There are thousands of Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards, drives, avenues, streets and roads across the country and many, if not all, reside in Black communities. Stereotypes about their location allude to their geography – MLK streets as an entrance to the “hood.”
Each renaming of a street dedicated to King has a story, some of those stories come from a place of honor and respect while others come from a place of manipulation and corruption.
These three stories from the streets of Chicago, DC and Portland unveil the truth behind their renaming.
“It’s all a sham.” How the first Martin Luther King Jr. Drive came to be
Following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the first street renaming to honor his legacy was birthed from performative actions meant to silence the outcry of Black communities across Chicago.
Uprisings after King’s assassination grew across the country. Civil unrest fell upon the West Side of Chicago as Black communities mourned the loss of King. The mayor of Chicago in 1968 was Richard J. Daley. He ordered those in his police department to “shoot to kill any arsonists” participating in the city’s uprising.
Four months after the assassination, Chicago was gearing up to host the Democratic Convention, a presidential nominating event for the democratic party. This would be the first time the convention had come to the city since 1956.
“An important sign of faith to the American people for this national convention to be held here, not in some resort center, but in the very heart of a great city, where people live and work and raise their families,” Mayor Daley said leading up to the convention.
Unable to end the ongoing uprising through violence, Mayor Daley chose a new approach: intimidation and manipulation. In addition to pressuring the police to send a stern message to various Black-led groups to cease the uprising, he also met with the City Council to mollify the Black community by suggesting that Chicago rename a street in honor of King.
The City Council voted 43-0 to rename the 11-mile-long South Park Way, which ran through predominantly Black sections of the South Side of Chicago.
On Aug. 8, 1968, a naming ceremony took place and more than 500 people gathered as South Park Way became Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Chicago became the first city in the country to rename a street in honor of King and a week later the city hosted the Democratic Convention.
City Council member, Alderman Leon Despres, called the street renaming “a slight and trivial gesture” and predicted the street would become known as a less than weighty, even frivolous, “Junior Drive.”
This Black main street is keeping the culture alive in Chocolate City
“There are times where if you ain’t on the ave, you missing out, and times when you don’t wanna be caught on the ave. It’s a Black main street in America. For me, it’s ji like home.”
Playwright and Crochet Kingpin Dwayne Lawson-Brown grew up just off Martin Luther King Jr. Ave in Southeast DC. His memory of what he reverently calls, “The Ave,” reflects the difficulty of separating Black joy from pain in the District of Columbia, as well as the sweetness of the art scene in Chocolate City. “We used to have an event called Unifest. It was basically Southeast Day. Think of Carnival, but for DC folks. But…you always had to leave early before the shooting started. It was the 90s.”
The road stretches north from the southwestern tip of DC through the Congress Heights commercial area, St Elizabeth’s Hospital campus, Suitland Parkway, and the historic Anacostia neighborhood before ending at the 11th Street Bridges.
MLK Ave has always been all Black everything, even before the renaming to honor Dr. King in 1971. Prior to memorializing the civil rights leader, it was known as Nichols Street and dotted with Black shops, schools and corner stores. Leslie Barksdale lived in the nearby Oxford Manor from 1964 to 1972 and used to walk to the Nichols Avenue School as a first grader. She remembers feeling safe in the neighborhood growing up. Back then, The Ave was home to the best steak and cheese sandwiches around, and a bar called Cooper’s that served fresh hot french fries to local school kids who diligently saved up 35 cents.
Perhaps in part because of his proximity to the vibrant avenue, Lawson-Brown has developed a knack for empathy that extends through his poetry, performance and community work. He performed and offered testing as an HIV educator at the Black LUV Festival on MLK Ave, originally organized by We Act Radio’s Kymone Freeman. This was the first festival Lawson-Brown shared with his son, Darius. “The smiles. That’s something I remember clearly about Black LUV Fest. You could feel the love for each other and the Blackness of it all.”
Today, artists continue to run The Ave. Congress Heights Arts and Culture Center has the 3200 block of MLK Ave SE on lock and remains a space for artists to thrive, children to learn and wellness practices to be shared. Lawson-Brown credits Keyonna Jones for her work building that space and preserving the cultural legacy of MLK Ave. “Black women need to own art spaces. And people need to support them. We all win.”
How the Whitest City in America got its first MLK Boulevard
Before Portland, Oregon rebranded as a “Liberal” utopia, it was most well known as an epicenter of the White Nationalist Movement. In fact, in the 90s it was famously referred to as Skinhead City. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise being that Oregon was founded exclusively for white people. Their racial exclusion law, which prohibited Black people from residing in the state, was repealed in 1926.
But by then Oregon had already set a precedent for the decades of white supremacist violence to come, that would continue to keep their Black population disturbingly low. Not to mention, roughly 20 years ago 30% of voters supported keeping a racist amendment in Oregon’s constitution. As of 2022, Oregon is less than 2% Black, but its largest city, Portland, comes in at a whopping 5%, making it the 2nd Blackest city in the state.
Given this history, petitioning to rename a street in honor of a Black civil rights leader was no easy feat. However, Bernie Foster, editor and founder of The Skanner News, an African-American newspaper, and a group of respected community leaders took on the challenge.
In 1987, Foster collected over 3,000 signatures to rename a street in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. After considering a list of potential streets, he and the committee set their sights on Union Avenue.
When I asked Foster over the phone about some of the barriers he and his committee faced, he laughed, “Barriers?! You want to know the barriers? I only got about 30 minutes.”
“Barriers” was an understatement.
They received hostile pushback for their efforts including threats of violence, and The Skanner News office was vandalized. Additionally, business owners formed Citizens for Union Avenue to oppose the change. But the strangest – and perhaps most random – opponent of the renaming was Richard Barrett, a White Nationalist from Mississippi, with a storied record of opposing anything related to King or the civil rights of Black folks.
According to a 1990 article from The Oregonian, Barrett’s help was solicited by a small White Nationalist group in Portland. He even had dinner with leaders of Citizens for Union Avenue, who, as is typical of these initiatives, claimed their motivations were not racist.
Fortunately, their attempts at blocking the name change failed. On April 20th, 1989, the change was unanimously approved by the city.
Of course, it didn’t quite end there.
The Oregonian reported that Citizens for Union Avenue gathered more than 51,000 signatures petitioning for a public vote to change the street’s name back to Union. This desperate attempt at reversing the city’s decision went all the way to the courts, only to be denied by the Oregon Supreme Court.
Today, King’s legacy is more present than ever in the city through annual events such as the Reclaim MLK Day March for Human Rights and Dignity and the Skanner Foundation’s MLK Breakfast that is in its 37th year.
A nearly three-year battle to bring an MLK Boulevard to the whitest major city in the United States embodies one of King’s most notable quotes: You can kill the dreamer, but you can’t kill the dream.