NEW BERN, N.C. – There’s a Wal-Mart on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard here. And a Target, IHOP, Holiday Inn Express, Books-A-Million, Piggly Wiggly, Pepsi-Cola bottler (in this, the soft drink’s birthplace), Applebee’s, two Eckerds, three car dealerships and some 200 other businesses, large and small.
In other words, this is the main commercial thoroughfare through this pleasant, history-rich city of 25,000 in eastern North Carolina. The street was bustling when it was known as Clarendon Boulevard, and has flourished since it was officially renamed for King seven years ago for Martin Luther King Day.
“If there’s any detriment to it, I ain’t found it yet,” said Tom Bayliss, the mayor then and now, who was instrumental in the renaming and proud that his city did not relegate King’s name to a street less traveled or less integrated in who travels it.
“Martin Luther King doesn’t belong to black people,” said Bayliss, who is white. “The fact of the matter is he freed everybody in this country. He caused me as an American not to have to live a lie.”
There are close to 800 streets of every size and description in the United States named for Martin Luther King, with more proposed and debated all the time. But despite their diversity, the streets tend to suffer from a common negative stereotype, derided as rundown and ruined. A place to run from, in the comic wisdom of Chris Rock. The gateway to the ghetto in the Borat movie, where the street sign signals his arrival in “the hood.” It is a bad reputation that has frequently been invoked by those opposing the naming of a new King street or the extension of an old one.
The MLK in New Bern defies that image. And now, a first-of-a-kind study by three geographers, from the University of Georgia and East Carolina University, has compared the economics of all King streets nationwide with Main Streets, streets named for John F. Kennedy, and U.S. streets generally. The study, which will appear in the March 2007 issue of Social Science Quarterly, found the stereotype of King streets is just that - a stereotype, and, based on the hard numbers, wrong.
“In much of the country, there is no real difference between what we find on MLK streets and other categories of urban space,” concluded authors Matthew L. Mitchelson of the University of Georgia and Derek H. Alderman and E. Jeffrey Popke of East Carolina University.
Putting aside the more than 200 King streets that are strictly residential, the researchers found that in annual sales and employment, establishments located on the 535 other MLKs were comparable with those on the other streets. In fact, Main Streets were proportionally more likely than MLKs to be home to establishments with low annual sales and few employees. As the authors put it, “Main Streets – not MLK streets – might be the most economically marginalized places studied here.”
According to the study, the MLKs do have more than their share of barber shops, beauty salons, funeral homes, social service and welfare agencies, liquor stores and bail bondsmen – the last few especially figuring in the negative image. But altogether, there are more attorneys’ offices (169) than social service and welfare offices (140), more dentist offices (102) than liquor stores (84), and as many florists (43) and gift shops (45) as bail bondsmen (44).
Churches are the most common sight by far. There are 768 of them, followed by government offices, of which there are 590 and which Mitchelson said, along with the many schools and hospitals, help account for the strong employment numbers.
Opposition to the naming of a King street usually comes from white residents and business owners in the affected area, who complain of the cost of changing stationery, of losing the old street’s historic identity, and of the presumed loss of property values and customers that comes with an MLK address.
When Chattanooga, Tenn., was arguing over renaming Ninth Street for King in 1981, T.A. Lupton, a white developer, was quoted in the Chattanooga Times arguing that West Ninth Street “no longer related to Dr. King” because it was no longer “solid black” or “rundown.” He worried that a new building he was constructing would be less desirable with an MLK address. When the city went ahead with the renaming, Lupton gave his building its own address – Union Square. Nearby, the Radisson Read House, now a Sheraton, executed a familiar sidestep, switching its address to reflect its side street instead of King.
The city of Muncie, Ind., tussled for a long year-and-a-half before Mayor Dan Canan issued an executive order in 2004 renaming part of Broadway for King, effective January 2007. In reply, Ed McCloud closed his appliance store on Broadway, explaining to The Star Press that an earlier business of his had been destroyed in the riots after King’s assassination and “I swore then that I would not let the black community – or anyone else – hurt my business again.”
In 1985, Indianapolis named a 31/2-mile stretch of what was then Northwestern Avenue, in a mostly black neighborhood, Martin Luther King Street. Last year, a coalition of community leaders launched a movement to extend King Street to the city’s northern edge along what is now Michigan Road. They ran into stiff opposition.
“Some people are saying that once you name this Martin Luther King Street, immediately it will become blighted,” said Monroe Gray Jr., president of the City-County Council of Indianapolis and Marion County, who supports extending the name.
“It’s a common cry all over the country, but we’re finding there is no real value to that story.”
Indianapolis’ predicament is not uncommon.
East Carolina University is on East Fifth Street in Greenville, N.C. The street grows wealthier as it heads east. But, a few blocks west, Fifth becomes a blacker, bleaker street and the name changes to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, so named in 1998. Last year, the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and others pressed to name all of Fifth for King. Instead, the City Council’s white majority voted to name a new bypass for King and remove his name from all of Fifth.
“We’re going totally backwards,” said Mildred Council, one of two blacks on the council, who lives on MLK.
Greenville has been wrangling over a street for King for 18 years. Not so 40 miles away in New Bern, which is less than half the size of Greenville, and at about 40 percent, a little blacker.
According to Booker T. Howard, the big difference in New Bern is the “courage” of its “good old Southern boy” mayor.
Back in 1998, Howard came up with the idea of naming a New Bern street for King while taking a shower. He had seen King streets all over. He grew up in Jackson, Miss., and was a football star at Lanier High School, which now abuts Martin Luther King Drive there. His wife suggested Clarendon Boulevard. Howard, joined by other members of the African American Men Alliance, brought the idea to a meeting of the mayor and New Bern Board of Aldermen, which approved it on the spot.
When news got out, a furor ensued and Bayliss said he realized they needed to step back and go through a more public, deliberative process. He appointed a committee to choose something important to name for King in New Bern, the second-oldest town in North Carolina and onetime Colonial capital.
Some in the black community felt betrayed, Bayliss said, “but it proved out to be a great opportunity for me to explain to a lot of people exactly what Martin Luther King was all about.” He talked to white folks who thought King was anti-American, a profiteer, a Communist sympathizer, and made the case that King was a true patriot, redeeming the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address in his “I Have a Dream” speech.
The mayor’s committee ending up recommending renaming Clarendon and the aldermen approved the change, delaying the effective date until 2000 to give businesses time to prepare.
On King Day 2000, the boulevard was dedicated at a middle school that also gained the new address.
“That was one joyful day,” said Howard.
And Bayliss said he hasn’t heard a complaint since.
“I can’t say the names affected anything,” said Harry Baldwin, a real estate broker with an office on King.
Indeed, some merchants on New Bern’s MLK seem puzzled by the question.
“What, are you not going to go to a store on a street because of its name?” asked Billy Gent, who with his father runs Bill’s Pet Shop there. “I don’t think so.”
Jonathan Tilove can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The streets tend to suffer from a common negative stereotype, derided as rundown and ruined. A place to run from, in the comic wisdom of Chris Rock. The gateway to the ghetto in the Borat movie, where the street sign signals his arrival in “the hood.” It is a bad reputation that has frequently been invoked by those opposing the naming of a new King street or the extension of an old one.