Naming a street for MLK could influence attitudes and behaviors

A debate in Kansas City about naming a road in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. involves asking how the name might affect people:

Some residents argue that choosing a street in a disinvested, mostly black neighborhood would perpetuate stereotypes of thoroughfares that are already named for him in other cities, and would fail to force white people to consider Dr. King’s legacy and the racism that still exists so long after his death. Others, though, say that choosing a street in a white area would be an affront to the city’s black residents and disrespectful of the fact that Dr. King fought primarily for the rights of black people…

Mr. Lucas said he leaned toward giving the name to a street where white people tend to venture more often, because it could have a greater impact there. “There’s something to be said for the fact that you need to make sure the entire community honors it, instead of saying, ‘That’s something the black folks are doing for the black folks in a black area.’ ”…

Complicating this naming fight is a simple truth: Kansas City, like much of the country, struggles with segregation.

For two years, advocates have lobbied the parks board, which oversees the city’s boulevard system, to change the name. Jean-Paul Chaurand, the board president, responded last month with a letter stating that longstanding policy has been to name streets after local residents who made significant contributions to the city. He suggested creating a commission to discuss the renaming further.

This sounds like a ready-made research question: do honorary roads affect attitudes and behaviors over time? Major cities have many such roads, in various neighborhoods, and designated at various times which would give researchers plenty of variation to work with. I wonder if such research would show minimal positive effects in a city overall (though it could be more important in particular locations, as noted in the discussion above) but then it might be argued that not naming such roads – particularly in a case like Martin Luther King, Jr. – would have negative repercussions.

See an earlier post where Illinois legislators discussed creating a Barack Obama roadway. If Reagan has a highway (the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway in Illinois among others in the United States), shouldn’t Obama get one as well?

The Chicago Tribune in 1968 and conservatives today: sociologists excuse rioters

In an overview of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final months, the Chicago Tribune quotes its own take on urban riots:

King’s opponents saw his proposed march as an invitation to rioting. In the 1960s, one inner city after another had exploded in deadly and destructive riots. King explained the violence with a metaphor: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

The Tribune rejected that argument in a Jan. 21, 1968, editorial: “Every time there is a riot in the streets you can count on a flock of sociologists rushing forward to excuse the rioters.” King’s “nonviolence,” the Tribune added, “is designed to goad others into violence.”

Simultaneously, King was under attack by a younger generation of black militants who rejected his pacifist philosophy as weak. Their conclusion was echoed by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. “I don’t call for violence or riots, but the day of Martin Luther King has come to an end,” said Powell, a longtime U.S. congressman from New York.

Lest the Tribune let this idea of sociologists excusing riots be swept into the dustbin of history, this idea exists in recent years as well. In 2013, the conservative Canadian Prime Minister said we should not “commit sociology” when addressing terrorism. Conservative columnist George Will used a similar phrase in 2012 when discussing the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Of course, explaining social phenomena is not the same as excusing or condoning it.

Now that I have seen this sort of explanation multiple times, it is clearly less about sociology and how social science works and more about political ideology. Sociologists, by a wide majority, are liberals. Those who tend to disparage sociology in public phrases like these are conservatives. The implication is that sociologists and liberals are willing to allow violence and disorder if it serves a particular political end. And, this may have just enough of a grain of truth to be a repeatable claim.

Five decades later, white evangelicals commonly invoking MLK

In recent years, I think I noticed something within white evangelical circles: a regular use of the words of Martin Luther King Jr. I do not know if this is a certifiable trend or not; it simply popped into my mind after a few recent experiences.

On one hand, this could be viewed as a positive sign. White evangelicals are turning around to addressing issues of race and justice. They recognize the importance of the work of MLK. They are willing to learn from others outside of their theological tradition.

On the other hand, I wonder if this is all five decades too late. Are the evangelicals of today the same “white moderates” King criticizes in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail“? Is King now acceptable for use because his words and ideas are a normal part of American society? Are those invoking King today willing to go to the same lengths as King and other Christians to fight injustice?

May this Martin Luther King Day help lead to true justice.

 

MLK streets in the US contained in a “nation within a nation”

Many American cities have streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. and many are located within black areas:

Across the country there are 730 streets named after civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr…

For his book “Along Martin Luther King: Travels on Black America’s Main Street,” author Jonathan Tilove visited nearly 500 Martin Luther King streets across the country. In his book, he described a “nation within a nation” as “a parallel universe.”

“For many whites, a street sign that says Martin Luther King tells them they are lost,” Tilove wrote. “For many blacks, a street sign that says Martin Luther King tells them they are found.”

And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. drive in Chicago has its own complicated past:

Instead, a South Side designation was boosted by Mayor Richard J. Daley. It was a move Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor describe as “disingenuous” in their Daley biography “American Pharaoh.”

Foes when King was alive, Daley, by supporting the renaming, was attempting to portray himself as a forward thinker on race relations ahead of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the biographers said.

In dedicating the street, Daley “invoked King’s devotion to nonviolence in a verbal formation that made it sound as if Daley had the idea first,” Cohen and Taylor wrote.

