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A Look at St. Louis’ MLK Drive, Part 1 of 5

January 14, 2007 History/Preservation, Politics/Policy, Transportation No Comments

Tomorrow is our national holiday to honor the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was assisinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis Tennessee. I took the photo, at right, of the Lorainne Motel where he was killed when I visited Memphis in March last year.

For the past two years I have done posts looking at the St. Louis street which bears his name, this year will be no different. However, I have broken the street into four sections and each will receive a full post with numerous pictures and commentary (these will be posted indiviually as done).

Although I’ve never read any of Dr. King’s books I, like most Americans, have heard bits and pieces from his various speeches including the famous “I have a Dream” speech given the day before he was killed. I reviewed a number of quotes from Dr. King, all brilliant and insightful, and pulled these as having particular meaning to me personally and what I strive for in my life and work:

Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.

I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative.

The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.

All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

I submit to you that if a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

Each quote gives me reason to pause and think about my own life and why I continue to fight the fights that I do. As I am labeled a radical or zealot I know I am on the right path. Dr. King’s words give me strength to keep up the battle for a better St. Louis.

If Dr. King were with us today no doubt our cities would be different — better — places to live. Without question, white flight to the suburbs would have continued but the black flight that followed may not have happened, or not to the same degree as it did. I do not believe we’d see the black on black violence that we have in many cities, including St. Louis. This is, of course, pure speculation on my part. We will never know what the world would have been like had Dr. King not been killed that April day nearly 40 years ago. The best we can do is think how he would have guided society toward peace and brotherhood and work toward such a vision.

The posts that follow this one will examine the current state of St. Louis’ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. First, some background:

  • Most of the street we now call MLK Drive was known as Easton Ave and a small part of Franklin Ave. (East of Jefferson).
  • Easton Ave & Franklin Ave were named for Dr. King in 1972, four years after his assasination in 1968.
  • In 1948 the US Supreme Court ruled on a St. Louis case, Shelley vs. Kramer, that racially restrictive covenants prohibiting non-whites from owning property in certain areas could not be enforced by the government. That case involved a house on Labadie Ave just 10 blocks north of then Easton Ave near Kingshighway. And yes, it was the “Kramer’s” that were seeking to keep the Shelley’s off their street, long before Michael Richards portrayed character Cosmo Kramer on Seinfeld.
  • The historically black neighborhood, The Ville, borders MLK and is just blocks to the east of the area where the Shelley vs. Kramer case was attempting to keep out blacks. Following the 1948 ruling, black families could search for housing throughout the city. And leave they did, the Ville’s population dropped by nearly 40% between 1950 and 1970. For perspective, the city’s overall population drop in the same period was roughly 28% so we can see the Ville experienced a much higher rate of outflux. To be fair, restrictive actions meant to contain blacks in the Ville and a few other small areas meant the Ville was likely far more overcrowded than many other parts of the city. Still, the city lost 237,527 residents during this two decade period so the writing was on the wall for urban commercial streets like MLK Drive.
  • Partly in response to the loss of population, the streetcar line that once traversed the length of then Easton ran its final time on July 28, 1963 — nearly 44 years ago! It was replaced the following day with bus service.

It is my personal belief that our current political establishment is not well prepared to deal with the magnitude of rebuilding that St. Louis needs to take on over the next 40 years. As our black population has become an increasing percentage of the shrinking population we’ve seen a rise in black leadership, a good thing. However, I believe many of these to have simply accepted the factional ward-based political machine politics that St. Louis has had for over 100 years. I do not believe that black representatives are looking our for their constituents any better than a white politician. Their retention of power has trumped the interests of rebuilding strong and vibrant neighborhoods out of fear they will be replaced. For St. Louis to once again prosper we must get beyond this type of political system to one where we all focus on repopulating our neighborhoods.

As you will see in the following four posts, St. Louis’ MLK Drive is not worthy of the man it is intended to honor. We should be ashamed of the condition we’ve let this once vibrant street get to. We must also hold up higher standards for how we invest in the future of the street. Dr. King deserves better.

Selected prior posts relating to MLK Drive:

Click here to continue to part two of five.


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