In the now-famous speech that he gave to a congregation in Memphis the night before he was assassinated in April of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at length about travelling roads. If he were given the option to live in any period, he said, he would trek through the dark dungeons of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and then on to Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the establishment of the New Deal programs before landing at that time, the politically perilous year of 1968. He mapped a path of justice, informed by the past and steadfastly anchored in the present, before ending his address by famously exalting his listeners to reach the mountaintop — and eerily suggesting that it would have to be without him:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!
In the nearly 50 years since his death, King’s physical legacy is seen most frequently in the streets that are named after him. There are more than 900 in the United States, the vast majority of them located in the Southeast, according to University of Tennessee geographer Derek Alderman. It’s a number that far outpaces any other comparable political icon of color, and is a testament to the hard work of many activists across several generations who have fought for the right to name public spaces in their communities. In this hyperlapse video, you can take a tour of 33 of America’s MLK streets, which is just 3.6 percent of the total.
The existence of so many Martin Luther King streets is complicated by the fact that so little of the economic justice that King fought for five decades ago has come to fruition. According to researchers at the University of North Texas, residents in neighborhoods with streets named after King are $6,000 poorer than residents in neighborhoods without one. It’s a fact that’s not surprising considering the racial wealth divide has remained stubbornly high since the Census Bureau began counting it 26 years ago.
To demonstrate these persistent racial and economic inequities, we’ve overlaid streets named after MLK on four race maps produced by the New York Times and based on population data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 2005-2009.
It’s a pervasive phenomenon that led professor Guillermo G. Caliendo to write that “as a direct result of racial misrepresentations in public memory, King streets…signify Blackness, poor black people, and even a dangerous neighborhoods whereby commemoration recalls not social achievements by African Americans but a socioeconomic decay of Black neighborhoods.”
Another, Jonathan Tilove, put it even more succinctly: “To name any street for King is to invite an accounting of how the streets makes good on King’s promise or mocks it.”
The danger in all of this is that we may forget King’s path, altogether. “There’s a way in which the process of memorialization is sometimes the first step in collective forgetting,” says Leigh Reiford, a professor at Berkeley and co-editor of the anthology “The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory.” “We name our monuments, we name our streets, and they’re meant to do the work of memory for us.”
Now, on a day on which we remember King’s work and sacrifice in the name of racial and economic justice, we invite you to do your own accounting of King’s dream and your part in it. What is—or isn’t—happening in your local community to bridge inequality? Chime in with your own stories in the comments.
MLK Street data in video courtesy of Derek Alderman and Janna Caspersen, Department of Geography, University of Tennessee (mlkstreet.org).