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Initiative Filed to Rename King Way : 79,000 Sign Petition; Black Leaders Brand Measure as Racially Motivated

Times Staff Writer

A group dissatisfied with the City Council’s renaming of Market Street as Martin Luther King Jr. Way delivered 79,131 initiative signatures to the city clerk’s office Monday in an effort to bring the issue before San Diego voters in November.

The action, the latest in the street-name controversy that has continued for nearly a year, was immediately branded as racially motivated by some black community leaders, who vowed to fight the measure.

The filing of the signatures, if they are certified, will place the potentially divisive issue back into the hands of the City Council, which has the option of changing the name back to Market Street or leaving it to the voters to decide.

Supporters of the initiative, mainly residents and those who own businesses along the downtown portion of the thoroughfare, say racism has nothing to with it. The issue, they say, is local history and heritage and the cost of changing addresses on checks, stationery and invoices.

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“Basically, this was a grass-roots effort to take this (initiative) out into the community . . . and what we found was a rather strong level of support,” said G.T. Frost Jr., vice president of the Keep Market Street Initiative Committee and president of Frost Hardwood Lumber Co., a family-owned business that has been located on the street since 1928.

Frost says he favors renaming a San Diego landmark or street in honor of King, but that the selection of Market Street was a bad choice.

“I’m a third-generation resident of San Diego and I love this city, . . . and the significance of this (initiative) is keeping the nature and culture of our city for the future,” Frost said. “I think the City Council tried, rather cavalierly, to make a statement that wasn’t well-thought-out. It’s like taking Market Street out of San Francisco.”

But several black leaders said that, behind the initiative’s language, the real issue is black versus white, and that, as a result, a volatile and emotional campaign would focus negative national attention on the city.

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“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.”

Smith was among blacks who disapproved renaming Market Street. He felt that the street, with its many warehouses and run-down businesses, was a tawdry tribute. Now that the matter continues to fester, Smith, said, the City Council should push for an alternative, such as naming the park-like, downtown section of California 163 in King’s honor.

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As for the initiative, Smith said, “I think it has a good chance of passing on the ballot. . . . I’m a realist. That’s why we have to come up with an alternative.”

Gloria Vinson, general manager of The Voice & Viewpoint, a black community newspaper, called the initiative “an embarrassment for San Diego.”

“I can’t believe it is anything but racially induced,” said Vinson, who promised that blacks would wage an election battle to defeat the initiative. “There will be a fight. . . . you can bet on that.”

Jack Fishkin, an official in the city clerk’s elections division, said it will take about 10 days to check whether a minimum of 50,455 of the 79,131 people who signed the initiative petitions are registered voters, which would qualify the measure.

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Initiative sponsors say they are confident of qualifying because they used a computer to validate signatures before submitting them.

If the initiative qualifies, it will be referred to the City Council, which will have the option of changing the name back to Market Street and avoiding an election. If the council rejects that option, the initiative would automatically be placed on the November ballot.

Frost, who acknowledged that an election would engender bitterness, said he hopes the City Council changes the name itself.

“I feel an election would be a terrible disservice to this city,” Frost said, adding that the initiative “will be misunderstood” by many around the country due to national attention he’s certain it will generate.

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The City Council last April voted, 6-1, to select Market Street--a road that runs east from San Diego Bay for about six miles--over several other city streets to honor King. Although the thoroughfare has had other names in the past, it has been Market Street since 1915.


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