On Thanksgiving Day, my relatives and I were talking about Martin Luther King Boulevards. Plural. As in how there are more and more of them in cities across America. And how they seem to mean less and less.
Time was (and still is in some communities) when the effort to merely name a major street in town after America's great hero of nonviolent resistance and conscience was treated like a call to war. Some of you have suffered through what I'm talking about: Outrage on one side about the violation of age-old street-name "tradition" and the danger of yielding to "tokenism" or the scary muscle of black demands. Outrage on the other side about the fact that the renaming of a street after King is a controversy in the first place. Toledo, Ohio went through a pitched battle over this just a few years ago; I saw some of it first-hand when a remarkable Toledo coalition had groups citywide dialoguing, and even reading one of my books on race, and arranged for me to visit. Such ruckuses have never been about MLK's name alone; they are also about black grievances and the white resentments thereof.
But what today's proliferation of MLK Boulevards is about in some cities, it seems to me, is increasingly a kind of listless civic stenciling of King's name with little official attention to actually doing the things that King's legacy demands. Just as Americans' once-a-year cherry-picking of phrases from King's "I Have a Dream" speech has become a safe way to duck his fiercely defiant politics, so has sticking MLK's name on a street sign become a substitute for actual urban policy that would carry out King's convictions on jobs and justice, to name just two. Follow an MLK Boulevard through many a city, and you are likely to pass through a section of town starved for the resources and services that the middle class (and even a good portion of the white working class) take for granted, including responsible policing. In any number of towns, the "MLK Blvd" exit sign on the highway is likely to translate as, "neighborhood where the city ignores the needs that Dr. King died for." Or, as one of my (black) relatives put it in a wicked moment of commentary on white mainstream views of the black poor, the "MLK Blvd" placard can also be read as "Formerly Darktown."
It's not that the municipal embrace of King's name, for which so many good people have fought so fiercely, is a bad thing. It's the opposite: What is dishonorable is the way that so many cities use King's name while avoiding his true mission. In their social smallness, the ubiquitous MLK street signs become a trite branding of the King moniker, a widespread trivializing of a giant. The poverty of vision behind this nationwide "give 'em their street" reflex is as embarrassing as it is deficient. We owe King, that battler for unions and peace and economic justice, so much more than we give him.
In that sense, it's not what the MLK street signs say that's a problem. It's what they don't.