While Martin Luther King, Jr. only visited Toledo once, his name, influence and image remain in this city as remnants of the values he lived and died for. Some of Toledo’s most well-known icons, namely the Martin Luther King, Jr. Bridge and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza (the Amtrak Station), bear his name, and a myriad of other institutions do as well: the MLK Kitchen for the Poor, MLK, Jr. Academy for Boys, King Elementary School and even Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue. A larger-than-life, colorful mural on an abandoned building on Broadway Street bears his image.
Dr. King’s visit to Toledo happened on September 22, 1967—less than seven months before his assassination—during which he spoke to 3,500 in the Scott High School fieldhouse and attended a reception and press conference at the Maumee home of Edward Lamb, famous American businessman and labor lawyer.
The recent news of racism at a GM facility in Toledo made national news, and while it has surfaced just in time for the annual honoring of Dr. King, it is not news to many in Toledo who have had similar experiences for years. It begs the question: what has truly changed in Toledo since Dr. King’s visit that day, and why does Toledo make national news only for tragedy?
In fact, in looking through newspapers from the week of Dr. King’s visit, it seems that, in some respects, our city and our society are facing the same issues as 50 years ago: not even mentioning prejudices that remain, the front page news displays headlines about teachers’ strikes nationwide (sound familiar, L.A.?), U.S. development of missile defense systems (Trump’s not the first one to do so), unclear dealings with Russia (A Russian once wrote about Toledo’s “racial situation” in a Russian publication in the 60s), and even the need to clean up the Maumee River (algal bloom, anyone?). Other Toledo-centric headlines sound like they could be printed today, such as promising renewals of the Old West End and the Mudhens winning an international league cup.
Today’s remembrance of Dr. King gives us a chance to look back and consider what’s changed, what hasn’t, and what we still can learn from his visit a little over fifty years ago.
Dr. King’s speech at Scott High School addressed the national and global scope of events, particularly the economic situation of African Americans, nonviolent protests, and even the war in Vietnam. Perhaps most relevant to Ohio and Toledo’s coming years, however, were King’s comments on de facto segregation—that is, segregation that persisted beyond, or in spite of, the law.
After the 1954 ruling of Brown v. Board of Education made segregation illegal, civil rights groups began to challenge school systems, resulting in lawsuits to many school systems in Ohio and other states. According to the Ohio History Connection, “As late as 1986, federal courts were still involved in ending segregation in Ohio’s schools.” In Ohio, many white people moved out to the suburbs to avoid integration, leaving African Americans and other minorities in the inner city.
De facto segregation remained a problem at the beginning of the twenty-first century due to limited funding for busing for students, which had been used over the past 30 years as a means to integrate schools in the cities. And it remains an issue today; at the very school where Dr. King gave his speech, Scott High School, the student body make-up in 2018 was 93% African American, 3% white, while the adjacent district of Ottawa Hills has a student population 83% white and 3% African American.
This is only one example, and issues like this persist in the experience of Toledoans every day. As we recall the legacy of a man who stood for progress, let us consider the direction and fate of Toledo and other historically blue-collar, post-industrial cities who are very slowly finding themselves back in the national spotlight. Can Toledo one day make national news for its unity and progress rather than its persistent issues and crises? We believe in Toledo, and as is written on the MLK, Jr. mural on a rundown building seemingly devoid of hope, we are “still dreaming” for this city.