck playing King's speeches, passed down Auburn Avenue. They were the Selma to Atlanta Relay runners, who had spent several days carrying the "baton of nonviolence" along the route of the movement's original marches.
"Right on!" Black called out to them as they went by. He took a battered paperback from his jacket pocket and held it up: King's "Strength to Love."
"Man was right," he said. "It take a LOT of strength to love."
Inside the Silver Moon Barber Shop, proprietor John R. Harris mused about the street as he barbered his next customer. Harris has operated here for 13 years.
"I agree with the mayor . . . . We don't want any Eiffel Towers here, just to have the place refurbished. But who would pay for it? . . . . Mayor Young has been trying to do as much as he can for Atlanta as a whole, but when it comes to Auburn Avenue, the benefits seem to skip. We can just barely keep our heads up."
King was assassinated on the balcony outside his Memphis hotel room in April 1968. Since then, Harris said, "people seem to drift back into things, it's a time-lull situation, instead of progressing on and on and on."
One of Harris' customers, a man in a suit and tie, described himself as an independent management consultant to local schools and universities and asked that his name be withheld to avoid alienating clients.
"You get men like Mr. Bennett [Reagan's education secretary] coming to teach a class of children here," he said, "but what concerns me is what will happen after King week is over" -- at the school, in the projects, in community programs for the poor.
He said that his life has been better because King lived but that he and other blacks are still left out of the business mainstream. "I'm not crying in my beer . . . . I think whites are beginning to realize that we have capabilities. I deal with some white schools, and every time someone hires me, I deliver and they bring me back."
Leon Richardson, 28, represented the view up the street to the west, where an occasional modern new office complex sits among the bleakness, blending comfortably with the shiny towers of the New South downtown skyline beyond. He is an underwriter for the Equitable Insurance Co.
"Things are going great for me," he said, adding that he hopes to start his own company before long. He credited King for giving him the opportunity.
How will he celebrate King's birthday? "I'm going to the fights. The ticket cost me $135," he said, referring to the championship match here. "The whole fight card is good. This is the week!"
At the King Center this week, well-dressed, racially mixed crowds are hearing speech after speech hailing the changes wrought by King and lamenting the statistics of deepening poverty and unemployment for what some refer to as a permanent "black underclass."
But more than the lofty speeches and assembly-line souvenirs, the legacy of King may be best conveyed in an exhibit of the tools of his trade: the denims (washed, starched and ironed) he wore on marches, a black briefcase -- all the luggage he traveled with -- containing wash-and-wear shirts, lists of "things to do," toiletries and a travel alarm clock; his books, one on the teachings of Gandhi; a key on a green-plastic tab, labeled Room 307, Lorraine Motel, Memphis.
Such mundane items serve as a reminder of the man behind the week's exalted image, a practical man who might have sat chatting with the customers at today's Silver Moon about how to shake things up around Sweet Auburn.