"Do they respect King? Martin Luther King?" asks Miss Gennie, a woman who won't give her last name because she works at a public transit station in the heart of Chicago's South Side, right above Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. She's increduluos at being asked the question, since she's seen shootings, muggings and gentrification hurt the neighborhoods lining the majestic, 11.6-mile-long street. "Child, shoo. Dr. King done rolled over in his grave."
Miss Gennie is old enough to remember when, in the late 1960s, cities and states began naming streets after King. The namings were intended to honor King. But many today wonder if the honor is moot since many people don't respect the King name or embrace his message of nonviolence, and in some cases, don't even know the street exists.
Indeed most of the approximately 800 streets in the United States dedicated to King's memory run through the Black side of town. Three of them, in Chicago, Boston and Tulsa, Okla., are representative of the history and angst involved in many of the namings.
In Chicago, where King Drive, formerly South Parkway, runs through the historically Black veal estate mecca of Bronzeville, gentrification generates a kind of class tension seldom seen before Whites and upper-class Blacks began rehabbing gray-stone mansions in the neighborhoods along the street. In Boston, King Boulevard abuts Malcolm X Park, yet some residents call it four-lane road to nowhere. And in Tulsa, a 15-mile interstate is named for King, yet most refer to it as Interstate 244, unaware of the expressway's secondary title or the ghosts of devastation buried beneath it's gigantic concrete pillars.
Nonetheless, King remains one of the country's more popular street name Choices, according to Derek Alderman, an East Carolina University cultural geographer who studies King Drives. Many White communities continue to vote against the name, says Alderman. Plus, in places that already have King streets, he says, it seems his legacy did little to stem the flow of racist and classist attitudes affecting the lives of those who live along the roadways.
"It's ironic that in trying to rename streets for King and celebrate King, we're running right smack …