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Melvin White remembers exactly where he was when the idea came to him.
“I was a mail carrier, so I’m delivering mail on the street and thought, ‘Wow, this doesn’t make sense,’” he says. “Abandoned buildings, drugs being sold. This is a really bad street. You look at the name on the street sign and I was like, ‘This does not correlate with what he stood for.’”
That “he” is Martin Luther King Jr., for whom hundreds of streets nationwide are named after. In White’s hometown of St. Louis, Dr. Martin Luther King Drive cuts through a neighborhood that’s seen better days. Formerly Easton Avenue, it was once a bustling business district in the first half of the 20th century. Boutiques, restaurants, and department stores like J.C. Penney and Woolworth used to dot the busy avenue.
Today, the glossy department stores are gone, replaced with vacant buildings and lots. Some commercial development has come to the area, but it’s been a slow trickle over the last two decades or so.
But White is on a self-bestowed mission to recapture the activity and energy the area was once known for. In 2009, inspired by his walks and drives around the community, he established Beloved Streets of America, which aims to counteract the urban decline of communities surrounding the streets named after King and provide a positive environment for local residents.
“Growing up, Dr. King was my hero,” White says. “Looking at that street, if you’ve been to St. Louis, you can see the blight. We should have a beautiful street to be in line with his legacy.”
The first MLK street renaming took place in Chicago in 1968, just months after the civil rights icon was assassinated. The initial proposal was to either name a street that cut right down the prominent central business district of Chicago, or one of the new big expressways that was going to wrap around the city.
“The activists and leaders within the Black community who wanted to remember King wanted a major prominent thoroughfare,” explains Derek Alderman, professor of geography at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who’s extensively studied the politics of naming streets for King. “Chicago refused to do that. In fact, Mayor Daley basically, in effect, hijacked the proposal.”
Daley and his administration ultimately decided that King’s name would be placed along a road that was virtually confined to the Black community and the South Side, ignoring what Black organizers sought in a move that Alderman describes as a misuse of power.
“That pattern that happened in Chicago—where you have white leaders almost appropriating King’s name—is a pattern we see on and on,” he says.
The movement to name streets after King picked up more speed in the 1970s and gained major traction in the early and mid-1980s with the establishment of the federal holiday, which was first observed in 1986.
“The King holiday was a real turning point for naming streets for Dr. King,” Alderman says. “The reason a lot of communities wanted to name the street for King is they wanted a permanent, fixed, physical memorial to King. They wanted to provide something the holiday could not.”
In the decades since, MLK streets across America have developed a persistent reputation for being located in struggling, derelict, or dangerous areas. But it’s not exactly an accurate reputation.
While new research shows that poverty rates are almost double the national average in areas surrounding streets named after King, and educational attainment is much lower, that’s not necessarily proof that a street being named after King is a harbinger of urban decline.