The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

19 June 2004

Who are these people?

Sometimes it's the items I glance at and don't seem to notice that come back to bother me later.

This paragraph from Triticale is a case in point:

Here in Milwaukee, there is real historical significance linking the name of Father James Groppi to the 16th St. Viaduct, but with the Menomonee Valley which it bridges no longer a barrier, and with 16th street south of the Valley now Cesar Chavez Drive, people crossing the Groppi Bridge are indeed unlikely to ponder the good Father's efforts to improve the city.

It was about a minute past the time I'd read this when I thought: "Wait a minute. I've heard of this guy." So I ran back through browser history — this is, incidentally, the one meaningful argument against "open links in new window" — and refreshed my memory. As in Milwaukee, Catholics in Charleston played a substantial role in the civil-rights movement of the Sixties, and as a student at a Catholic high school, I got a view of the scene that was no worse than second-hand. And while the diocese of Charleston didn't produce any figures as iconic as Fr. Groppi, we had no shortage of clergy doing the grunt work to help bring Dr. King's dream to life.

While Fr. Groppi is remembered only in some circles, pretty much everyone has heard of Dr. King. In fact, as noted by Andrew at Pathetic Earthlings, his name is everywhere, which inevitably dilutes his memory in ways not anticipated by those who wished to honor him:

It doesn't deny Dr. King's legacy to say that there is enough. After a while, it is lost in the repetition. When is the last time you passed by a Martin Luther King Road and stopped to ponder his many gifts to this country? My guess is not lately.

Everyone knows who Dr. King is or, worse, thinks they know. And when his name drops into the civic furniture of America, the uniqueness is lost. The moment of pause, which is all any building or statue or boulevard can hope to provide, is lost. Another King Hall? It passes by, as if it were Sutter or Fremont, Lexington or Lincoln. But if you were confronted with the Benjamin O. Davis Civic Auditorium or the Ralph Carr University Center, might you not take a look?

I don't think it's quite as bad as Andrew suggests: I pass through Oklahoma City's Martin Luther King Avenue five or six times a week, and it does give me a brief reminder of the man and his mission, though there's always the question of why this particular stretch of road was renamed for Dr. King, as opposed to, say, Northeast 23rd Street east of Kelley, which is the primary business thoroughfare through the city's largely-black east side. (Short answer: MLK is relatively well-kept, while 23rd is a mess.)

The most telling thing about MLK, though, indeed about the MLK in your town as well, is that it's always, in full, Martin Luther King Street / Avenue / Boulevard / Road. And quite unwittingly, Dr. King seems to have started another trend: streets renamed for dignitaries are now always given the full John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt treatment. Downtown Oklahoma City boasts streets named for E. K. Gaylord, Robert S. Kerr and Dean A. McGee; just east in Bricktown is Mickey Mantle Drive (which, nicely enough, runs past the ballpark). All of these people, even Mantle, contributed substantially to the modest greatness that is OKC, but with their full names in white on green on every street corner, it seems to me that their contributions might appear to outshine those of, say, Paul Braniff, Anton Classen, Charles Colcord, William Couch, Robert A. Hefner, G. A. Nichols, or John Shartel, all of whom played major roles in the city's first century and all of whom are remembered on street signs — without their first names.

And I expect I'll continue to argue this point when Oklahoma City, as it must, inevitably renames a street for Cesar Chavez. (There's already a Cesar Chavez Alternative [Middle] School, on Southwest 10th east of Walker; Walker, incidentally, is named for Dr. Delos Walker, who was the first president of the Oklahoma City school board.)

Posted at 5:16 AM to City Scene