I’m old enough to remember when the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin L. King, Jr became law. In September, 1989, after a couple of years of debate and rejections, the Tampa City Council finally approved a measure to rename Buffalo Avenue as Dr. Martin L. King, Jr Drive. Controversy around the name change was fierce, but time has a way of blurring details and obscuring facts. As I perused a Google search this week, much of the explanations focused on objections from businesses and concerned citizens as to the cost of new street signs and business stationery.
Oh, but I remember those days.
In 1989-90, during my first year as a police officer, the debate raged. I distinctly recall how many of my colleagues stated emphatically their refusal to say Martin L. King. Many used it as a badge of honor, purposely putting themselves out on calls along the road just to say Buffalo with emphasis, and some dispatchers gave calls out in the same fashion. In contrast, African American officers and dispatchers said the name of the street with pride evident in their voices.
By 1992, I bought my first home in a suburb east of the city and I traveled sections of Martin L. King Jr. Blvd on my trip to and from work. Many residents east of the city limits continued to refer to the street as 574, the state route number, and for years it was commonplace to see the street signs vandalized or missing as I drove around. My friends with the sheriff’s office acknowledged that many in their agency used 574 instead of Martin L. King Jr Blvd.
Sometimes I heard the excuse that Buffalo or 574 is just shorter and easier to say, particularly on a police radio. Fair enough. But, other streets in the city have long names that were shortened for expediency, while maintaining the reference to the honoree. John F. Kennedy Blvd is a prime example. It’s commonly called Kennedy. Those of us who simply wanted a shortcut did almost immediately start calling Martin L. King Jr Blvd, MLK for short. That, at least, didn’t feel like a refusal to acknowledge the name.
Obviously, my co-workers didn’t have a financial beef with the street name change. It was defiance to the idea of honoring Dr. King—defiance to honoring a black civil rights leader. To my recollection, nobody in police leadership ever made it clear that Buffalo was unacceptable. The stark divide played out every shift and went on for years, fading eventually as most grew accustomed to the name, leaving only diehards still holding out, their bigotry refusing to yield. I wonder how that felt to my African American brothers and sisters in blue or to citizens of color who may have heard them.
When I hear people say that issues of race were settled long ago, that slavery and Jim Crow are ancient history, and they personally treat everyone equally, as a way of dismissing the frustrations of African American citizens, I think of the examples of subtle bigotry like the streets dedicated to our greatest civil rights leader. Acronyms with racial undertones for learning streets in public housing. Endless slurs directed at the President and First Lady with primate references. Ugly social media posts, unabashedly racist. These experiences are certainly not ancient history, nor are they uncommon. They are the realities of daily human interaction where bigotry lives if not refuted.
So, this year, in the wake of a contentious political season that openly challenged political correctness, ignored open shows of racist behavior, yanked the lid off a simmering anger by all sides who feel they are not being heard, I’m imploring us all to look inside. We can do better in addressing bias. More whites than blacks say that our government policies and laws treat both races equally, but once again reality casts doubt on the way race truly plays out, often in less obvious ways (at least to whites). Facts about the MLK holiday provide a useful example.
In 1983, President Reagan signed the MLK bill into law after 15 years of Dr. King’s supporters fighting for passage following his murder. Did you know the last state to fully ratify the King holiday was not until 1999? Again, not ancient history. If that’s not bad enough, the saddest facts of all are that four states, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi, to this day, recognize the date in conjunction with Confederate heroes such as Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. What does that say to African Americans in those states when the day is called Robert E. Lee/Martin L. King Day? Or to see the rise of white nationalists and hate crimes in the wake of this last election? Our fellow citizens of color must interpret our deafening silence and refusal to call it out as tacit support or at best, indifference.
Martin Luther King spoke extensively about moral justice. His was a movement of nonviolence, which also spoke truth to power in order to shine a light on injustices of race, social justice and poverty. His legacy has never been more important than in our current national discord and rupture along fault lines of party, class, race, or religion. Dr. King called us to live up to the ideals of our founders and strive to overcome our differences in the name of justice for all. We have opportunities each day to reject the small-minded slurs and hard hearts of bigotry if we summon the courage to stand up. Hate in any form has no place in our world. The change must first come from our hearts.
This was the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King.