MAXWELL:  A disgrace to King’s legacy

1/19/2003 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

In San Angelo, Tex., I had, for the first time, the dubious honor of living on a roadway named for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Mine was officially dubbed Martin Luther King Boulevard. I mention this fact to establish my bona fides for the discussion to follow.

As we celebrate King’s birthday, more than 500 streets in the United States bear the civil rights leader’s name. No other American enjoys such a distinction. Soon after King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, African-Americans began a campaign to get a holiday named in his honor and to get streets and buildings named for him.

They have succeeded on that score, obviously. In fact, a school in Arequipa, Peru, has been named for the Nobel Peace Prize winner, and so has a library in Lusaka, Zambia. Even as I write, city governments and other organizations are considering ways to memorialize King by using his name.

That said, an ugly side of the King-name phenomenon is ignored during this season of celebration.

Black comedian Chris Rock tells a joke that goes something like this: When a white friend told Chris Rock that he was on a street called Martin Luther King and asked what he should do, Chris Rock answered, “Run!” At another time and on a more serious note, Rock said: “I don’t care where you live in America, if you’re on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there’s some violence going on.”

He is right.

But in our zeal to honor King, we forget to ask a few fundamental questions that would show us that most of the streets, boulevards and avenues named for King actually disgrace his great legacy.

Let me explain.

The black part of town that King Street passes through here in St. Petersburg, where I live and work, is a corridor of broad dilapidation, abandoned structures, vacant lots with junked vehicles and trash and debris, black-on-black violence, drug trafficking, public drinking, rudeness, indolence. Even worse, perhaps, most of the viable businesses on this stretch of MLK are owned by people other than blacks _ a testament to black powerlessness.

The reasons for this state of affairs are many and complex. From the beginning, streets named for King _ at least significant segments of them _ were in poor black neighborhoods. From the beginning, these streets were themselves symbols of segregation and decay. From the beginning, streets named for King were a “black thing.” African-Americans happily settled for streets in these places because this was all they were going to get from whites who were under fire from fellow whites to resist change.

Listen to Martin Luther King III, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization his father co-founded: “Most of the streets are still located in areas where they have been neglected. Their (white leaders’) intentions were honorable, but, unfortunately, what they didn’t do in most cases was to create the kind of street or area that would be an appropriate tribute.”

On the surface, King’s words are correct. But he fails to see the real source of the “neglect.” The fault does not lie with white people. It lies with black people.

Has everyone forgotten that Martin Luther King Jr. was born and reared on a clean, quiet, middle-class street in Atlanta, that he grew up with strict conservative values _ values such as serving your community, protecting and respecting your neighbors, hard work, thrift, sobriety, cleanliness?

Martin Luther King III has fallen under the spell of blaming white people for the sorry state of streets honoring his father. We blacks have failed to rise to the level demanded of us to honor our slain leader.

If we do nothing else, we should resolve to transform all King roadways into clean, well-lighted places that will attract businesses of all stripes, that will entice tourists to spend time and money among us, that let local residents know that a visit to King Street is a chance to enjoy yet another part of their city.

For many black communities, the streets named for King are their main streets. In some places, such as St. Petersburg, many white people use King street to travel to and from their homes each day, to and from work each day, to take their kids to and from school each day.

And what do these white people see?

In some parts of St. Petersburg, a wasteland.

Out of fear, they stop only when traffic lights or wrecks or other roadblocks stop them. Why else would they stop? For the same reason as whites _ fear _ many blacks also avoid the King streets in their cities.

Kimberley Wilson, a member of the African-American Leadership Group, asked: “Why isn’t black America outraged that (King’s) name is attached to the crime-ridden ghettoes and schools where no one is learning? What kind of tribute is this to Dr. King’s legacy?”

It is not a tribute to King’s legacy. It is an outrage. It disgraces the memory of one of the greatest figures of the last century.