Renaming 17th Street to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., is entirely appropriate, maybe more so now than ever. We applaud Manhattan city commissioners, who voted unanimously this week to do so. And we encourage citizens to reflect on the meaning of it.
Honoring the Rev. King is, at this point in history, generally a symbolic move that says: We support diversity. He stood for more than that — he stood for peaceful methods of resolving differences. Those are good values to memorialize. Nothing wrong with that symbolism.
But in Manhattan, it’s more than that.
The Rev. King spoke at Ahearn Fieldhouse on the Kansas State University campus on January 19, 1968. That was less than four months before he was assassinated in Memphis. It was his last speech on a college campus. His topic: “The Future of Integration.”
According to The Mercury’s front-page coverage that day, Rev. King said he had not changed his philosophy of non-violence, but warned that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Riots also tend to increase fears of the majority while simultaneously relieving them of their guilt, he said.
Interesting twist in 2021, to say the least. There have been riots from opposite ends of the political spectrum. A comparison of our moment to the late 1960s is certainly apt.
The speech here drew 7,700, and was well-received; the crowd stopped him 12 times with applause, and he got a standing ovation at the end, The Mercury reported. He was also swamped by autograph-seekers, meaning he stopped to visit with people on a walk from Ahearn to the Union, where he had a coffee hosted by K-State President James McCain. And that means he crossed 17th.
“Some communities rename their streets to honor people that maybe have never even set foot down them, but Dr. King does have a legacy that is tied to that street and it’s a way to honor him,” City Commissioner Aaron Estabrook said as he joined his colleagues in renaming the street..
He’s exactly right.
By coincidence, the federal holiday to honor Rev. King happens on the third Monday of January. That happens to be right around Jan. 19, so the holiday is a particularly good time to reflect annually not only on the values that the man stood for, but the anniversary of his appearance here.
Those values — and what he was going through in 1968, with riots and Viet Nam war protests and civil rights battles, culimating in his own assassination and that of Robert Kennedy two months after that — might be more relevant today than ever since.
In that speech, Rev. King said time does not necessarily cure wounds and does not necessarily create progress. Time is neutral, he said, and as long as we postpone justice, “we will be on the path to social destruction.”
Unrest in the country at that time was explainable this way: “We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live.”
It’s just the name of a street. But there’s a lot behind it, especially here, and especially now.