Racism Claims Made in Council Debate on New Dr. King Street

Times Staff Writer

Amid charges of racism that set the stage for an emotional showdown next month, the San Diego City Council on Monday selected four streets and one freeway as possible thoroughfares to be renamed in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Broadening a recommendation from City Manager Sylvester Murray that the city rename a five-mile section of Euclid Avenue and 54th Street as Dr. King Avenue, the council added three other possibilities--Imperial Avenue, Market Street and California 94--that also will be considered next month when it again tackles the controversial issue.

In the month since Murray's recommendation, many homeowners and business owners along the stretch of Euclid Avenue and 54th Street have complained that the renaming would force them to alter personal checks, stationery and business letterheads--an inconvenience that, in some cases, could be costly.

However, Walter Porter of the Southeast San Diego Rotary Club told the council Monday: "The inconvenience of someone having to change their deed or the inconvenience of someone changing a letterhead is minuscule when you think of the contributions that Dr. King has made."

Councilman William Jones, whose predominantly minority district includes the suggested Euclid-54th route, argued that such complaints probably would be heard virtually any time a street is considered for renaming, and urged his colleagues to limit their choice to Murray's recommendation, rather than broaden the possibilities.

"With two, three or four streets, we're asking for a circus . . . with hundreds of people here," said Jones. "We're asking for a really difficult hearing."

Most council members and a number of black community leaders spoke favorably of the Euclid Avenue-54th Street proposal, noting that it is a major north-south street that passes through various ethnic communities. The five-mile section of the streets that would be renamed under Murray's proposal stretches from the National City border north to El Cajon Boulevard.

"It . . . also is representative of the kind of mix of population that I believe reflects the life and work of . . . Dr. Martin Luther King," said Dr. Howard Carey, executive director of Neighborhood House in Southeast San Diego. Other speakers noted that the street is a broad one, well-suited to parades and other events that could be staged to honor the slain civil rights champion.

Some council members, however, suggested that the possibilities to be considered at the council's April 22 meeting should not be limited to a single street.

Councilwoman Judy McCarty, for example, suggested that Imperial Avenue also be considered, noting that more than 300 residents who live on or near that street made such a request. McCarty's proposal passed, 5-3, with council members Abbe Wolfsheimer, Mike Gotch and Jones in opposition.

Angered by the council's inability, as he put it, to "bite the bullet" on a tough issue, Jones then said that the council "might as well" consider two other possibilities--Market Street and California 94. That measure also was approved by a 5-3 vote, with Wolfsheimer, McCarty and Councilman Uvaldo Martinez opposing it.

The council's action drew an angry response from the Rev. George Stevens, an associate pastor of Calgary Baptist Church who had spoken strongly in favor of the Euclid Avenue-54th Street proposal.

Pointing out that those two streets pass through white neighborhoods and various ethnic communities, while Imperial "is confined somewhat to the black community," Stevens charged that racism played a role in the council's decision to consider Imperial as a possibility for the renaming.

"It was a very good idea when you first brought this up . . . to rename a (street) but you did not think it would affect white people the way it is on Euclid and 54th," said Stevens, who explained that he also appeared on behalf of Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego). "A $3 change of address--that's not the issue.

"What it is is simply this: let blacks stay on (one) side and we'll keep it the way we want to on the other side. By (picking) Imperial Avenue . . . you'll give it back to the black folks. By going 54th and Euclid, it means that (the Rev. King's) a part of everybody in the City of San Diego. . . . If you (select) Imperial, it's a segregated street for Dr. King."

McCarty responded: "My motivation is not racist. My motivation was to respect those who came here with petitions asking that their street be included in this hearing. . . . I resent any other implication."

Councilwoman Gloria McColl, whose district includes Euclid Avenue, also argued that both "the council and the city really want . . . to honor Martin Luther King."

"It's just, how are we going to do it?" McColl asked. The councilwoman also asked Murray to study the financial effect on residents and businesses if a street name change forces them, among other things, to purchase new personal checks or alter business cards and stationery.

California 94's inclusion on the list prompted divergent opinions. One speaker, Gary Plantz of National University, argued that the renaming of a highway would carry with it "a much higher level of recognition," as well as cutting the city's costs for changing street signs and reducing the inconvenience for homeowners and businesses.

Other speakers, however, agreed with Gotch, who contended that the renaming of a surface street "which is signed at every intersection" would "raise the level of consciousness" higher than a highway name change that might only be listed on off-ramps. State approval would also be needed to name the state highway.

The city will notify by letter the hundreds of homeowners and business owners along the streets and highway being considered for the name change, inviting them to attend the April 22 meeting. If the council is unable to decide on one of those possibilities next month, other streets could then be considered.

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