Signs of Passion

Nearly 35 years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., streets are still being named in his honor. In each case, the decision reflects pride - and our country's troubled past.

January 20, 2003|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

STATESBORO, Ga. -- Without a doubt, the low point of the visit to Blitch Street -- soon to be the country's newest Martin Luther King Jr. Drive -- came when the owner of GT Auto Supply abruptly ended our interview by grabbing my notebook, ripping out a page of notes, crumpling it in his fist, and tossing it in the trash.

"I'll pay for it," he said, sliding a penny across the counter with a trembling hand.

The surprising thing was that the white businessman had signed the petition to rename the street for King, leading me to expect a somewhat friendlier encounter. A city ordinance had required only 75 percent of the street's property owners to approve the change, and not all the white owners had signed. Now this one was having second thoughts, and though the details were in the trash, he had grumbled about the expense of changing his address and wondered why, in a country with so many King streets, another was needed.

Less than a half-mile away, on the opposite side of Blitch Street, the men in the barbershop were wondering why it had taken so long. It was about time, they said, for a city of 23,000 in King's home state to honor the great man the way so many other towns already had.

"Dr. King, his movement was not just for blacks, it was black and white," said owner Bobby Donaldson.

Gary Lewis, the barber and city councilman who had led the effort to rename the street, looked out the shop window, past the spinning barber pole and the "Need A Bond, Call Bobby Donaldson" sign, at the modest street of shops and homes he'd known all his life as Blitch, named for the white family that once owned this land.

"Instead of giving people directions, we'll be able to say, `You know where MLK Drive is? We're located on MLK Drive,'" he said. " `Go to MLK and Church. Go north on MLK or south on MLK.'"

In Baltimore, where MLK Boulevard is two decades old, it's easy to take such directions for granted. Not so in Statesboro, where the struggle to get a King street has gone on for years; where the questions of what King represents and how to remember him will be far from settled on Feb. 6, when the bright green signs bearing King's name replace the ones on Blitch Street, as well a narrow portion of adjoining Institute Street.

The new street is not a long street, and it is not a fancy street, and some people, including members of the local NAACP, have said it is not the right street -- not big enough, not central enough, not visible or diverse enough to honor King.

It is not a beltway spanning the city, like Veterans Memorial Parkway, and it's not a major commercial corridor, like Highway 80, two options that were vigorously pursued but defeated in the past. Instead, it is a mile-long street that passes through the heart of a black neighborhood a few blocks from downtown, a street that at first glance looks faded and worn, a forgettable assortment of squat bungalows, corrugated-metal warehouses and businesses whose signs have seen better days.

But when Councilman Lewis gives the tour, the street is something more: an epicenter of black history and culture. It was home to the city's first black high school, its earliest black businesses and leaders, and the Blitch Street recreation center, where Luetta Moore's programs -- including beauty pageants, golf clinics, student government and crafts -- were a refuge for black children in an era of segregated facilities.

About halfway down Blitch Street, outside the barbershop where Lewis works, is the parking lot where State Rep. Tyrone Brooks parked last summer, in town as part of a voter registration drive. Brooks asked the question that had been plaguing community members for years: "Where's Martin Luther King street in this city?"

It had been five years since the campaign to rename Highway 80 -- known as Northside Drive -- for King. Predominately white business owners had opposed the proposal, citing the cost of changing addresses, and in the wake of the dispute, the city created a street renaming policy. Changing a name would now require the approval of 75 percent of a street's property owners, effectively eliminating Northside Drive and other large streets, many felt.

"It never would have worked out there," Lewis said matter-of-factly. "That's like trying to put George Wallace's name in our neighborhood. You can't change everybody. Dr. King couldn't even change everybody, even though he gave his life trying."

Even here on Blitch, getting 75 percent wasn't a certainty. Last fall, when Lewis began collecting signatures, the first place he stopped was a red brick house at the north end of Blitch Street. It belonged to Roscoe Laircey, who lived on one side of the street and owned a heating and cooling company on the other. Laircey listened to Lewis and responded politely, saying he respected King and thought that putting his name on a street was a fine idea, Lewis said.

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