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it’s true, mlk blvd. is where we stay

January 21, 2019
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There is an MLK Blvd. in 41 of the 50 states. And throughout the years as naming streets in memorial of the Civil Rights leader has become popularized, these streets have subconsciously become ubiquitous markers for where the niggas are in any one city. And it’s not all in our heads. According to Derek Alderman, head of the geography department at the University of Tennessee, King streets tend to be in racial segregated, low-income areas with little economic opportunity when compared to each city overall, as well as regional and national patterns. Read: Black neighborhoods.

America, and countries around the world have been naming streets in King’s memory basically since his assassination. You know, when White folks weren’t scared of him anymore. Since then, around 900 streets have been named or renamed to honor the Civil Rights leader.

You’ve gotten your hair braided by a Nigerian woman named Papoose off of MLK Blvd. Pookie ’n dem stay right off of MLK Blvd. When Obama got elected you cheered in the streets of MLK Blvd.

MLK Streets, Lanes, and Boulevards aren’t coincidently placed in Black areas. In fact, many of them, like the one in L.A. was the deliberate creations of hopeful-minded business people and activists hoping to honor the King with prosperity and opportunity, on top of the name. In the 1980s, Republican businessman Celes King III began working on the best way to pay tribute to Dr. King around the West Coast city. “There was no street here of any significance named after a black,” he recounted in a 1987 interview with UCLA’s Oral History Research Center.

“I felt that there was a clear need with the [1984] Olympics coming to Los Angeles for us to have an opportunity to display to the international community that Martin Luther King [Jr.] was a major factor as far as Los Angeles is concerned,” King said. “It went by the Coliseum. The Coliseum was going to be where the action would be in 1984. Every map in the free world, and some other worlds for that matter, would have to reflect the name of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.”

The perfect opportunity struck when King III turned to the location of one of his bail bonds businesses located on Santa Barbara Ave. realizing that this was the best location to honor Dr. King. Not only was it a main artery in Los Angeles, but it ran through the heart of L.A.’s Black communities. It stayed within the city limits and only ran through a few districts, meaning that King III would have fewer politicians to lobby for the change. With the help of L.A.’s NAACP, 350 preachers, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and countless volunteers, King III was granted the name change. “If you walk along this street, you can see the upper-middle class in Baldwin Hills and View Park,” UCLA historian Brenda Stevenson said. “And you have working class people, too.” Here, MLK Blvd. is a landmark of Black history in Los Angeles.

But in cities like St. Louis, MLK Blvd. is a reminder of economic disenfranchisement and over-policing. Just five miles away from Ferguson, Missouri, MLK is lined with boarded-up storefronts and remnants of a more prosperous time “If you sit back and look, on a daily basis,” resident Melvin White said, “you see prostitution, you see drugs being sold, abandoned buildings, vacant lots, trash just being dumped all over the streets.”

In Dr. King’s hometown of Atlanta, GA., MLK Drive is a marker for where the man lived his life, where he raised his family, and where he led his congregation. It is also what separates corporate downtown Atlanta from some of the Blackest neighborhoods in the city, like Sweet Auburn District. Under former Mayor Kasim Reed the area underwent plans for a street-wide cleanup effort to restore the area between Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard to Oakland Cemetery. This included fixing the roadways, adding sidewalks, bike facilities, and overall street beatification to attract visitors and business alike.

MLK Blvd. wherever it’s located and whatever shape it’s in, will always be a subtextual clue for how Black folks in any one city are living, where the best chicken wings come from, and which churches have the longest services.