The third Monday in January is recognized as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the U.S. – a day of service named in his honor to celebrate his work and legacy. Another way that society honors people is by naming streets after them. Dr. King has more than 1,000 streets worldwide named after him: in over 25 countries from Argentina to India, Brazil to the Netherlands; and, in the U.S. in 41 states, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico.
The minister and Nobel Prize winner was both a powerful orator and a man of action. I believe the naming of those streets makes a statement about our commitment to honor the history of Dr. King’s words and actions. The living conditions on those streets, on the other hand, makes a statement about our commitment to take action to turn Dr. King’s dream of equality into a present reality.
In many ways life on any “King" road sits at the intersection of the pain, the progress, and the promise of the journey to equality for all. It is a jarring reflection of how far we’ve come and how much further we must go.
The pain of many of the streets named after Dr. King is that more than 50 years later, they are literally and figuratively so far removed from the equitable quality of life that he envisioned. In some cases, it comes from decades of underinvestment and neglect. A 2020 research study showed that the residents of "King" streets predominately identify as Black, African American or of the African diaspora which includes people from various countries on the continent of Africa, Caribbean islands and Afro-Latinos. On these streets the poverty rates are almost double the national average, educational attainment is low, there is little economic activity, higher than average crime and limited basic services such as access to fresh food and health care. In contrast, some “King” streets reflect progress and feature prominent thoroughfares, with a large commercial presence. Economic activity and employment are provided by a variety of retail stores and businesses owned by people of color, including art or cultural institutions, clothing and restaurants reflecting a rich mix of traditions.
The Civil Rights movement and subsequent changes in legislation paved the way for progress. The laws perpetuating segregation or inequitable treatment based on race/ethnicity in education, employment, public facilities, housing, and voting have been struck down. The removal of these barriers and the network of historically Black colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) helped to fuel the growth of a Black middle class. We have also seen the rise in influence and prominence of numerous Black Americans as entrepreneurs and business owners, executives in businesses and non-profits across all industries, governments, health care, the legal profession, academia, entertainment, and sports.
One of the factors driving the gap between pain and progress is the depth of the persistent economic inequality found more broadly in the Black community. A 2016 report of the National Bureau of Economic Research showed Black median household wealth was $3,400 compared to over $140,000 for White households. This is driven primarily by the almost two to one difference in rates of home ownership, as housing is known to make up two-thirds of the average U.S. household’s wealth. This gap becomes harder to close over time as each subsequent generation starts with little to no inherited wealth or assets.
Dr. King understood that the ripple effect of economic disparity and poverty across generations was not unique to the Black community. That is why in 1967 he announced the Poor Peoples Campaign, broadening the scope of the movement beyond civil rights to human rights. In his last sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC just 4 days before he was assassinated, he reiterated the call to rid our nation and the world of poverty.
The promise is in the concept that Dr. King popularized known as the “beloved community:” A community where all are equal and everyone is cared for, absent of poverty, hunger, and hate. A community in which all of us work together to create a better future for each of us. Though there are some things we must do collectively to create the "beloved community," Dr. King was also a strong believer in the call to service in each of our lives. He once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others?”
This question should challenge us on Martin Luther King Day, and every day, to think about how we invest in the lives of others. None of us can single handedly solve disparities rooted in systemic issues. We must work with others to do that. But individually, by donating time or resources to a food bank we can impact hunger. By volunteering at a shelter, we can help provide safe spaces. By tutoring or mentoring a student, we can support academic achievement and employability. By having constructive conversations with positive intent, we can better understand one another and reduce the distrust among us. By being a role model for valuing differences, we can create a more compassionate world. By volunteering with community advocacy groups, we are changing the lives of many. By acting for others, we acknowledge our shared humanity, as Dr. King noted, “We are tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly…I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”
Melvin White is a postal worker in St. Louis that founded a nonprofit called Beloved Streets of America. Its goal is to generate resources and support to revitalize and conserve streets across America named for Dr. King. May we also find ourselves taking action to turn down the road of promise and make the beloved community of humankind Dr. King envisioned a reality.