Little Rock: MLK Drive links the capital city to a community and a people to their past
If the measure of a man and his legacy are worth preserving, then perhaps the at-first-glance passe tradition of street dedication is a useful method for doing so. Caesar comes, he conquers, we hang his name on Avenue B and surmise that somewhere down the line someone will read it and reflect on past glories. If the measure of a man and his legacy are worth preserving, then perhaps the at-first-glance passe tradition of street dedication is a useful method for doing so. Caesar comes, he conquers, we hang his name on Avenue B and surmise that somewhere down the line someone will read it and reflect on past glories. Or past dreams.
To find a street in this country bearing the name of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was born Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta and murdered at the age of 39 on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, is no difficult task.
They are sprinkled all over the South and beyond, and honor the memory of the powerful proponent of nonviolent protest by their sheer and unrivaled ubiquity. Little Rock is no exception with its own drive so dubbed, forming an unmistakable seam in the city's sprawling network of asphalt. Finger it on the map and you will trace a course that begins under the gleam of the Capitol dome, cuts across Interstate 630 and then south for some 2 1/2 miles to vanish in a flurry of residential streets.
The route itself is checkered with a literal gallery of town and country "muralesques": Uncle T's Food Mart, with its 99-cent chili dogs; Carpenter's Produce with its greens and things arranged open-air style; Yancey's Cafeteria, "50 years established" and still providing "home-cooked food"; and the churches, like The Greater Rose of Sharon Missionary Baptist Church with Reverend Blood, and just down the way, The Prayer Tabernacle. All of these contribute to the drive a landscape rich in character and local color.
Formerly known as High Street, the thoroughfare has claimed its current title since 1992, when after much effort and years of surveys and petition drives, the street was finally and ceremoniously dedicated to King. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive has since become hub to a galaxy of activity; parades and community events have brought thousands to toe its margins and in so doing pay a collective homage to the man who, in the minds of many, best symbolizes the solidarity of his people.
But if the spirit of King lives on now, some 30 years after his death, it is embodied in forces that are massing on new fronts, a new march for a cause more desperate in its urgency. Martin Luther King Jr. Interdistrict Magnet Elementary School sits just off the drive, and mere blocks from where children meander in and out of its red-brick halls stand the memorials; intimations of a cheap mortality. In a grassy lot, a sign created by Little Rock activist Robert "Say" McIntosh stands erect and conspicuous. It reads all: "Since 1992 to 4/1/96 209 Blacks have been murdered by Blacks in Little Rock alone, by Blacks only because of the color of their skin, Black... " From the same lot, and echoing the former, another sign declares, "Black on Black crime is a disgrace to God and mankind."
These tokens of shame and tragedy are bolstered by a number of faith-inspired calls to disarm: "God is going to have the last word," inscribed on a couple of signs, rings with impending finality; in turn, a corner telephone pole brandishes the sixth commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Kill;" another sign advises that "Jesus is coming soon ... Are you ready?"
All along the drive and its environs are scattered similar entreaties; admonitions of peace in places where fast guns and sidelong glances have fragmented the hopes and dreams of a community. Down the street a hair salon recycles the motif, its side adorned with the pastel plea: "Stop the Violence ... Before it Stops You." The visage of King himself is there as well, gracing a small banner suspended from a street lamp. But to the casual observer, this face that ripples in the least of breezes seems somehow aloof, itself a mere observer from its lofty point of vantage. A short slogan punctuates it: "Living the Dream ... in Arkansas."
Such reminders are timely. For if there is anything in a name, if any residue of the past remains in the real faces and in the halls of schools like Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, then maybe future tragedies can be averted. But for now there is Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, Jan. 19, and a street.
Before this street, however, there were many streets, where the will and heels of many trod down the age-old dragons of fear and oppression. Perhaps into Martin Luther King Jr. Drive all of these streets have merged, and so too the men and women who marched them. If history is any indicator, it is just such a unity, a oneness of purpose, that will gain the freedom sought. And so just as Martin Luther King Jr. Drive links the capitol city to a community and a people to their past, maybe it is yet to serve its greatest purpose - as the bridge to a brighter, more promising future.