Chicago’s Martin Luther King Jr. Drive: A Road Through History

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive can be found on the South Side of Chicago, stretching from 23rd Street to 115th Street.

CHICAGO — Across the country there are 730 streets named after civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Map them and you map a nation within a nation,” says one expert, noting they are mostly byways familiar to black Americans and avoided by whites.

Indeed, the origin of Chicago’s King Drive is a revealing chapter in the city’s racial history.

Beginning just south of East Cermak Road and four blocks east of South Michigan Avenue, King Drive stretches to 115th Street. The street runs through predominantly black South Side neighborhoods from Bronzeville to Roseland, spanning 14 miles.

Originally named Grand Boulevard, then South Parkway, it finally was renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in 1968.

Chicago Ald. Leon Despres (5th), a white King supporter who died four years ago at age 101, first sponsored an ordinance to rename a street after King, though he wanted it to be a street in the Loop.

Instead, a South Side designation was surprisingly boosted by Mayor Richard J. Daley. It was a move Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor describe as “disingenuous” in their Daley biography “American Pharaoh.”

Foes when King was alive, Daley, by supporting the renaming, was attempting to portray himself as a forward thinker on race relations ahead of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the biographers said.

In dedicating the street, Daley “invoked King’s devotion to nonviolence in a verbal formation that made it sound as if Daley had the idea first,” Cohen and Taylor wrote.

Said Daley: “I once told him, and he agreed, ‘Doctor, we will never do it in conflict and violence.’ “

Some Chicagoans grumbled King didn’t deserve such a designation. Others said naming a street for him wasn’t enough.

King streets are located in predominantly black neighborhoods throughout the country. In King’s home state of Georgia, there are 105 streets named for him.

For his book “Along Martin Luther King: Travels on Black America’s Main Street,” author Jonathan Tilove visited nearly 500 Martin Luther King streets across the country. In his book, he described a “nation within a nation” as “a parallel universe.”

“For many whites, a street sign that says Martin Luther King tells them they are lost,” Tilove wrote. “For many blacks, a street sign that says Martin Luther King tells them they are found.”

Several historic buildings are located along Chicago’s King Drive. They include the Chicago Orphan Asylum Building, 5120 S. King Drive; Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church, 4100 S. King Drive; Oscar Stanton House, 4536 S. King Drive, and the Supreme Life Building, 3501 S. King Drive.

Chicago was a key location for King. In 1965, he came here fighting to desegregate Chicago’s public schools. Later, he moved his family to a run-down apartment on the West Side and led marches for open housing.

Historian and fellow civil rights leader Timuel Black, 94, recalled organizing protest marches for King when he came to Chicago.

“Dr. King was a great man who did a lot in his time. When he visited Chicago he wanted to protest in areas not kind to blacks, like downtown,” said Black, who was honored with a street named after himself Saturday at 50th and State streets in Bronzeville.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, ran a Chicago chapter of an economic empowerment program called Operation Breadbasket, which used boycotts and selective buying to push companies to hire blacks as employees and contractors.

According to The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute in Stanford, Calif., King said the Operation Breadbasket program was needed because stores had turned their backs on the black community.

“The fundamental premise of Breadbasket is a simple one. [Blacks] need not patronize a business which denies them jobs, or advancement [or] plain courtesy,” said King. He charged that many retail businesses and consumer-goods industries “deplete the ghetto” by selling to blacks “without returning to the community any of the profits through fair hiring practices.”

King would accomplish a lot before being shot dead at age 39 on April 4, 1968, while standing on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn. At age 35, he became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Born to the Rev. Martin L. King Sr. and Alberta Williams, King was one of three children. His birthday is Jan. 15, but is observed nationally as Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the third Monday of January each year as a federal holiday. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation recognizing the day as a national holiday, and on Jan. 20, 1986, the first King Day was observed.

The Rev. Leon Finney, pastor of Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church, said King marched for equality not just for blacks but for all people.

“[He was] a husband, father and activist for nonviolence and the civil rights movement, which often sparked public protest from blacks against racial discrimination,” he said.

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