But the four-story building, surrounded by chain-link fence and "no trespassing'' signs, might not stay empty.
Motivated in part by fears that the David T. Howard School building could someday be demolished, alumni and community members are working to put children back in the halls King roamed from third through sixth grade (1936 to 1940).
The city school board has created a task force to evaluate what to do with the building, which became a high school in the years after King graduated.
Graduates said the once-great institution that produced a generation of black leaders should be rejuvenated as a school or early childhood learning center, but the difficulties of renovating the rundown building could stand in the way.
"It's sad that our city and school board hasn't cared so much to maintain the history that's so rich in our community,'' said Rosa Holmes, who graduated from the school in 1961.
"It was a melting pot for the community. It wasn't a school singled out for just the rich kids. Our instructors were concerned about getting you an education, and they weren't teaching you from afar. They were aware of your home life.''
Since the last bell rang in 1976, the former school in King's Old 4th Ward neighborhood has housed vagrants, school district records and drug abuse programs.
Though still handsome on the outside, asbestos has been found in floor tiles, pipes and pipe fittings, according to a 2011 study of vacant facilities by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Water leaks damaged the ceilings and floors.
Brickwork has cracked, windows need replacing, electrical systems would have to be upgraded and elevators would have to be installed for access for disabled people.
Repairs would cost at least $16.4 million, excluding the significant and undefined expense of restoring the building's historic character, the study said. By comparison, remodeling an office building to become North Atlanta High cost $147 million, and additions at Jackson High cost $48 million.
The school, opened in 1923 on land donated by former slave and philanthropist David T. Howard, could be used as an early childhood education center, elementary school or middle school, potentially relieving overcrowding at Inman Middle School, said supporters of the movement to revitalize the property.
"To neglect a viable institution that exists and let it lay dormant would be a disservice, not only to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but to the individual who donated the land in support of African-American education, David T. Howard himself,'' said Nasir Muhammad, a historian who is writing a book about Howard.
Although the neglected property lacks historical markers or evidence of King's time there, its walls feature giant murals of people draped in American flags, including one image of a boy near King's words, "judged by the content of their character,'' printed in white letters on the red brick.
The school was a refuge for black students from a time before integration, when their teachers and parents emphasized the importance of education as a vital part of shaping the nation's future leaders, graduates said in interviews.
Besides King, the school educated Atlanta's first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, civil rights activist and presidential adviser Vernon Jordan, construction and real estate businessman Herman J. Russell, former Atlanta police chief and Clayton County Commission chairman Eldrin Bell, basketball hall of famer Walt Frazier and several Olympic athletes, among other notables.
"No one at Howard High School was afraid of being an adventurer or of being first in anything. That was the culture,'' said Godfrey Finch, who graduated in 1965. "I was taught that nothing worth having is going to come easy, so if we put the work in and retool the school, it would be a marvel to look at and experience.''
So many teachers lived near students and knew their families, creating an atmosphere where education was a priority, said Bobbie Britt, who graduated in 1961.
"The teachers were so concerned about the children at that time. They put every effort into teaching us,'' she said.
Atlanta's recently elected school board, which includes six new members out of nine seats, wants to find a way to bring the school back to life, said board Chairman Courtney English.
"It's a blight on the community as it stands now.
People want to see it brought online.
They want King's legacy done justice, and they don't want a big hole sitting in their community,'' English said.