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Streets and dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. roadways

Seattle Times Staff Columnist

I was driving through South Florida a couple of years ago, headed toward a resort island where I planned to meet my family. I'd just spent a week in a seminar and I wanted to do some laundry before I got to the island, but I was unfamiliar with the cities through which the highway passed.

Eventually I came across a Martin Luther King Jr. exit, so I took it. I knew it would lead to a poor neighborhood and that there would be plenty of Laundromats. I was right on both counts.

King is memorialized in streets, boulevards and avenues from Seattle to Miami, and most of them run through pockets of poverty and segregation of the sort he fought so hard to eradicate.

Often naming any street for him was in itself a struggle.

He is a national figure, but many cities where black people are scarce had little support for putting his name on an avenue. Boise and Bismarck, Spokane and Salt Lake City don't have one.

Change can be an inconvenience. Sometimes it challenges our view of the world and of ourselves, and sometimes it just means a little extra work - changing business stationery or redoing a sign.

Business owners along a renamed stretch of Grand Avenue in Albuquerque said the new name was just too cumbersome.

It is a mouthful: Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. That's why people say "over on MLK," or "go down King" - it's easier, and most people quite naturally want to do the easy thing.

King, however, walked a hard road, uphill against convention, over hostility and through indifference.

"The ultimate measure of a man," King once said, "is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at a time of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position and even his life for the welfare of others."

That quotation is one of a dozen carved onto plaques embedded in a wall at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park in Seattle.

The park rises up a hillside from Martin Luther King Jr. Way South on a stretch of the road just south of the historical black center of Seattle and in the northern part of a cluster of neighborhoods that are among the most integrated in the nation, one-third Asian, one-third black, one-third white.

It is an area where one might, indeed, see the sight King dreamed of, little black girls and little white girls walking hand in hand.

Water cascades down a tall black granite sculpture into a reflecting pool. Twelve bronze plaques set into the concrete wall of the pool chronicle King's life, and 12 plaques set in the first of several walls that rise in tiers behind the sculpture contain quotations from him.

As I walk around the sculpture, along the wall, it is almost as if I were having a conversation with King.

A few blocks north of the memorial a freeway runs through a tunnel underneath MLK Way carrying people from the prosperous suburbs east of Seattle into downtown and back. They would never see MLK Way or the memorial. I was thinking about that when I read the first plaque.

"All too many of those who live in affluent America ignore those who exist in poor America. To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it."

As I walked along the wall, I lost the sound of cars on MLK Way and was soothed instead by the constancy of falling water. Pleasantness, not struggle, is what most of us want. I read another plaque.

"An individual has not started to live until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of humanity."

We think of resistance to civil rights coming from the South in the form of portly sheriffs with snarling dogs, but one of the plaques notes that King was stoned when he led a peaceful march through a white neighborhood in Chicago as part of an open-housing drive there.

Open-housing efforts did not go down easily in Seattle, either.

We get complacent sometimes. We are nice people and rarely is there a march now.

"True peace is not merely the absence of tensions: It is the presence of justice."

The eight miles of Martin Luther King Jr. Way run north and south. The street never leaves the more integrated parts of Seattle.

It stops a mile and a half short of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, which is a physical and psychological divider, the entrance to the mostly white North End. It ends just before the high-income gated community called Broadmoor.

At its other end, the name changes as it passes through a no-man's land of barren hillsides and heads off into the suburbs.

It might be nice to have a street named for him in one of those homogenous suburbs where a child might ask her parent who this King person was.

He's a guy who became a symbol because he preached peace and nonviolence to black people eager for a bigger role in American society.

He is a guy often quoted by opponents of affirmative action who cite that part of his "I have a dream" speech that yearns for a society in which his four children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

They do not quote from other sections of the speech, such as this one: "America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked `insufficient funds.' "

Some people like him because he said love those who persecute you, not because he demanded remedies for racial and economic injustice.

I think he would be pleased that streets named for him run past the homes of poor people and black people. I think he would be disappointed that those streets rarely reach across lines that still exist between rich and poor, black and white.

But he would not be surprised that there still is work to be done.

He would not be pleased by blacks killing blacks, by black wrongdoers using blackness as a shield, by hate crimes and educational inequality.

He would be saddened that we seem to prefer prisons to schools, but uplifted by those people who are committed to helping others.

He would rejoice in America's increased diversity, but would be concerned that some newer Americans might see the land of opportunity and miss the land of obligation.

There is still work to be done.

On one of those plaques, he said, "One of the most agonizing problems within our human experience is that few, if any, of us live to see our fondest hopes fulfilled..."

The work that is left is for us to do, and there's plenty to go around.

Today, we are going to visit a few of the streets named for King and see whether their stories speak as clearly as those plaques, see what they have to teach us about the road ahead.

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