Three weeks after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, the city council in Mainz, Germany, named a street for the slain civil rights leader—doing in just a few days what King’s birthplace of Atlanta took eight years to do. Memphis, Tennessee, the place where King was killed, also named a city street after him—but not until more than 40 years after his death.
A new name can signal a brilliant future, as when the Old Testament’s Abram, “exalted father,” was divinely renamed Abraham, the “father of many nations.” When the name of a place is changed, it’s also a sign of power and influence—it reflects who is in charge and who has made an impression on the culture. And so in Schwerin, Germany, Dr. Martin Luther King Strasse keeps company with Anne Frank Strasse. In Saint-Martin-d’Hères, France, Rue Martin Luther King abuts Rue Rosa Lee Parks, in honor of the woman who sparked the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in 1955. In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the road named for the 18th-century revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture segues into the street named for King.
Two years before his death, King’s approval rating in the United States was just 33 percent, likely a reflection of racism and many white Americans’ discomfort with his radical agenda for economic justice. With every passing decade, though, his stock climbs—even while his agenda can seem increasingly blurred. Today, 50 years after his death, some 90 percent of Americans have a favorable view of King.