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December 26, 2006

The Tear Sheet : Bungling the name game - Is changing 22nd Street the best we can do to honor Dr. King’s legacy?

Louisville, can’t we do better?Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on April 4, 1968, and since that dark day we’ve had seven presidents, nine governors and 38 Kentucky Derbies, and we’re still fighting over naming a street after him?The Rev. Louis Coleman gets a lot of credit in my book for doing important and often thankless work. He’s an asset to the city and state. But he bungled this one.Coleman’s was among the loudest voices pushing to have the Metro Council change the name of 22nd Street to honor King. Earlier this month, at least two members of the Council announced they’d push for the change, and said they were sponsoring a bill to do just that.An outcry quickly arose from Portland, where nearly 150 residents — most of them white — gathered last Monday night to voice opposition. The meeting turned ugly and Council members Barbara Shanklin and Mary Woolridge walked out midway through. It’s too easy, and in this case unhelpful, to simply cast the Portland residents as the villains here. It would also give Coleman and his supporters on the Council an undeserved pass for what a move that was both boneheaded and heavy-handed. In their quest to do something symbolic, they neglected to take into account that symbols mean different things to different people. Residents of each neighborhood in our community have a right to have a voice in the symbols they adopt as their own.At any rate, racial tensions in Portland have been brewing for years, and much more healing is needed there, and in the rest of our city, than can be accomplished with a changed street name — or in a newspaper column.Fortunately, fixing this mess about the proposed street name change is simpler.The first step is for Shanklin to cancel plans to introduce a resolution at the Jan. 11 Metro Council meeting calling for the Louisville Metro Planning Commission to hold a hearing on renaming 22nd Street. Though she and Coleman have both wisely said they are willing to compromise, it’s a bad idea to focus the debate so tightly on the issue of the street name. Renaming the street, or any street for that matter, may not be the best way for Louisville to honor King’s legacy. It is such an unimaginative solution. In 2006, if this city wants to make a statement that we honor the struggle for equal rights, we should think bigger.Even the Louisvillian who knew King best seems nonplussed by the idea. Former Kentucky Sen. Georgia Powers, who was with King when he was murdered at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, said that while he remains a powerful symbol, she can’t get excited about renaming 22nd Street. “I think that many feel that he is still a powerful symbol because of his legacy,” she said. “But there are many ways that you can remember folk. We could possibly build a statue of him, perhaps in Shawnee Park. Or consider other options. But I think we could be more creative, really.”Powers said a bolder statement would be to name the new downtown Ohio River bridge for King, an idea Council member Kelly Downard said makes more sense to him. “Naming the bridge after Dr. King is a great idea,” Downard said. “But the important thing is that we ought to come up with an idea that really recognizes the peacemaking legacy of Dr. King, something that speaks for the entire city.”That’s the second big problem with Coleman’s plan to have 22nd Street renamed. King is a hero to more than just African Americans. He’s an American hero, and if we want use his legacy to honor our commitment to civil rights, we should do it in a way that touches everyone, not just residents in the far West End.Naming the new bridge, of course, would do that, but so would a statue downtown, or even — if we just absolutely can’t think of something better than renaming a street — picking a street more centrally connected to the life of Louisville than 22nd Street.Powers said 22nd Street has no logical connection to King. “I don’t know the significance of 22nd Street. It has no significance to him,” she said. If we are to pick a street, she suggested renaming Sixth Street, or perhaps Chestnut Street. But changing the name of a street may not be the best idea anyway, both she and Downard said. Powers, a veteran state lawmaker, and Downard each pointed out that such changes can be expensive to businesses and upsetting to residents who naturally take a certain amount of ownership of their own streets. That’s exactly why the heavy-handed and seemingly out-of-the-blue effort misfired last week. There was precious little peacemaking in the conversation between supporters of the change and the Portland residents it pissed off. It’s also exactly why the plan to have the Planning Commission hold a hearing on renaming 22nd Street should be shelved. Instead, Shanklin and others should press Metro Council President Kevin Kramer to name a temporary panel to quickly seek new ideas on how the city can best honor King’s legacy. (In an interview, Kramer said such a panel is under discussion.) Maybe naming something — a street, a park, a bridge — after King will be the best idea that emerges. Maybe not. A lot of Christmases have come and gone since King’s murder. There may be more creative ways to honor the struggle for civil rights than simply naming something in his honor.There may also be local heroes who would better serve as symbols of our city’s aspirations — as yet unrealized — of becoming a place where racial differences are the source of pride rather than division.Those are things that can, and should, be discussed by the Council. But the first step needs to be to shelve the 22nd Street proposal and look for more imaginative ideas. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com