Thursday, January 13, 2005

Fellow travelers

The rewards of public service are hard to quantify, and sometimes they come from surprising places.

The other night I was thrilled to get a phone call from Jonathan Tilove. Tilove is author of Along Martin Luther King: Travels along Black America's Main Street (excerpt). Through the magic of the internet, he had caught on that I had relied heavily on this book in making the arguments for changing the name of Airport Road.

Exactly a year ago this weekend, the King holiday weekend, I heard a radio interview with Tilove about his then-new book. It was the first time I started to really absorb the message that having many roads named after King across the country was the strength of our local NAACP's request, not its weakness. Beautifully illustrated with color photos by Michael Falco, the book reflects their two-year journey across the country on the trail of hundreds of MLK's. Along Martin Luther King weaves these streets, and their stories, together into a larger narrative of longing and struggle, of dreams and compromise--a narrative firmly grounded in the realities of particular places, yet each episode a commentary on the dynamics of the freedom movement.

Each King street tells a story: Where it begins. Where it ends. What's on it. What's not on it. Who was in favor of renaming the street. Who was against it. Like all the best battles, the struggle to name a street after King is a fight over turf, pride, and power, and often it does not come easy, if it comes at all. It is the story of streets named, streets not named, streets named and then unnamed, streets given the new name while still keeping the old name, and other things named as consolation prizes for streets not being named (in 2001 it was the train station in Toledo, Ohio).

Business don't like the bother and expense of changing their addresses. There are always some folks devoted to the history and significance of the old name. But in the scores of skirmishes one also catches a glimpse--or an eyeful--of deeper white resistance and, in the intensity of the reaction, a bracing reminder of the real King, the man with the edge and meaning, and not simply the dreamy King of grammar-school coloring contests.

As they finished their travels, there were some 500 streets named for King. Last year, the number reported was 650. By now, according to Derek Alderman (an ECU geography professor who I have had the pleasure of getting to know through all of this), there are around 730. On May 8 of this year, the number will increase by one.

Tilove is an award-winning journalist for the Newhouse News Service who has been covering race in the United States since 1991.

He told me that his next major adventure will probably be a return trip to the Kings Point retirement center in Florida. After covering a Kerry rally there last year, he became interested in the individual and collective stories of the large Jewish population there, how they may have grown up in Jewish communities, then spent their adult lives dispersed, and now here they are, 8,000 strong, "more than the Jewish population of 13 states."

I suggested he get in touch with the National Yiddish Book Center and see if he could manage to do double duty as a zamler.

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