Have you been to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd? Or Court? Or Place? Or Street? Or Avenue? Most cities have one. Have you been there?
Probably not. There’s a good chance that it is the worst street in your city. It is more likely than not the epicenter of drug activity and violence. It is probably run down. Maybe it’s abandoned. Maybe you can no longer read the sign that says “MLK Way”. Maybe it has boarded up buildings from when idealistic entrepreneurs attempted to revitalize the street with a small business but soon ran out of capital or customers who were willing to make the perilous jaunt. Revitalization takes time and patience.
I have joked many times about the MLK streets in communities around the city. Once I was going to a convention in Cincinnati. It was my first time in the city. I got lost on my way to my destination and felt fine until I saw a sign that said Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. That’s when I panicked! I’ve said facetiously “what a tribute it is to a great man that we have named all of the worst streets in our country after him?”
Indeed… there could be no better tribute.
What better tribute could there be for a man who called us to repave the Jericho roads so that people were no longer beaten and left on the side of the road there? What better tribute could there be for a man who said that faith was taking the first step even when you cannot see the entire staircase? What better tribute could there be for a man who reminded us that the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice? My guess is that Dr. King would be thrilled to see his name associated with the aspirational, the hopeful… the faithful.
I compare Dr. King to Jesus a lot. Not so much because he was a saintly, virtuous man. We know enough about him to know that he had some serious warts. No, it’s the fact that we worry so much about their identities that we miss their messages. In some ways their messages were very much the same; compassion, equality, uplift for those who need it, challenge to those who would wield power in oppressive ways. I don’t think either man is best celebrated through pageantry or parade. I think both are remembered best by remembering the substance of their message, a world moving, sometimes at a snails pace, but in the direction of the justice.
If you want to celebrate Dr. King this year, visit the street in your city that bears his name. Or streets like it. Meet the people. Learn the history. Ask questions and listen to the answers. You’ll hear hurt and abandonment. You may hear resignation. But you may also hear hope. You may hear hope that that street can begin to live into its name, that it can become a place of reconciliation and peace. That it can be the epicenter of the beloved community that was, in fact, the heart of Dr. King’s message. Walk down the street. And ask what your role is in making Dr. King’s dream a reality. Not in the safe confines of your home, but on the street that bears the martyr’s name.
Happy Birthday, Dr. King!