A new taste and voice emerge in Southeast

March 13, 2012

The name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is often associated with his positive messages of brotherhood, peace, and social and economic equality for all people, so it’s ironic that many of the streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. throughout the country typically don’t embody these messages or illustrate victories for the injustices he fought for.
Streets named after King are usually in areas where there are high levels of poverty and violence.

Martin Luther King, Jr. boulevards and avenues are often the butt of many jokes among African Americans.

A recent example of this is in a YouTube video that went viral called “S--t Nobody Black Says,” in which a character says sarcastically, “Man, Martin Luther King Boulevard is the nicest street in town.”

While these streets across the country have a similar reputation, initiatives are in place to improve Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast Washington.  One way is to restore the buildings on the avenue to their historic glory.

Jackie Ward, constituent services specialist in the office of D.C. Council member Marion Barry, said many people are behind this effort.

“There is a lot of support, especially from the young people,” Ward said. “They want to restore pride in this area. There is so much history here.”

A current project will improve the buildings on the street. In doing so, the architecture of the old buildings will be preserved and restored to create a niche marketplace similar to that of Old Town Alexandria, Ward said.

The new businesses that have emerged this year have helped to improve the image and voice of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

Michael Sterling, owner of the newly renovated Big Chair Café and Lounge on the avenue, says he loves this location. The fact that he is an African American small-business owner on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue is very significant to him.

“It’s a blessing,” Sterling said.

Sterling has made intentional decisions to try to draw the community to his café. It is one of the few cafés on the east side of the Anacostia River. He believes residents of the community shouldn’t have to travel far to have access to high-quality food and beverages at an affordable price.

“They don’t have to go across the bridge to go to Starbucks anymore,” Sterling said. “We can make anything they want here. Everything on the menu is under 10 dollars. I know it’s a struggle out there. I know what it’s like.”

While reflecting on the stigma that comes with being on this avenue, he said it’s not just the street; it’s the community that has that negative stereotype.

“It’s not just MLK Avenue,” Sterling said. “When I told my friends I was doing this in Southeast they were like, ‘OMG, they’re killers.’ But I grew up in a neighborhood like this. I’m not going to run away from my people.”

What used to be Anacostia’s Cole Café is now the home for We Act, a two-month-old radio station  at 1918 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE. The station, which broadcasts on WPWC 1480 AM, says it is the only independent progressive radio station in Washington, D.C.

Kymone Freeman, co-owner of We Act, said there’s only one other radio station in the United States that broadcasts from a street named after Martin Luther King Jr., and it’s in Berkeley, Calif.

“We call the one in Berkeley ‘MLK west,’ and this one ‘MLK east,” Freeman said.

Freeman said that establishing the station on MLK Avenue was intentional, and that the street’s name plays a direct role in the mission of this organization.

“It’s because of MLK Avenue,” Freeman said. “We wanted to be the living monument.”

He believes the media focused on the messages of King prior to 1965, but didn’t give the same emphasis on his views after that time.

 “You would think he died in ‘65,” Freeman said. However, King spoke out against the war in Vietnam and criticized America for being the world’s biggest perpetrator of violence. These are the types of messages that are broadcast from the station.

Perhaps what most embodies the mission of WPWC is the picture that Freeman sits under as he works. It’s an image of Malcolm X with a quote: “Don’t be so blinded by patriotism that you cannot face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who says it or does it.”

“We deal with the uncomfortable,” Freeman said. “We have a relentless love affair with the truth.”

Since the station is still new, there is speculation from those in the community on what is aired. Some come to the radio station to drop off samples of their music. Others think, “Oh, it’s an AM station in the hood, it must be gospel,” Freeman said. However, Freeman and his team want the community to know that they have a voice in “We Act.”

Freeman is a self-declared collector of quotes. He believes that his favorite quote edifies what they aim to do: “Until the lions have their historians, the tales of the hunt will continue to tell the hunters’ stories.”

“We’re here to tell the lions’ stories,” Freeman said.

This story is part of a partnership between The Washington Post and students from American University. To read more stories from this collaboration, click here.

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