Route cause By BETTY PLEASANT, Contributing Editor 17.JAN.08 – THE WAVE Streets named after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. can be found all over the United States. Almost every major metropolis in America has one, and the number of MLK streets is growing. As of the last count in 2006, more than 730 American cities had an MLK street, avenue or boulevard in it, as did a number of foreign countries, including 10 cities in Italy. We have one in Los Angeles, and we didn’t come by it easily. Our Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is five miles long, running east to west, beginning behind Jefferson High School at Hooper Avenue and deadending in a confluence with Rodeo Road, just short of La Brea Avenue. Since as long as anyone can remember, our MLK Boulevard had been Santa Barbara Avenue, named after Saint Barbara, one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages who was tortured and beheaded by her father for refusing to denounce her newly acquired Christian faith. But Saint Barbara receded to the reliquary and became a modern-day memory in 1983 when Santa Barbara Avenue was renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, three years before President Ronald Reagan signed the law declaring Rev. King’s birthday a national holiday. The street’s new name resulted from several months of debating, arm-twisting and mindchanging among the members of the City Council, and back-biting, namecalling and Mao-Maoing among the city’s residents, and did not become a fait accompli until Jesse Jackson came to town and addressed all parties on the subject. It all began when community leader and bail bondsman Celes King III got it into his head that a street in Los Angeles ought to be named after the greatest civil rights activist of our time. According to Adrian Dove, a close associate of Celes King at the time, Celes was loathe to approach then-Mayor Tom Bradley about the idea because Bradley despised Celes. After all, Celes was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican — one of the most prominent black Republicans in the country, as a matter of fact — and Celes had worked very hard to keep Bradley from getting elected mayor. They had serious issues. So, Celes took his idea to Robert Farrell, who was the city councilman for the predominately black 8th District. Farrell thought it was an excellent and totally appropriate thing to do. Farrell had been an active participant in the civil rights movement. He was a Freedom Rider who traveled aboard buses throughout the South to integrate transportation facilities during the 1960s, and he engaged in other dangerous activities to end segregation in the South, such as voter registration and protest demonstrations. He was a committed civil rights activist who revered Martin Luther King Jr. and deeply appreciated his role in empowering African-Americans throughout the country. ―I felt a Los Angeles street named for Dr. King was a perfect way to honor his impact on the nation and on our city,‖ Farrell said. Farrell’s first task was to find a street. ―I had to find a street that was in South L.A.,‖ Farrell said. ―Given the 8th District at the time, the north-south streets wouldn’t work because they ran through multiple council districts. I focused on Santa Barbara, which ran through the 8th District, but into only two others. The western part, from Arlington back to Coliseum, was in the 6th District and the eastern part, from Figueroa, was in the 9th District. Only the part of Santa Barbara from Figueroa to Arlington was solely in my district, so I had council members Pat Russell [6th District] and Gil Lindsay [9th District] to deal with. ―The nature of the council at the time was that if you wanted to do something in your district, you were pretty much free to do it,‖ Farrell explained. ―So I did some preliminary work, lined up votes — you needed eight to get things done — discussed my politics and presented the motion to rename the street.‖ Most of the council members didn’t care if the street name was changed, since it was not in their district, didn’t affect them and Farrell was not fiddling with one of the city’s crown jewels, like Wilshire Boulevard. But Russell and Lindsay became a problem. ―It was one of the few times Lindsay got mad at me,‖ Farrell said. ―It was not because he thought it was a bad idea. He objected to the choice of the street. He thought I was disrespecting a Christian saint and creating a hardship on the people who lived and worked on Santa Barbara. ―But given the significance of this American hero, I believed it was part of my leadership to do this, so I pressed on,‖ Farrell said. ―It’s a public street and, from time to time, streets change and reflect changing demographics. All of my colleagues would have preferred that I take the idea to the community, discuss it and bring it back. But I viewed it as a leadership issue, especially as it relates to race and matters of black history.‖ When the name change came up for a vote on the City Council, Lindsay voted against it. While most of the council was nonchalant about the issue, the community was divided on it and frantic organizing, both for and against, followed the publication of Farrell’s name-change motion, as did three contentious public works and City Council hearings and the filing of a court injunction to stop it. ―People were all worked up about it for various reasons,‖ said Dove, who circulated petitions for the name change. ―[Southern Christian Leadership Conference] people were upset because they wanted to be in the forefront of the effort because they felt they owned the Martin Luther King Jr. name. There were residents who opposed the change because Celes was pushing it. ―His name was King and his business was located on Santa Barbara [corner of Denker] and people felt Celes was on an ego trip and was trying to change the street name to match his own and they refused to sign petitions.‖ Gwen Green, who had worked with Martin Luther King Jr. from 1960 until his death, was a member of Farrell’s council staff and she worked to gather community support for the name change. While Celes organized business people to support the issue, Green rallied residents and community leaders to the cause. ―Lindsay was the only black councilman to vote against it, but some black residents didn’t want it either,‖ Green said. ―They loved King, of course, but they just didn’t like change. ―People came to the hearings and complained about having to change their business letterheads, accused us of wasting taxpayers’ money — which we were not because there had been a budget item set aside for years for the naming of streets — and a guy named Marshall, I forget his first name, actually went to court and filed an injunction to stop any action to change Santa Barbara’s name,‖ Green said. After the first couple of hearings resolved nothing, Green learned that Jackson, a close associate of King’s during the civil rights struggle, was scheduled to come to Los Angeles for the Urban League’s national convention. Green, who knew Jackson, went to Atlanta and asked him to testify at the council’s next hearing on the name change. He agreed to do so. ―When I brought Jesse into the hearing, the crowd went wild,‖ Green said. ―He spoke and then Stevie Wonder spoke, and the council voted unanimously to pass Bob’s motion and rename the street,‖ Green said. After Farrell beat back a negative, nay-saying, foot-dragging bureaucracy (city traffic, budget, public works, etc. officials) which raised all kinds of objections to the physical act of changing the street name, all the Santa Barbara street signs were removed and replaced with Martin Luther King Boulevard signs on one single day. The street signs were changed simultaneously with the unveiling of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard designations on the freeway. The first new street sign erected on that momentous day was on the corner of Denker, in front of the office of Celes King’s bail bond business.
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