Par for the course in a racialized country: where the effects of race extend even to street names. That said, I wonder what would happen in some major cities if there were efforts to extend MLK street into white and/or tourist areas…

Remembering MLK in Chicago

The story of the time Martin Luther King, Jr. spent in Chicago in 1966 is not well-known. While many think of King as leading a successful Civil Rights Movement that culminated in the “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963 and then the passing of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, his efforts in his last years faced more opposition. In Chicago, he unsuccessfully fought for an end to residential segregation. Read two longer posts about King’s time in Chicago:

MLK in Chicago – Jan 17, 2011

More on MLK in Chicago in 1966 – Aug 7, 2011

The Chicago Tribune has this short summary of what King faced in Chicago:

On this muggy Friday afternoon, Martin Luther King Jr. stepped out of the car that had ferried him to Marquette Park on Chicago’s Southwest Side to lead a march of about 700 people. The civil-rights leader and his supporters were in the white ethnic enclave to protest housing segregation. Thousands of jeering, taunting whites had gathered. The mood was ominous. One placard read: “King would look good with a knife in his back.”

As King marched, someone hurled a stone. It struck King on the head. Stunned, he fell to one knee. He stayed on the ground for several seconds. As he rose, aides and bodyguards surrounded him to protect him from the rocks, bottles and firecrackers that rained down on the demonstrators. King was one of 30 people who were injured; the disturbance resulted in 40 arrests. He later explained why he put himself at risk: “I have to do this–to expose myself–to bring this hate into the open.” He had done that before, but Chicago was different. “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today,” he said.

Not Chicago’s best day or season.

Bill Levitt only allowed open housing in Levittowns after MLK was killed

The several Levittowns built in the 1950s were often viewed as model suburban communities. However, they had a darker legacy as the builders, the Levitt family, would not sell homes to blacks. The book Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb recounts the hostility the first black family to move into Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1958 faced. The epilogue to the book (p.194-195) includes this description of how Bill Levitt finally agreed to open housing:

Levitt remained on as president of the company for about six months, however, and had one last unexpected order of business before he left for good. It began on April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Six days later, a small story on page four of the Wall Street Journal bore the headline, Levitt & Sons Starts ‘Open Housing’ Policy as King ‘Memorial.’ The Journal reported that the proposal had been “drawn up by the Levitt management and approved ITT,” though failed to specify whether it had originated with Bill Levitt himself. Nevertheless, the announcement was viewed as a stunning admission of his past racist policies and the mark of sweeping changes to come. “Open housing was one of Dr. King’s greatest hopes,” said Levitt, “our action is a memorial to him.”

African-Americans were already living in his three Levittown communities, but Levitt & Sons now had eighteen communities being constructed around the world, from Illinois to France, and the new policy would ensure open housing in each. “It is high time that we take this stand,” Levitt said.

The company took out a full-page advertisement in cities including Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago to announce the plan as well. At the top of the ad was a large picture of Martin Luther King. Underneath the photo was the headline Levitt Pays Tribute to Dr. King in Deed – Not Empty Phrases. The ad continued, “This Company has adopted a new policy – effective at once – eliminating segregation any place it builds…We ask all our colleagues to adopt a similar policy without delay. The forces of bigotry and prejudice must not be permitted to prevail any longer, and we urge all builders – large and small alike – to do their part in making America once again the ideal of the world.”

It is unfortunate it took so long for Levitt & Sons to make this move. In the meantime, blacks were denied the opportunity to live in communities that were seen by some, including the Levitts, as the epitome of the American Dream.

The story in the book is fascinating. The Myers family, Bill, Daisy, and two kids, moved into the suburb in 1957 and were immediately faced with mobs, harassment, actions from the KKK, burning crosses, and indifferent local police. That all of this could happen in the northern suburb, one close to Trenton and not too far from Philadelphia, might surprise some. At the same time, such situations were not uncommon – the actions here reminded me of the Cicero, Illinois incident in 1951 when a black family moved to an apartment in the suburb just outside of Chicago.

Derek Jeter as an example of the kind of world MLK envisioned

A sociologist argues that Yankees star Derek Jeter is an example of the kind of world Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned:

The son of a white mother and a black father, Jeter experienced racial prejudice from both groups as a boy growing up in Kalamazoo, Mich., and playing in the minor leagues down south. Even as recently as 2006, according to O’Connor, Jeter received a “racially-tinged threat” in his mail at Yankee Stadium, a threat the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Unit considered serious enough to investigate…

But Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociologist and black activist of the 1960s who has spoken and written extensively on the subject of race and professional athletics, explained Jeter’s appeal as a combination both of his unique attributes as an athlete and individual, and as a sign that the United States, throughout its history often bitterly divided along racial, ethnic and territorial lines, is moving toward an era of diversity and inclusion.

“I think it’s absolutely appropriate in the 21st century that a Derek Jeter should be the face of the premier baseball team in this country,” Edwards said. “When you talk about leadership and production and consistency and durability over the years, what he has achieved and what he has accomplished, and more than that, the way that he has done it is just absolutely phenomenal. He is one of our real athletic heroes and role models to the point that his race or ethnicity does not matter.”…

Derek Jeter’s way, the way of hard work, discipline and exemplary behavior, would have made Dr. King proud.

Tiger Woods, pre-scandal, may be another good example.

At the same time, this analysis makes me a little nervous. As some examples from Jeter’s own life suggest, we still have a ways to go. While it is notable that we now have visible multiracial leaders who appeal to a broad swath of America, at the same time, Jeter is a role model because he is successful at what does, going to multiple All-Star games and winning multiple World Series championships. Would Jeter be revered in the same way if he was from the Dominican Republic or from the south side of Chicago or from a farming community in North Dakota? What if he spoke about racial issues or wasn’t such a classy figure and “acted out”? In the end, does his celebrity make it easier for the average multiracial American? Are Americans only willing to look past Jeter’s background because he is a classy winner?