Fitting or futile? Honoring a dream with a road
By ALICIA CALDWELL, Times Staff Writer
It was to be a lasting tribute to one of the world's great civil rights leaders.
But 14 years after St. Petersburg named one of its longest streets to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the effect has been disappointing to some who fought for it.
In the largely African-American neighborhoods south of Central Avenue, it is often called M.L.K. Street. But on the north side, which is mostly white, it's typically Ninth Street on business cards and phone book listings. The difference stems from a 1987 compromise leaving the street with two official names, in essence allowing people to choose.
"Martin Luther King was about bringing people together," said Abdul Karim Ali, one of the members of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Blue Ribbon Committee. "I'm not totally happy, none of us are. But we should continue with the spirit of Dr. King and make things better. It should have one name."
Renaming streets to honor the slain civil rights leader, whose birthday is celebrated Monday, is a standard tribute. Yet it is one that still stirs controversy -- and sometimes brings unexpected results -- in Tampa Bay communities.
Brooksville, the county seat in Hernando County, renamed a road to honor King just a year ago. But not without heated debate.
The most outspoken opponent was Doug Davis, who runs a business on the road. He argued against the renaming because of the expense of changing stationery. Also, the area's reputation as a drug haven, he said, would dishonor King's legacy.
"I made a lot of enemies," Davis said.
Davis said he was misunderstood, and he has taken steps to change that. He is now set to march in the community's King Day parade. He works with a group of politicians and others in the community to better the lives of children in the largely African-American neighborhoods of south Brooksville. And while the road renaming has cost him new stationery, it has won him a new circle of friends.
"There has been a whole lot of positive that has come out of it," Davis said.
In Tampa, the renaming of Buffalo Avenue to honor King started out rocky. Many opposed it, and when the signs first went up in late 1989, they were promptly vandalized. Sandy Freedman, who was mayor at the time, said she has always felt the street renaming was only a first step toward fulfilling King's dreams of racial unity.
"Just naming a street isn't enough," she said. "It really is only a partial way in which you honor his legacy."
Bob Gilder, a longtime civil rights activist and Tampa resident, said communities that recognize that are further along in achieving racial harmony.
At Mack's Barber Shop, which is on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Tampa, John Brooks is one of the people who remembers the acrimony surrounding the name change. Nevertheless, he believes it worked out for the best.
Brooks manages a youth boxing team, which will march in Tampa's King Day parade. The diversity of the 18 fighters, he said, is the embodiment of King's dream.
"They're white, black, Asian and even girls," Brooks said. "That's what Dr. King is all about."
In St. Petersburg, some who battled for the name change now think that King's ideals have not been honored.
"That allowed the north side of town to use Ninth Street and the south side of town to use M.L.K. Street," said Sevell Brown, president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "We're left with the legacy of segregation."
A casual perusal of business cards, fliers, menus and company signs along the street supports the contention that the King name is not widely used in the northern and predominantly white sections of town, and used frequently in African-American neighborhoods on the southern side.
At McRae Funeral Home, it's 1940 M.L. King St. S. At Wilson's Book World, it's 2394 Ninth St. N.
Said Benjamin Lawson, who manages the funeral home: "I noticed that myself on the north side -- they use Ninth Street and not Dr. Martin Luther King Street. It's kind of strange when you don't see it, you know? There is no question that we would use it."
Said Jeff Morris, owner of Wilson's: "The point is the integrity of the grid system. I love the grid system."
Morris, whose late mother, Helen Wilson, gathered more than 2,000 signatures opposing the name change, said he would not support renaming any street to honor anyone. He suggested a more fitting tribute might be to name the city's domed stadium to honor King.
In Citrus County, one tenant on a street that was to be renamed to honor King in 1994 had such strong concerns that a blocklong section retained its old name.
The tenant? Citrus County Sheriff Charles Dean. The concern? The cost of replacing stationery and forms.
Dean retired and was replaced by Jeff Dawsy, but the sheriff's part of the street has remained Park Avenue. When asked last week whether he had ever thought to request the King name for his block, Dawsy said he did not have the power to change street names and didn't have any plans to ask for such a change.
"I guess I haven't put a whole lot of thought into it," Dawsy said. "If the city wanted to change it and they approached me about it, I'd agree to change it, but it would cost money to change the stationery."
The concept of a fitting honor for King will be contemplated in Clearwater this week.
The city, which hired its first African-American city manager in July, is set to take up the issue Thursday. Clearwater already has a street named to honor King, but it is only three blocks long and not a main thoroughfare.
"I can't explain why this community didn't do it when other communities across the country did it," said City Manager Bill Horne. "But I will tell you that when the item was recommended to us, it was embraced by city commissioners. I think it was their sense that it was overdue."
The renaming of Greenwood Avenue, which runs through areas of the city populated by both white and African-American people, businesses and residences, is an appropriate way to remember King, Horne said.
That there has been little opposition is gratifying, and perhaps a measure of where the conservative city is on race relations, he said.
"It's an evolving thing," Horne said. "It's a journey that we're all on together."
-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
local news desks