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King Way Initiative Becomes Less Than Noble Issue for City : Blacks See Attempt to Remove Name as a Slight to Famed Leader; Backers Deny Claims of Racism

Times Staff Writer

Its appearance hardly inspires high-minded rhetoric or emotions: A 6 1/2-mile stretch of roadway through some of San Diego’s poorest neighborhoods, past downtown businesses, old rental housing, junk yards, small offices, churches, liquor stores, taco stands.

Yet Martin Luther King Jr. Way has become more than a mere street these days. It is the focal point of an ideological and political battle that some say has overtones of racism and has the potential of angering San Diego’s black community.

The reason for the stir is Proposition F, a citizens’ initiative that asks San Diego voters next month to repeal the name of King Way and restore the name of Market Street, which has been used on the roadway for 71 years.

If the initiative passes--recent polling says it will--San Diego would become one of the few jurisdictions in the country to remove the name of the slain civil rights leader from some kind of public recognition.

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Some local black leaders say passage of the initiative would be an affront to them as well as a national disgrace, especially since the vote comes barely two months before the country’s attention is trained on San Diego as the host city for Super Bowl XXII.

“The effect on the black community here would be one of anger, insult and rejection,” said Herb Cawthorne, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of San Diego. “And it would be a wound that will continue to bleed for a long, long time.”

Added the Rev. W.E. Manley, president of the Baptist Ministers Union of San Diego and Vicinity: “It (the initiative) is racism. We can’t avoid that.”

Called Scare Tactics

Backers of the initiative, however, react strongly against the talk of racism and say it is being used as a scare tactic to detract from the true meaning of the measure. Their goal, they say, is simply to retain the historic Market Street name while encouraging the city to search for a more appropriate memorial to King.

“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.”

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The controversy over the name of King Way had its beginnings in a January, 1986, decision by the San Diego City Council to rename a major street in honor of the Nobel Peace Prize winner. The decision was made to coincide with the first national holiday for King.

At first, then-City Manager Sylvester Murray nominated a five-mile stretch of Euclid Avenue and 54th Street, stretching from National City on the south to El Cajon Boulevard on the north. Murray suggested the roadway because it cuts through areas of different income and ethnic groups.

Angry Protest

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.

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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 Gateway Center--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.

The council’s decision was unpopular with merchants on Market Street, many of whom complained that they failed to receive notices for the April council meeting.

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They advanced several arguments against the change, but their centerpiece was the historic significance of retaining the Market Street name, which has been used for the roadway since 1915.

Telephone Listings

They complained that changing the name creates inconvenience and confusion.

For instance, while three of the suburban yellow page telephone directories allows merchants to continue listing their companies on Market Street, the main volume for the City of San Diego insists on using the new King Way, said Mike Sur, owner of Nutter Appliance.

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The result has been an incessant jangle of telephone calls from bewildered customers, said Sur.

“They are, basically, ‘Where are you? Where is Martin Luther King Way?’ ” said Sur, whose business is at 5805 King Way. “When you mention that it is the same as Market Street, they say, ‘Oh . . . .’ It takes my time, my gals’ time to explain it.”

Firotto said the confusion is especially bad for his Mexican customers.

Martin Luther King Jr. Way “is difficult to interpret in Spanish,” said Firotto. “It’s difficult to pronounce in Spanish. It’s difficult to remember in Spanish. They’re losing a sense of geographic relevance by the change of Calle Mercado .”

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Those arguments failed to sway City Council members, who spurned the merchants’ pleas last year to reconsider the April vote or put the matter up to a citywide election.

So Firotto and the merchants collected nearly 80,000 signatures on petitions that placed the issue on the November ballot--a move that has pained some civic leaders.

“I don’t think an issue like this helps the community,” said Lee Grissom, president of the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce. “It has quite the opposite effect . . . . It can only increase the tension, the pressure and the divisiveness in San Diego County.”

Interest Building

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Part of that tension has been felt even within the Chamber. Grissom said that several businesses threatened to withdraw their membership after the Chamber’s board of directors recently came out against the Market Street initiative.

And interest is also building in heavily black Southeast San Diego as well, said Warren Jefferson, editor of the San Diego Monitor News, a new black newspaper.

Jefferson said the Market Street initiative has come along at a time when the Southeast San Diego community is feeling vindicated by acquittals or hung-jury verdicts in the Sagon Penn murder trials, the latest of which was held this summer. Penn, a black man, shot and killed one police officer and wounded another in March, 1985, after he was taunted and beaten by the officers, testimony showed.

