by Richard Powelson
Scripps Howard News Service
January 17, 2005
A drive along the entire avenue one recent day showed that the largest group of people congregating anywhere outside - about a dozen - were leaning against the wall of Martin's Food Town, a small store advertising its beer. A couple of men held small brown-paper bags wrapped around a beverage that they sipped periodically.
The late civil-rights leader's birthday (Jan. 15) and federal holiday (Jan. 17) is stirring more introspection about what has happened to his legacy since his 1968 assassination in Memphis, Tenn., at age 39. The Nobel Peace Prize winner would have been 76 this year.
So far, at least 730 communities have named streets or portions of streets after King, according to geography professor Derek Alderman and research assistant Matthew Mitchelson at East Carolina University. A number of schools also bear his name.
But the quality, rather than the quantity, of King street neighborhoods concerns minority leaders.
"Wherever there is a Martin Luther King street, typically it's in the black community and the street has become an eyesore to some extent," said Brenda Davenport of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King helped found the group and was its first president.
Jerry Kolo, a black urban-planning professor at Florida Atlantic University, agrees. "If King were to wake up from his grave today, he would either weep for some of the streets or actually fight for the un-naming of some streets after him."
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, based in Atlanta, has begun studying ways to revitalize neighborhoods along MLK streets, Davenport said. Drug pushers, killers and the economically deprived may be found on King streets, she said, "so that's going against everything that Dr. King was about. Economic justice is clearly what this movement is really about."
It has been a longtime tradition to name streets and schools after presidents and others of note, said John C. White, a spokesman for the NAACP.
"I think what is being taught in the schools about Dr. King is probably a better legacy," White said.
King would not have liked naming streets and schools after him only in black neighborhoods, White said. "His focus was making America a better place to live. I think he saw himself much bigger than just a man of race, but a man for a better America."
King's maternal grandfather and his father were both ministers. After skipping the ninth and 12th grades, King received bachelor's degrees in both sociology and divinity, and then a doctorate in theology after studies at Boston University and Harvard University.
For eight years until his death, he and his father were co-pastors at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
King became nationally known in 1955 and 1956 as president of the successful bus boycott over segregation in Montgomery, Ala. He also got broad attention for his moving speeches to large crowds, including his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech to more than 200,000 in Washington, and for about 30 arrests at non-violent protests.
He was part of the huge movement that resulted in passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In one of King's last major sermons, he said: "I just want to leave a committed life behind. If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a word or song, if I can show somebody he is traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain."
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