More than 1,000 streets on this planet carry the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Each MLK street sign testifies to our reverence for the Baptist preacher who told us that love can drive out hate and showed us that the power of nonviolent resistance can topple segregation.
For this, King deserves our admiration. But I wonder if there’s not another way to show him respect — by seeing MLK street signs differently.
What if we didn’t see these signs as an honor to him, but as a reminder to us? A reminder to finish the work of his last crusade, the Poor People’s Campaign?
What if the MLK Strasse in Bonn, Germany and the MLK Boulevard in New York City and Port au Prince, Haiti and the MLK Sarani in Kolkata, India and the MLK Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee were all examples of economic equality?
A few years ago, I took a class about MLK streets from Harvard professor Daniel D’Oca. Here’s what D’Oca told me: “Once you name a street after someone like King, you better be certain that you maintain the street as a monument to him, so that if he were to come back and visit the street, he would be proud.”
So how do you build a street worthy of King’s name? The instructions are in his words.
In 1966, King said: “A living wage should be the right of all working Americans.”
In 1967 he said: “The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”
In 1968, he said: “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.”
King was killed in Memphis, the city I call home. He came to support black sanitation workers — men who worked full-time but earned so little that they qualified for welfare. They were disrespected, overworked and underpaid — out of their frustration came the slogan: I am a man.
The night before he died, King spoke to a church full of sanitation workers and their supporters. He called for a “dangerous unselfishness,” a solidarity with the working poor that would demand sacrifice.
Cleo Smith was in the audience that night. He was a striker in 1968, and today, he still works for the city of Memphis as a sanitation worker.
When I created the reporting project MLK50.com, I had workers like Smith in mind. The 50th anniversary of King’s death would give me the “fierce urgency of now” as King called it — to ask the questions he would be asking were he still alive.
Last year, Smith let me ride along with him. On a chilly morning, we climbed into the cab of garbage truck he drives and we rumbled down the streets of South Memphis.
I asked my questions and Smith answered.
Yes, he said, his job is safer than in 1968, when a broken garbage truck crushed two workers to death.
And yes, the city still recognizes the union, but Smith said his younger coworkers don’t seem to get why union membership is so important.
And yes, he makes enough to survive, Smith told me, but he doesn’t earn enough to thrive. After more than 50 years on the job, he makes just $16 an hour.
Today, Memphis is the poorest large metro area in the nation. Across the country, more than 40 percent of all workers earn less than $15 an hour.
Have African Americans seen progress since 1968? By many, many measures, yes.
Our presence here in this amazing space is proof, as are the hundreds of black Americans who hold elected office. More African Americans graduate from high school and finish college than ever before.
In his most well-known speech, King hoped aloud that one day, little black boys and girls could join hands with little white boys and girls.
And on Saturday, March 24, 2018, we saw just that as King’s granddaughter held hands with a white girl at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., as they protested the same sort of gun violence that claimed King’s life.
But you can also see signs that we haven’t done right by King’s sacrifice.
So the next time you see an MLK street sign, let it prick your conscience.
Remember workers like Cleo Smith.
Remember the words of King, who said: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
I would like to think that we are those individuals.
This story is adapted from a speech delivered by MLK50 editor and publisher Wendi C. Thomas on March 26, 2018 at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C. The speech was a part of “Conversations on Race,” a special event held at the museum by National Geographic. The magazine’s April 2018 issue is devoted to race and included Thomas’ story about MLK streets around the globe.