Susan Berger traveled the U.S. to capture scenes from these everyday memorials to the Civil Rights leader.
Across the United States, more than 900 streets bear the name Martin Luther King Jr. The photographer Susan Berger didn’t visit them all, but her series, “Martin Luther King Dr.,” captures an essential truth about these streets—their diversity.
Beginning in October of 2009, Berger began a pattern she’d repeat over the next year and a half. She’d pick an airport, then search on Google Earth for the Martin Luther King-named streets in the surrounding towns that she could reach in the time she allotted herself, usually about three weeks per region.
On her first trip, she boarded a flight from her current home of Tucson, Arizona, to Los Angeles, where she rented a car and drove out to Martin Luther King Boulevard, expecting, she says, to photograph people.
Instead, what drew her focus were the enormous murals and distinctive signs she discovered lining the wide road; they reminded her of the work of Walker Evans. “You could really feel the lifestyle of the street,” Berger says.
On her travels, Berger approached each street with no agenda, and no preconceptions. She had one rule: she had to have her feet on the road named for Martin Luther King. She made a point not to get waylaid by the surrounding neighborhoods; she wanted her photographs to reflect the experience only of the individual streets.
In the popular imagination, the reputation of MLK-named streets is one of poverty and distress. My colleague Tanvi Misra previously wrote that research has correlated these streets with lower incomes and higher rates of racial segregation than city-wide and national norms. Some of Berger’s photographs, like those she took in Houston, Texas, reflect this truth in broken chain-link fences and abandoned parking lots. In these neighborhoods, the MLK-named streets serve as a reminder of the man himself, and all that he did and dreamed of. “At the same time, though, you look at the neighborhood and say: what has been accomplished? To what extent had that dream been realized?” Berger says.
Berger made a point to visit those cities most closely associated with the Civil Rights movements. In some of those places, the placement of MLK streets testifies to his enduring local significance. In Little Rock, Martin Luther King Dr. runs right up against the state capitol buildings; in Atlanta, it’s a long street that cuts through the entire swath of the city, from government buildings to residential neighborhoods, intersecting a range of socioeconomic levels. “You could do a whole project on Martin Luther King in Atlanta,” Berger says.
But in Port Arthur, Texas, “the only way you know you’re on Martin Luther King is because your GPS tells you so,” Berger says. “There are no street signs.” In Galveston, Texas, it’s a quiet country road; in Denver, Colorado, it cuts through a new residential community developed over the site of an old airport. And in Philadelphia, MLK runs alongside the Schyulkill River—a central greenway always filled with cyclists and joggers.
“There is always some kind of politics involved in choosing to name a street after Martin Luther King, then in deciding where to put it,” Berger says.
Berger suggests that the range of roads named for Martin Luther King throughout the United States index diverging and still-evolving responses to the crucial work begun during the Civil Rights movement. In Portland, Oregon—a historically liberal city—Berger learned that the renaming of a main thoroughfare for Martin Luther King in 1989 sparked an uproar from local merchants, who were concerned that the street name’s reputation would deter business.
Arizona, in 1992, was the last state to ratify Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday. It wasn’t until that day in 2016 that Tucson renamed its first street for the activist, in an “area that is totally undeveloped, has never been developed—it’s like this barren desert,” Berger says. She completed her series five years ago, but toyed with the idea of traveling out to photograph the street in Tucscon as an addendum. She hasn’t yet done so.
There are other websites and projects that exist to document the evolution of MLK-named streets over time; Berger’s series captures them at a precise moment, her black-and-white prints as timeless as photographs from the Civil Rights era without which her project—and progress—would be impossible.