Here in Austin, the street named for Martin Luther King Jr. isn’t what I expected. Unlike most of the dozen or so MLK streets I’d seen around the country, this one — in the very heart of the city — is prosperous, vibrant, and inviting.
I used to live in Sarasota, Florida. The MLK street there is called Dr. Martin Luther King Way. Sadly, that MLK street (formerly 27th Street) was often in the news for the wrong reasons — a drug bust, an assault or rape, or even a murder. Typical of so many MLK streets, it runs through Sarasota’s traditionally black neighborhood, and its poorest.
The comedian Chris Rock said, “If a friend calls you on the telephone and says they’re lost on Martin Luther King Boulevard and they want to know what they should do, the best response is ‘run!’”
There are now about 900 streets in America named for MLK. They’re in forty states plus Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. The southern states have about 70 percent of the MLK streets overall. Georgia, where Dr. King was from, has the most MLK streets — more than 100. Here in Texas, 19 cities have MLK streets.
But according to Derek Alderman, a professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, naming streets for Dr. King, who was assassinated in 1968, is one of the most contentious ways of commemorating the civil rights leader.
“Debates over whether to name a street for King and which specific street to identify with him have led to the boycott of businesses, protest marches, court actions, petition drives, the vandalizing of roads, and even activists chaining themselves to street signs,” Alderman says on his website that focuses on the politics of MLK streets.
A man in St. Louis, Missouri named Melvin White founded a group to revitalize MLK streets across the country. He was appalled at how homes and businesses along Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in St. Louis had fallen into ruins.
White told CNN it’s “a disgrace that the streets meant to honor King’s legacy of nonviolence, economic opportunity and racial equality are often violent, segregated and offer no economic sustainability.”
A few MLK streets are jewels, such as those in Tampa (50 miles north of Sarasota), Minneapolis, Chapel Hill, and here in Austin. But most MLK streets are like the one in Sarasota. You have to join Melvin White of St. Louis in asking, “Why is Martin Luther King Street like this? This was a great man, a hero, and why is he being recognized in this light?”
In Austin there are actually two streets named for MLK. One is East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. It was named first, in 1975, when the city council redesignated the old East 19th Street that runs from Interstate 35 to Ed Bluestein Boulevard. That renaming was relatively easy — politically speaking — because back then East 19th Street wasn’t prominent or close to downtown. But the effort to rename West 19th Street drew heavy fire. West 19th Street was very prominent. It ran through the middle of central Austin, close to the state capitol building and even closer to the University of Texas-Austin.
The battle to rename West 19th Street lasted more than a year, pitting a group called the West 19th Street Association against local church leaders and politicians, both black and white. The West 19th Street Association said the renaming would “impinge on property rights and promote an alternative historical legacy,” according to the Austin American-Statesman. Some people claimed to be worried about signage. “Dr. King’s full name is so long, the highway department reported, that a much larger sign and support will be necessary.”
Eventually the folks who wanted all of 19th Street renamed for MLK won, and today in Austin there’s the original East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and the later-named West Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard that starts where you cross I-35 heading into downtown.
The MLK street in Austin, east and west, is now a valued address. On the stretch near the state capitol that opens to the university there’s an important Texas history museum. There are several big churches, nice hotels, and plenty of restaurants. Heading east across I-35, MLK is lined with busy bakeries, well-known eating spots and watering holes, and some of Austin’s choicest new apartments.
Where’s your MLK street? Maybe you’ll spot it in this short (and dizzying) video of MLK streets across the country.