King Street, USA: It Isn't Exactly Main Street, America, but Streets Named for Martin Luther King Jr. Can Be Found Just about Anywhere, U.S.A. Ebony Took a Look at Life along the Nation's Roadways Named for the Slain Civil Rights Icon, and What Did We Find? Same Struggle, Different Day

By Samuels, Adrienne P. | Ebony, January 2008 | Go to article overview

King Street, USA: It Isn't Exactly Main Street, America, but Streets Named for Martin Luther King Jr. Can Be Found Just about Anywhere, U.S.A. Ebony Took a Look at Life along the Nation's Roadways Named for the Slain Civil Rights Icon, and What Did We Find? Same Struggle, Different Day


Samuels, Adrienne P., Ebony


"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 into the very same struggles and obstacles that he ran into," says Alderman, who can list numerous town councils that continue to vote against King street re-namings. "Rather than signaling the Movement is complete, it actually signals that the Movement still is ongoing, there still is more work to be done."

KING DRIVE, CHICAGO

Standing at the "el" stop at the King Drive station, Ronald Jackson is trying not to shiver. His big blue coat is buttoned all the way up. But it's hopeless. It's cold out and the "elevated" train is seven minutes late, which means he's late for his job in the utility crew for Roosevelt University.

"This train is always late," he sighs. "Always. Especially oil Sundays."

The train ought to be on time since many of the Black folk who take the electrified railcars don't own automobiles, he says. The station is not enclosed and the only sources of heat--and the primary barriers from Chicago's nasty wind--are four heat lamps dimly glowing in the morning sun.

Jackson's issue with King Drive isn't crime. It's the Olympics. Chicago is bidding to host the 2016 Olympics, and if that happens, a lot of Black people are about to get screwed, Jackson, 30, surmises. There are plans to put an Olympic stadium in the heart of the 'hood, right near King Drive and close enough to 63rd Street to encourage new, and better, development.

Goodbye J&R Submarine (and hoagies and polishes and pizza puffs). Hello $10 pumpkin-spice lattes.

"I heard stories about what happened to the people in Atlanta after the Olympics," says Jackson, shaking his head. "They're talking now about the petty jobs they're, going to give out, but they're really taking peoples jobs and homes away. …

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King Street, USA: It Isn't Exactly Main Street, America, but Streets Named for Martin Luther King Jr. Can Be Found Just about Anywhere, U.S.A. Ebony Took a Look at Life along the Nation's Roadways Named for the Slain Civil Rights Icon, and What Did We Find? Same Struggle, Different Day
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