It is impossible to ignore the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the District. Beyond the speech at the historic March on Washington (which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary), his assassination led directly to the riots that would alter the direction of this city forever. But years after that destruction crippled the nation’s capital, King’s name now adorns three very distinct locations: a library, a monument and an avenue.
Dr. King would have been 85 years old last Wednesday. There’s no way to know how he’d look at America today, or even at Washington. But at each of the places bearing his name, opinions on how he affected our world were unmistakably different.
At 9th and G Streets NW last week, the scene at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library was a typical one. Inside, library patrons watched music videos, checked their emails and socialized on the facility’s ground floor. In the atrium, renderings for the latest iteration of D.C.’s flagship library were on display to see. The building needs an upgrade. Outside, skateboarders smoked cigarettes while people lined up on the south side of the street to collect the free food being handed out from a van.
Down in the basement, a group was holding one of their regular meetings. Members of DC Reads, a program by George Washington University Center for Civic Engagement & Public Service that puts students in tutoring positions for local elementary school students, thought MLK touched their lives in ways that were more personal than anything.
Brandon Ona, 19, from Atlanta, doesn’t believe King’s dream has been realized. “As far as his goals, the vast majority of them in my eyes, the basic part of it of which were just opening doors occurred. They were met,” Ona, 19, a political science major said. “But the long term goal of complete equality and everything else we know him by, I think there’s a longer journey. And it’s not necessarily something that can be solved overnight. And it’s going to take generations and generations to really figure out.”
But while some choose to apply King’s legacy to the plight of African-Americans in the Jim Crow South, King’s basic tenets of non-violence and compassion rightfully apply to more causes than that these days.
For Kathleen Guy, another political science major at GWU, she hopes his ways can affect a movement close to her. “I’m obviously a white female, I come from a middle class family, so I can’t necessarily relate to him that way,” Guy, 20, from Washington state said. “But as a female … we’re a little bit oppressed in this country and other countries. … Feminism has such a bad connotation. Everybody knows that. You hear the word feminist and you think oh my god, they’re some crazy women who want to overthrow men and all that stuff, and that’s not what we’re about.
“It’s more his ideas of peace and love and patience and just understanding is what needs to be done on both sides for feminists, non-feminists and whoever else,” she added. “I think the feminist movement can definitely pull from his ideas of peace and patience and non-violence. And that’s a big issue that we have right now. We have these riots, and we have these protests and stuff where feminists can get violent and that’s not helping our cause whatsoever.”
Sunday morning, as the crisp air spun off the Tidal Basin at the King memorial, tour groups with matching hats, scarves or t-shirts poured in to the memorial. Teens shot goofy selfies in front of the famous quotes that adorn the walls. Rangers offered mini-info sessions about the man and his memory. On an info sheet they handed out in order to make the information more palatable to kids, an important question lingered about the battle for social justice.
“What else could you do?” read the worksheet. After turning hers in after a half-hour of scavenger hunting, one girl, holding her mother’s hand was borderline overcome by the sheer size of what she was looking at. “That’s the biggest rock I’ve ever seen,” she said.
One couple struggled mightily with their camera, trying all sorts of angles to get the shot just right. If you’ve ever tried to take a photo from the south side of the grounds, you know how difficult it can be to frame correctly. They were visiting from New Jersey, and although it was happenstance that this was the day before the holiday, they made it a point to get to see it.
“I look at [King] like a freedom activist like Gandhi, for example. Even after a great man passes away, his legacy his teachings, his principles, those are always going to stay alive. I just think people these days don’t have much awareness about history. And the way it’s taught, it’s very prejudicial, so people really don’t get the gist of what he was about,” Chinmayi Desai, 37, who came to the US in the 80s, said of Dr. King. “This generation, it’s a very different style of learning and I think people need to be educated more on civil rights, because I think these days they just don’t teach that kind of stuff.”
But on Saturday morning, before the parade that would head down the strip the next day, at Kings Cafe on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, sure, King’s dream had tangible results. Between the Asian owners running the cash registers, the Latino workers manning the grill and cleaning the shop and the black customers, obviously, there is some level of harmony.
A police officer came in and hugged the woman behind the counter. The two women told stories of their families. They didn’t take cash but they had the most sophisticated lotto machine I’ve ever seen. Some guy spent 15 minutes shelling out $50 as part of his complex numbers routine, a process that the men on both sides of the counter seemed mind-numbingly familiar with. Afterward, the owner used those same $20s to put in his ATM machine across the room.
And one man sat, drinking his morning coffee, he lamented what had become of King’s efforts. Sitting in a shop in which the only advertisements on the walls were for two different types of Newport cigarettes, we talked.
Godfrey Hewlett is a District native whose lived in every quadrant of the city. At 73, a retired truck driver, he bought a house on Ridge Road two decades ago and has watched the place he grew up in transform.
The holiday celebrating King doesn’t mean a whole lot to him, considering what he sees every day.”I think we forgot our real goal. At lot of blacks in D.C. think we have overcome. We haven’t overcome. We still got a lot of battles to fight. We lost a generation to drugs and things. We have a lost generation we have now that’s not doing anything. They’re affected by the Willie Lynch [mentality] of don’t trust each other, don’t love one another,” Hewley said. “Racism is still alive in the whole United States. [President] Obama didn’t do nothing but bring a little bit of it out. A lot of people are running from it and still saying it ain’t here. But it’s here. Look.”
As for commemorating him, the symbolism of the avenue is nothing more than window dressing. “[King] don’t want no street. He never wanted a street. He wasn’t into material things. He didn’t care whether you named a street after him or not. He was after having rights, people’s opportunities,” he said. After that sobering conversation, I finished breakfast. Looking at the community bulletin board across the table, a flyer featuring Trayvon Martin’s image was stapled up beside another that showed King’s. I wondered what Dr. King would have had to say about Martin’s death.
For years, we’ve heard the civil rights generation lament the shortcomings of the youth of America all the while celebrating themselves for accomplishments made before anyone my age was born. As Hewlett shook my hand before leaving, he had a familiar look on his face. One of disappointment. Not in me, but partially in himself. He’d alluded to the lost generation and seemed to silently acknowledge how painful it was when King’s life was cut short by a sniper’s bullet in Memphis. The city we were standing in feels like it’s suffered more than others from the demise of the man whom that very street was named after.
Unfortunately, for many in this neighborhood, a dream is not an option. Reality is too urgent. When Hewlett walked out, a woman walked in. She ended her phone conversation to order a pack of gum. When informed that the establishment didn’t accept debit or credit cards, she let out a hearty, yet, incredulous laugh before explaining why she’d wouldn’t be making any purchases.
“I don’t carry cash,” she said. “At least not around here.”