What MLK Boulevards Teach Us About Collective Forgetting
In May, Minneapolis state officials unveiled the street sign for George Perry Floyd Square. “In Minneapolis, we will continue to say his name and honor his spirit,” said Mayor Jacob Frey (USA Today). The strength and militancy of nationwide rebellions forced the system to convict Floyd’s murderer and officially commemorate his life. This intersection sits just a mile from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Park, a relic of an earlier era of racial violence and resistance (Minneapolis Parks). Hundreds of MLK boulevards, drives, and parks exist throughout the United States in remembrance of his legacy. But half a century after Dr. King was killed, have the conditions he fought against changed? And what lessons do the multitude of King memorials hold for us as we assess the victories and defeats of the George Floyd Rebellion?
Honored with 900 streets and a federal holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr. is viewed positively by 94% of U.S. residents today (Gallup). His message is often distorted into hazy talking points of acceptance, quiet pacifism, and refusal to judge white people by the color of their skin (The Guardian). This bears little resemblance to the actual person. When he was murdered, King was organizing a “nonviolent army of the poor” to create a “radical redistribution of economic power.” He had denounced the U.S. government as the “greatest purveyor of the violence in the world,” insisted that it “get on the right side of the world revolution,” and called for “revolutionary” action in the “struggle for a new world” (Black Past).
“I think that’s what got him assassinated,” said the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance’s Rev. Reginald Holmes (Denver Post). King “became, fully, a man of the left,” and the idea that his vision was “some easily-appropriated stuff about color-blindness” is pure fiction. He was also deeply divisive. When he died, almost 75% disapproved of him (Smithsonian). At the time of his death, a third of the country thought that he “brought his assassination on himself” (Huffington Post).
“There’s a way in which the process of memorialization is sometimes the first step in collective forgetting,” said Dr. Leigh Reiford (Colorlines). The creation of MLK boulevards and parks across the United States formed part of the “Santa Clausification” of the person the FBI considered the most dangerous man in America (The Atlantic). To join the pantheon of American heroes, Dr. King was portrayed as a caricature diametrically opposed to his actual beliefs. MLK Day is often marked with apolitical acts of neighborhood service (The Root). King’s legacy is so sanitized that Rep. Kevin McCarthy cited his words to oppose education about white supremacy (AAIHS). The actual conditions of MLK boulevards are particularly galling since their namesake fought against segregation and economic injustice.
Policymakers often preempt racist pushback against an MLK boulevard by “segregating his name” in Black neighborhoods. To outsiders, these streets can “signify Blackness, poor Black people, and even a dangerous neighborhood” (Social Education). Those who live on streets named after King are $6,000 poorer than those who don’t (Colorlines). This doesn’t mean that removing his name from those streets would be a victory for racial justice. But the recognition of MLK by the U.S. government is not a sign of our society’s enlightened attitudes. It should be a reminder that his work remains incomplete.
We should be similarly careful that our commemorations of George Floyd inspire, not distract from, our efforts to transform the conditions that allowed his murder. Powerful individuals and institutions fell over themselves to declare their support of Black Lives Matter at the height of the rebellion as if they played no role in perpetuating anti-Blackness. Though Minneapolis Mayor Frey used the street sign unveiling to portray himself as a racial justice ally, he was booed out of a June 2020 protest after declaring his opposition to defunding the police (The Hill) and harshly criticized for a statement suggesting that Floyd’s death was a sacrifice that “bettered our city” (The Hill). Changing a street name is commemorative but also costs Frey’s administration very little and doesn’t change the conditions leading to Floyd’s death. He has “not enacted any meaningful and effective oversight over one of the most dysfunctional, racist and violent policing departments in the country right now” (Democracy Now).
Honoring Dr. King’s life means devoting ourselves to the struggle for economic justice, racial justice, and international solidarity. Honoring the memory of George Floyd means eradicating white supremacist policing and the carceral system it maintains. We might remember the words of Mary “Mother” Jones, who was the U.S. government’s domestic enemy #1 half a century before King. When the immigrant union organizer addressed striking miners amidst Appalachia’s bloody Coal Wars (Smithsonian), she urged them to “pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living!” (Bust).
• The Minneapolis government recognized George Floyd Square but failed to reform the police department that killed him.
• Martin Luther King became generally celebrated only as part of an effort to whitewash his legacy.
• Memorials to those killed by ongoing injustices must always inspire us to continue fighting.