As Martin Luther King Jr. Day was celebrated last month with community service ads and intimations in President Obama’s inauguration speech, I wondered, as I do every year, how the nation can commemorate a leader so disingenuously.
The absurdity of MLK reverie reached new heights in 2011 when the Pentagon’s general counsel, Jeh Johnson, reflected in a speech to the armed forces that if Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would approve of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thankfully, over a dozen members of Congress reacted immediately, and angrily, at the notion that one of our nation’s most ardent advocates of nonviolence would support a war, especially when King was so vehemently against the Vietnam War.
This trend of missing the mark on King is ubiquitous. Even Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Anacostia, one of the nation’s more than 650 streets named after King, is about to witness more of what MLK sought to dismantle.
On Anacostia’s southern end of MLK Avenue, the Department of Homeland Security is taking over much of St. Elizabeth’s, one of the nation’s oldest and largest mental-health institutions. My neighbors talk about the looming threat of the DHS arrival, fearing that it will dramatically change MLK, the street, with increased traffic and business. If MLK, the man, were alive today, he’d want to mobilize against it for other reasons.
The department, ostensibly created to keep the American homeland secure, has, without question, militarized America, with 22,000 border agents and increased drone, wire-tapping and detention activity with Obama detaining more than any previous president. And no one is keeping them accountable. Last month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office — the independent, nonpartisan “congressional watchdog” that investigates how the federal government spends taxpayers’ dollars — was unable to audit the Department of Homeland Security (or the Pentagon for that matter). The majority of the 24 other audited agencies were auditable, but not Homeland Security, which has consistently been unable to receive such audits. This is the militarism against which Martin Luther King Jr. warned.
On the northern end of MLK Avenue, the much-heralded and soon-to-be pedestrian-friendly 11th Street Bridge will open up the river’s westerners to its easterners and vice versa. I’ve walked and biked on that bridge, to and from work. It’s great, and the prospective plans for rides, parks and public space are exciting to see. As a pedestrian, I feel closer to downtown, and it’s nice to know that when the Metro breaks down, or when D.C. gets another big snowpocalypse, I’ve got alternatives. (Yes, the Frederick Douglass Bridge near Nationals Park is also an option, but the streets and uncleared sidewalks on both sides of that bridge are not pedestrian friendly.)
How does this relate to poverty? The irony in opening up the District to more Anacostia and MLK Avenue accessibility, much like what happened to H Street, is that as Southeast becomes more gentrification-friendly, real opportunity and access won’t increase for the people who need it most. If MLK were alive, he’d first address the economic and educational achievement disparities demarcated by the river. Instead of a new bridge, albeit important, he’d fight to lift the average median household income in Anacostia, which struggles at $30,000 for a family of four, and is far lower than the District’s $60,000 or the broader D.C. metro area’s $80,000. He’d be outraged that the income gap in the District is one of the highest in the nation. This is the poverty against which Martin Luther King warned.
On racism, beyond the 73-point gulf that exists between the District’s white and black eighth-graders in math scores (the national average gap is 31 points), health disparities are also growing. My neighborhood is increasingly impacted by the lack of healthy food and fitness options. Not only did the YES! Organic store in Southeast — which should have been more conveniently located on MLK Avenue but wasn’t — shutter its organic doors recently, but it now looks like the Anacostia SPIRIT Health and Wellness Center on MLK will also close if the gym’s revenues don’t improve.
That means that MLK Avenue, already a food desert, may also become a fitness desert. This is a real concern, in light of soaring rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, much of which is preventable with healthier diet and exercise. We must make healthy food more affordable and fitness more accessible. My neighbors often ask me about my gym membership, wondering how much it would cost. Even at $19 a month, it’s an unfeasible financial burden for them. But non-gym options, too, must be more accessible. Anacostia River’s east side, for example, has little of the recreational opportunities that exist west of the river, from rowing to kayaking to sailing. This is the racism against which Martin Luther King warned.
Martin Luther King Jr., I think, would be on top of these issues. He would hold Obama and Mayor Vincent Gray accountable for the fact that they haven’t prioritized these problems, and, in many cases, have made them worse. He’d be disappointed with what his avenue moniker had become, especially with the Department of Homeland Security, but so, too, with the 11th Street Bridge’s illusion of increased access and opportunity and with the avenue’s growing food and fitness desert.
In celebrating Martin Luther King Jr., this month or any other, we must honor that which he passionately promoted, a world filled with love and compassion and free of militarism, poverty and racism. It won’t be politically palatable, or friendly to ceremonial pomp and circumstance, but it will be a far more genuine reflection of the principles for which he stood and for which any avenue named after him should stand.
Michael Shank, a resident of Anacostia, is adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and senior fellow at the French American Global Forum.
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