Most American cities have a Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a boulevard that is almost always located in a struggling low-income Black neighborhood. Growing up in west Baltimore, MLK Jr. Blvd was known for a few things: its projects, the homeless people who lived under the bridge and as the dividing line for several extremely impoverished, mostly Black neighborhoods from the extremely White and wealthy downtown Baltimore. Intersecting with MLK Jr. Blvd as you drive south is Baltimore’s famed “Highway to Nowhere” or an almost 1.5 mile expressway to West Baltimore that was constructed in the 70s, but required the displacement of thousands of Black Baltimoreans in the 60s and remains a source of generational mistrust for developers and politicians. Many Black families, my father’s included, were uprooted and though the “slum conditions” were considered cleaned up for many families who dispersed throughout the city, the conditions haven’t changed much and the doctor’s dream remains deferred.
King thought a government that found it easy to integrate a lunch counter but could not guarantee a livable income and steady work was trading one injustice for another. In his iconic speech “The Other America” King believed that the government had a responsibility to equip every citizen with a job, a guaranteed annual income and that industries should be nationalized. King’s anti-capitalism strengthened his civil rights movement because his involvement with labor movements, his Poor People’s Campaign and even the March on Washington attracted a diverse array of Americans due to the common ground of being anti-capitalists. Not only was Dr. King not the feel-good, colorblind civil rights advocate that Sarah Palin thinks he is, but he identified as a democratic socialist and heavily critiqued capitalism for creating wealth inequality and maintaining a lower class.
Now King’s streets and boulevards feel less commemorative and more a snapshot at how his dream for economic justice still has a long way to go. In Baltimore there’s a well-known bridge underpass on MLK Jr. Blvd where many homeless live, some of them veterans of the war he sought to stop. On the west side of the boulevard are several housing projects and mostly Black neighborhoods long forgotten by a City Hall almost exclusively interested in private investment in the white-friendly downtown area. The divisive nature of the blvd feels eerie and dirty when you notice the stark contrasts of either side. Even the overpass I take to leave the boulevard towards West Baltimore seems to echo of the internally displaced ghosts of the grandmas and grandpas who used to live there. Many remnants of the past live on in American cities and driving down MLK JR. Boulevard in Baltimore City, its glaringly obvious that we need to critique an economic system that would sustain so much scarcity for so many generations of Americans.
“The American Negro finds himself living in a triple ghetto. A ghetto of race a ghetto of poverty, a ghetto of human misery. So what we are seeking to do in the Civil Rights Movement is to deal with this problem…we are seeking to make America one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
By Shannon J. Shird