The Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Streets, by Roger Burns
Recently I finished reading The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth and Power, by Deirde Mask. It is a fascinating collection of essays about the importance of naming and place. One chapter in particular has stuck with me, presenting a challenge I’m not sure how to solve. The United States is once again confronted with long-overdue demands for racial justice. Some have compared this moment to the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. One of the changes that emerged from that period was the renaming of streets around the country to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That act may not seem to be very significant, especially when the legacy of systemic racism in America has had such devastating effects for African Americans in areas of criminal justice, economic and educational opportunities, and participation in the democratic process. Yet, for many people, there was real symbolic power in being able to claim and name space for a Back man, one whose life and legacy was still problematic for many white people.
As Mask details, most streets that were renamed for Dr. King were or are in predominantly African American neighborhoods. Over the past several decades addresses that bear the name Martin Luther King Jr. have become some of the poorest in the country. Streets that were renamed to honor a civil rights leader, who also spent years fighting against poverty, have become synonymous crime and poverty. They have become testimonies to the fact that the impact of racism in the United States has not changed for many African Americans. The streets were renamed, but the underlying problems remain.
Right now, as part of this moment of racial reckoning, there are demands being made to rename streets and buildings that honor former members of the Confederacy or individuals with a history of supporting racism. In a number of cases, the belief is that those streets and buildings should be named after people of color who fought, and in some cases died, in the struggle for racial justice.
So, here is the challenge. What can be done to ensure that changing the name of a street or building does not come to be seen as the only response to racial injustice, while the structures that create injustices are allowed to remain in place? There is great power in naming things, and symbolism matters. However, the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. streets is a reminder that naming and symbolic gestures can also be used to avoid making real changes.