Looking Back to When San Diego Said ‘No’ to Honoring Martin Luther King

by on January 22, 2013 · 2 comments

in California, Civil Rights, History, San Diego

MLK1aaThe year was 1986, and San Diego, like much of the nation, was swept up in a national discussion about a new holiday commemorating MLK’s contribution to US history. Legislation (signed three years earlier) making Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday was going into effect, and many cities around the country were honoring the slain civil rights leader by naming streets and buildings after him.

It seemed like a no-brainer for the San Diego City Council, then led by Mayor Maureen O’Connor. After some deliberation they announced that Market Street would be renamed Martin Luther King Way. From the LA Times:

In picking Market Street, the council chose one of the city’s most visible and symbolic roadways for the King honor. Starting at the bay, the street is straddled within a couple of blocks by the promising signs of downtown renaissance–Seaport Village, Horton Plaza, the site of the new waterfront convention center–and runs east through the warehouse and business district on the fringes of the Gaslamp Quarter.

It goes past the GatewayCenter–the new redevelopment-inspired industrial park in Southeast San Diego–and ends among the houses in Encanto, just before 60th Street. Along the way is a potpourri of urban life, including brightly colored Mexican food joints, a 24-hour prayer chapel, small office buildings and auto garages, with piles of exposed car parts.

The roadway is also close to or goes through neighborhoods that are heavily black and low income, according to statistics from the 1980 U.S. Census. Of the 41,500 people living in census tracts along King Way, 41% are black, compared to the city’s average of 8.8%. The median household income is $11,294–$511 less than the citywide average.

Market Street wasn’t the first choice of a roadway for re-naming. City Manager Sylvester Murray originally suggested Euclid Avenue, which cuts through a wide variety of neighborhoods in its five mile length, starting at El Cajon Boulevard and ending in National City. The protests from residents along the original route should have served as an omen for what was to come. Again, from the LA Times:

But residents along the route mounted an angry protest, including objections to King’s tactics and mission. Under pressure, the council set aside Murray‘s recommendation and voted in April, 1986, to change the name of Market Street, as well as a stretch of local highway that is yet to be determined.

The reaction of merchants along Market Street, spurred on by developers eyeing redevelopment possibilities, was strongly negative. Claiming that they’d been excluded from the decision making process, they organized the Keep Market Street Initiative Committee and delivered nearly eighty thousand signatures to the city clerk, a move that put the question, eventually known as Proposition F, on the November ballot.

Black community leaders felt that the impetus behind the campaign was racism, pure and simple. From the LA Times:

“I’m sure it’s going to be a big fight. Basically, it comes down to a simple matter of black and white,” said Willie Morrow, a black community leader and owner of California Curl, a cosmetics company on the eastern end of King Way.

“They can sugar-coat it any way they want to, but that’s what it is. What they are saying is, ‘Dr. King was a great person who should be honored as long as it’s not in my neigborhood.’ No one on our end of the street is complaining. It’s only the people downtown,” Morrow said.

The Rev. George Walker Smith, pastor of Christ United Presbyterian Church, called the initiative a symbol of the “negative attitude that white folks here have toward King and other things. There’s no secret a lot of people who are behind this are red-necked racists, and you can quote me.”

MLK3bThe Proposition F campaign denied the charges of racism. They claimed their goal was to retain the ‘historic’ Street name (it was renamed as Market Street in 1915) and that the expense of reprinting stationary and other business materials was a burden on small businesses.

“A myth and . . . a fraud has been perpetrated for the purpose of defeating our initiative,” Tod Firotto, president of the Keep Market Street Committee, said about the charges of racism. “It’s a difficult fraud to expose.”

“The initiative doesn’t have anything to do with Dr. King,” said Firotto. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the black community. The initiative was a reaction to the lack of recognition and the loss of heritage” in changing Market Street.

“Don’t kill somebody else’s heritage for the sake of his (King’s),” Firotto said. “He wouldn’t want that.”

In the end, Proposition F passed with nearly 60% of the voters approving it. Local activists staged a protest. Again, from the LA Times:

Chanting “We Shall Overcome,” more than 600 protesters marched through downtown San Diego Sunday to express their outrage at voters’ decision to restore the name of Market Street to the thoroughfare now known as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

The protesters held a mock funeral for King Way, which will revert to its former name, Market Street, as voters called for in last Tuesday’s election. They accused San Diegans of racism.

Finally, an interesting footnote from the same article [Emphases mine]:

Meanwhile, two Democrats and two Republicans were elected Tuesday to four open seats on the eight-person San Diego City Council.

The new council members–architect Ron Roberts, political aide Wes Pratt, lawyer Bruce Henderson and history professor Bob Filner–won in one of the most expensive council races in city history

(Thanks to former LA Times photographer –and old friend– Vince Compagnone for sending along the pictures and bringing this to my attention.)

Editor: This is an excerpt from Doug Porter’s daily column at San Diego Free Press.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Judy Swink January 22, 2013 at 1:10 pm

I was saddened then and am still saddened when anyone claims that racism was the force behind objecting to the change of name for Market St. Mayor Mo’s comment, “In picking Market Street, the council chose one of the city’s most visible and symbolic roadways for the King honor” says it all. Market Street has been the preeminent City of San Diego street since the founding of New San Diego (when it was known as H Street). I objected to the name change on Market Street – even while supporting the renaming of a visible roadway in San Diego for Dr. King – because I objected to the erasure of long-standing history of Market Street.

I believed then and continue to believe that honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by naming State Route 94 after him was far more visible to far more people as they drove along that freeway, and I agree that naming the linear park along Harbor Drive for Dr. King was also a good choice.


Jeoffry B. Gordon, MD January 23, 2013 at 2:35 am

I love the urban jewel that is the MLK Park nestled across the street from the Convention Center. I often walk my dog there just to enjoy it. It is a gem with both subtle and dynamic meaningful sculpture and great landscaping including fountains and a maze with political meaning. It is a superb memorial to Dr. King and a great legacy from those who created it.


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