“There is a road that wends its way through the heart and soul of black America. Sometimes it is called a boulevard, a drive, an avenue, a street or a way, but it is always named Martin Luther King.”
With those opening words, Jonathan Tilove of Newhouse News Service begins a series of stories on the byways that create a black Main Street from coast to coast and the communities that surround them. It is a project that was nurtured by a journalist’s curiosity and propelled by a reporter’s questions.
What would it be like to visit some of the more than 500 streets named for King? More important, what would such a visit show and tell us?
Born of an idea from a long ago reporting trip through the Mississippi Delta, Tilove had noticed that in town after town directions to the black community had a familiar refrain: “Just head on down to Martin Luther King.”
So Tilove and freelance photographer Michael Falco did just that, spending nearly two years on an intermittent journey that took them from Jackson, Miss. to Leavenworth, Kansas; from Belle Glade, Fla. to Harlem; from Galveston, Tex. to Oakland, from Portland, Ore. to Chicago. And, as
Tilove writes, what one finds about those streets named for King is that you “map them and you map a nation within a nation, a place where white America seldom goes and black America can be itself.”
The resulting package of articles and photographs totals a half-dozen stories and more than 14,000 words along with some 70 photographic images. Some Newhouse papers, such as the Springfield (Mass.) Union-News, recently published the entire series. Other publications, including non-Newhouse papers, ran portions and supplemented the package with their own stories and photographs. Overall, the pieces not only tell the story of boulevards and avenues named after the slain civil rights leader but of people who populate the neighborhoods, of their lives and aspirations, and the circumstances that brought their communities and a revered namesake together.
The result is a creative, insightful look at Black America with many of its nuances and its diversity. It is journalism that rises above the formulaic and commonplace by tapping voices that resonate with authenticity and are seldom heard. And with their portrayals, Tilove and Falco — who happen to be two white journalists — surprise readers who may be strapped to a stereotype about the MLK streets in their own cities and towns.
“I think people consider these streets a wreck and a shame, and I think what’s interesting is that once you get past the superficial stuff you see how whole it is. It’s not a wreck,” says Tilove, who has been writing about race for Newhouse since 1991.
This project is one of the most ambitious projects the Washington-based reporter has ever undertaken, and Tilove says he first proposed the idea in 1995. But the project kept getting sidetracked. Then in November 1999, Tilove and Falco traveled to Jackson, Miss. to do a story at a local high school located on Martin Luther King Drive. What they came back with was not merely a strong story and photographs but the enthusiasm to fuel the project.
“I wasn’t quite sure what it would produce,” Tilove recalls. “I thought if nothing else, it would be a travelogue of main street through the black community. But I was trying to go without having a particular agenda and see how it goes.”
Where the story takes them is to Belle Glade, a small Florida town where the rich ebony soil produces more sugar cane and sweet corn than any other place in the country, as well as a fistful of professional football players — and a Martin Luther King Boulevard of its own.
They spend time with a black nationalist in Mississippi and a laundromat owner in Alabama. They listen to a freshman at an historically black college in Georgia speak proudly of discovering her African-American heritage but worry that other blacks look down upon her college as a “ghetto” school.
They while away the hours with a gathering of elderly black men — including a former Negro League baseball player and an ex-Pullman porter — playing checkers at a gas station on MLK in Mississippi. They encounter a black firefighter in Oklahoma who also raises steers as a cowboy, and a 91-year-old saxophone player in Kansas named Rosetta Stone. They talk with a radio DJ in Oregon and Chicago’s oldest stripper as she awaits a bus on MLK.
And they visit a woman in Canton, Miss. who had given refuge to the Rev. King when and he and other civil rights marchers had been tear-gassed in 1966. Now, reporter and photographer sit in the same living room where King had been. “I was moved to tears at times on this project,” says Falco, a freelance photographer who grew up in New York in mostly white neighborhoods.
Even to someone like Tilove, who has been covering racial issues for years, the journey is a revelation. He discovers people in the black community who are respected and influential in the black community but little known to White America, people such as college professor Haki Madhubuti who brokered the peace between Louis Farrakhan and Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X.
Tilove and Falco also show the connections between the boulevards and how some people live their lives from one King to the next. There is the Oregon truck driver who drives his Mustang 3,000 miles from the MLK in Portland to the MLK in Harlem over three and a half days and on 12 tanks of gas nearly every year. There is the woman in Oakland who owned an African arts shop on MLK in Oakland and who used to spend her summers with her grandma, who just lives off the MLK in Jackson, Miss. And the minister who is pastor of two churches — one in Jasper, Tex. and the other in DeRidder, La. — and both located on streets named for King.
“One of the beautiful things about this project,” says Falco, “is that we weren’t there just to talk about the street but about people’s lives and what the street meant to them.”
Why do the stories resonate with readers?
Columnist Sam Fulwood III of the Cleveland Plain Dealer says that, in part, it is because the stories ring true and clearly reflect the days and weeks that both men spent in the communities and the hours spent talking to individuals. He adds that it is obvious that they had the support and commitment of their editors, including national editor Linda Fibich, Washington bureau chief Deborah Howell and photo editor Toren Beasley.
“I liked the concept, the idea of looking at Black America through one street all across the country,” says Fulwood who also co-anchors a PBS program on diversity issues named “The Calling.”
By focusing on the MLK boulevards, Fulwood says “it was an interesting and alternative way to look at Black America.”
While so many reporters do the obvious or commonplace story, these two did more than that, says Fulwood who is black. As good journalists do, he adds, they did not allow race to limit them and, instead, forged ahead and provided a too-rare view of the black community as diverse, vibrant and full of people who are both heroic and not so heroic.
While that may appear simple and obvious on its face, Fulwood says that description and form of storytelling is often overlooked. “Sometimes I think journalism does a good job when it tells us what is there, what is obvious.”
For Tilove and Falco, their rewards — personally and professionally — were soon evident each time they arrived at a street named Martin Luther King.
“It was the kind of thing that each time I started out, I’d think it’s not going to work this time,” says Tilove. “But in a short time we’d be swept up and it would lead us to these places. We both felt it was a great experience, a profound experience, and we captured something. Maybe not all of it but much of it.”
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