“Because the Penn trial had given us a tremendous victory, we feel very unified on the King Way issue and we feel the seriousness of the cause to get together and really rally and fight,” Jefferson said.

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Changing the name to Market Street would be a “major setback” in the minds of Southeast San Diego residents, he said.

On the national scene, there may be a price to pay as well, said Michel Anderson, co-chairman of the Keep Martin Luther King Way--No on F Committee.

If voters decided to go back to Market Street, it would make San Diego the third jurisdiction where public recognition of the civil rights leader has been revoked.

This week, voters in Anchorage voted by more than 70% to take King’s name off of that city’s as-yet unfinished performing arts center.

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But the most publicized example has been in Arizona, where newly-elected Gov. Evan Mecham rescinded the state’s King holiday earlier this year.

That decision has cost the City of Phoenix about $25 million in tourism dollars because 45 groups, representing more than 41,000 conventioneers, have cancelled their reservations for annual meetings in protest, said a spokeswoman from the Phoenix and Valley of the Sun Convention and Visitors Bureau. Tourism pumps in more than $300 million annually into the Phoenix economy.

Economic Sanctions

Anderson, Cawthorne and others say San Diego can expect the same kind of economic sanctions.

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“We have the Super Bowl planning to come to San Diego two months after the vote,” said Anderson, who is also the chairman of the state’s King Holiday Commission. “It’s just a matter of time before the national media gets wind of this. We don’t live in a little corner of the world. We’re the seventh largest city in the country.”

Anderson said 114 countries--from South Africa to East Germany--have official King Holidays, and some unexpected towns have already designated streets to honor the civil rights leader.

He said he recently received a letter from Janet Brody Esser, a San Diego State art history professor, who visited the tiny Italian town of San Giuliano Terme this summer and was moved to see a street sign that said “Av. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

“I could not help shedding some tears for San Diego,” Anderson quoted Esser as writing.

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Local tourism experts say they don’t foresee any economic backlash in San Diego like that in Arizona. Dal Watkins, president of the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, said his board voted last month to stay neutral on the Market Street initiative because it was an issue that “does not primarily concern tourism.”

Asked what kind of fallout he expected from a pro-Market Street vote, Firotto said, “Nothing. Anybody who is rational will understand that a mistake was made. We don’t want the name of George Washington on the street out here, either.”

One element of the campaign against Proposition F is in the churches. Baptist preachers have begun telling their congregations from the pulpit to vote against the Market Street measure, Manley said.

Cawthorne, meanwhile, is mobilizing the Urban League chapter in a drive to defeat the initiative. He has announced that Urban League will hold a march and overnight vigil around downtown on Oct. 31 to underscore the contributions King made to civil rights progress.

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Poll on Measure

Firotto said his side is planning more high-tech tactics--possibly some television spots or radio commercials--as the initiative campaign heats up. One prominent San Diego political consultant, who talked to The Times on background, said his most recent poll showed the Market Street measure would prevail by a 2-1 margin.

The Keep Market Street Committee has the edge in campaign finances. Financial statements filed with the city clerk’s office show that the merchants have collected $40,000 and spent $45,000 between January, 1986, and April, 1987. By comparison, the Keep Martin Luther King Way Committee has raised $5,220 and spent $4,182 since the beginning of the year, the statements show.

Much of the money for the Market Street side has come from businesses or individuals with companies along and near the roadway.

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For instance, Alden Farms Inc., in the 1600 block of King Way, contributed $2,600 during that period; San Diego Service Co., at 540 Broadway, gave $4,000; and Thomas W. Sefton, president of San Diego Trust & Savings Bank, also has given $500 to the Keep Market Street Committee.

Firotto said that he and other merchants are nervous about engaging in open debate with Anderson or other pro-King Way opponents for fear of becoming snarled in the racism issue.

“I despise the idea of racism and I don’t even want to be aligned with the merits of racism, pro or con,” said Firotto. “It’s very, very difficult to argue the merits of racism when you’re white.”

Declined Invitations

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Anderson said he intends to stay clear of the racism issue and debate only the merits of the initiative. He said Market Street proponents have declined invitations to two recent television debates.

“I guess they’re hiding under rocks,” said Anderson. “I don’t know where they are. I want them to come out and debate the issues.”

Firotto said he’s willing to talk to Anderson, but only about what other public structure or street should be named for King.

“Let’s face reality,” said Firotto. “When this thing passes, what are we going to do? Let’s do it now. Come on, wake up Herb Cawthorne, Michel Anderson. Let’s agree on what’s going to happen and bring all of the segments of the community in on the process.

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“Don’t make it exclusively black,” he said. “Dr. Martin Luther King is my hero, too.”


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