Correction: Worcester, Mass., does, in fact have a Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. Thanks to Joe Willette for the heads-up!
Wisdom for the word-weary
“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro neighbors and genuine school integration, is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans…These are the deepest causes for contemporary abrasions between the races. Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.
— Martin Luther King
“Where Do We Go From Here,” 1967
Hey, Greylock Nation —
Check it for yourself — find a Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard or Avenue or Way in the Berkshires. I challenge you. In fact, Find one in any town in Massachusetts besides Boston.
I’m going to start, with this newsletter, doing more to observe M.L.K. Day each year. After all, how many other socialists have secured a federal holiday, amiright? Right about here is where someone decided a certain eloquent orator from Atlanta had simply got to go, is what I’m thinking when I read this:
“Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifices. Capitalism was built on the exploitation of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor, both black and white, both here and abroad.”
— Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
“The Three Evils speech,” 1967
Anyway, on with the show.
D’ya wanna know how naive I was as a 21-year-old who’d spent most of his life in Litchfield, Conn.?
I went hitchhiking around the country starting on my 21st birthday and thought I’d head straight for our nation’s capitol — I was fairly brimming with a critical, yet un-condemning patriotism back then. My travels had brought me close to D.C. on the cusp of the July 4th holiday; in fact, I’d set up camp in Greenbelt National Park, just ten miles from the beating heart of democracy. I recall paying $11 a day back in ’89, but at $20 a day here in 2023, it’s still the best deal around, although I understand reservations are strongly suggested these days.
So, anyway, I hopped some guardrails and positioned myself on the shoulder of the Beltway once again. I managed to get a ride before getting arrested — always a good thing — and was soon gliding along in the passenger seat of a brand new Saab 900 Turbo, piloted by a lobbyist who fancied himself a former hippie in corporate disguise. He was sticking it to the man in his own way by giving the longhair with the hemp necklace and feather earing a lift. I didn’t have any contempt for him at the time, though, during in the 90s, when the common vernacular of “sell-out” was widely understood, I may have retro-judged him a bit. Today, I think anyone who has ever picked up a hitchhiker in the United States is both courageous and politically deviant in the best way.
He asked me where I wanted to be let off just as we were passing highway signs for M.L.K. Avenue. “What’s M.L.K.?” I asked. Ignorant much? Yes, but it wasn’t my fault! Understand, M.L.K. Day wasn’t observed nationally until 1986, and the civil rights movement just wasn’t a high priority for the Litchfield public school system. I wouldn’t be surprised if, by some arcane loophole, Litchfield still doesn’t observe this day.
“Martin Luther King? Oh, no! You don’t want to get let out there!”
But I instantly had it in my head that the street would be a real commemoration of brotherly love and gittin’ along-ness. Fountains and statues and placards on both sides of the road describing all the great deeds of activists and religious leaders and so forth. It’s not like I’d had no interactions with Black people; I’d lived in Hartford a couple years. I knew there was still plenty of racial tension. At 18, I dated a Black girl briefly who broke up with me out of concern for my safety (her brothers told her they’d kill me if they every caught me). It’s just that I’d never understood the systemic nature of the animosity. I take my youthful naivite as a point of pride — if I have no problem with a group of people, how could they possibly have a problem with me?
So, I did disembark at M.L.K. And spent the next hour or so being spit at, chased down by cars, threatened, and smashed in the head with bottles. Police cars would not stop when I tried to flag them down to beg for evac. Bleeding and terrified, I escaped the main drag into the relative safety of a housing project. As I surveyed a neighborhood strewn with burned out cars, debris of all kinds, and ugly, cheaply constructed dwellings, I caught a glimpse of the gleaming dome of the Capitol through some trees. That’s when the teardrops began to roll down my face in twin rivulets. Some truth about America was revealed to me that morning. It was too huge for me to grok all in one bite, but I knew that I’d just lost something. I left childhood right there at the curb next to a patch of broken glass and a rusted out exhaust pipe.
There’s so, so much more to that story, but I’ll save it for a later essay. Suffice it to say that I now view naming streets “Martin Luther King” anything is one of the most offensive things a town can do. On the one hand, the re-branding had the weak, temporary effect of mollification, without being accompanied by any real structural benefits to the people to whom it pretends to honor. On the other, the new designation is a beacon of warning to white travelers, investors, and homebuyers. Better give this neighborhood a wide berth — a few blocks on either side at least. In other words, it solidifies the areas status as a ghetto.
I also came to realize, over the intervening years, that the indignities and superficial wounds I suffered that day were the faintest echoes of the violence and terror meted out by the white supremacists who practiced every description of evil known to mankind against my harrassers’ ancestors.
Whose fault was it that the residents of looked to me like an open-air prison held so much hatred in their hearts that within minutes after arrival, a dumb kid living out his On the Road fantasy would be the focus of rage and the target of injury? Gee, I have no fucking idea… No, actually I do. It’s White people. A crushing weight of responsibility for the past, present, and ongoing oppression of the better part of 41 million people in this country rest on the shoulders of the people in power, largely White, who could choose to give a shit any time the mood struck them and enact substantive reforms at all levels of government policy.
If White people really MUST honor the legacy of M.L.K., in some cartographical way, they’d name streets after the good Reverend in towns like Williamstown, Richmond, Lenox. And not some back road no one has to drive on — no, I’m talking main artery busy. Not to honor the few African American families listed in the street indices, but to serve as an in-your-face reminder that almost every shred of wealth and privilege enjoyed by the towns’ elites carries a blood debt to Black populations still trying to heal the wounds of slavery and Jim Crow. And I’m not even talking just about the historic context of slavery and Jim Crow — both continue to chug right along in 2023 in one form or another, and both continue to generate riches for corporate America and the 5 percent.
So this Martin Luther King Day, consider drafting a proposal for YOUR town to rename a street in his honor. I promise — you’ll get to know your White neighbors better than you ever thought you could.