commemorations

Is There Any Downside to Naming a D.C. Street After Frank Kameny?

In Washington D.C., a two-block span of 17th Street NW will now be (also) known as Frank Kameny Way, in honor of the Mattachine Society founder who was fired from the U.S. Army Map Service in the 1950s for being a gay. What a great way to recognize a civil rights hero, right?

Not necessarily. There are at least 730 streets in the U.S. named after Martin Luther King Jr.; they are also among the most crime-riddled sections of their cities. And it’s not just because Chris Rock says so in his stand-up routines.

It goes like this: Rock says a white friend called him for directions. The man said he was calling from King Street.

“Run!” Rock tells him.

“I don’t care where you live in America,” Rock says, “if you’re on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there’s some violence going on.”

That perception of the nation’s 680 King streets too often matches reality, says Jerry Kolo, a professor at Florida Atlantic University. Once intended as a symbol of equality, the roads have become the dividing line between black and white America. The naming of streets has become a “tokenistic gesture” to appease blacks demanding equal rights, Kolo said.

“Many of us in the black community have gotten carried away by gestures that don’t mean anything but are showy, such as naming a street,” Kolo said. “I would love to hear voices saying, “Let’s look for more tangible ways of honoring Martin Luther King’s legacy.”‘

Does this mean a street named after Kameny is going to become a hot bed for drugs and murder and prostitution? Of course not. And getting just one street named after Kameny hardly predicts a wave of such activity. But let the debate rage on as to whether renaming the boulevard after a civil rights hero contributes to his memory, or tarnishes it by the seemingly inevitable seedy behavior that finds its way to (or already exists on) these roads.