This is the first of three reports looking at the history, present and future of Martin Luther King Drive.
Today is the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Had he lived, he’d be 87 years old. About four years after the shooting death of King in Memphis in 1968, two contiguous north St. Louis streets were renamed in his honor and his memory.
This renaming followed a by-then well-established practice in the United States — one that eventually spread abroad. St. Louis wasn’t the first or the last to join this tradition. The first street named for King was South Park Way in Chicago; that memorial was initiated about four months after his death.
Whatever the timing of renaming the streets, many wondered what could be more fitting? The chasm of sadness that opened with King’s death would be filled here in St. Louis with a broad avenue running from Ol’ Man River through the city of Wellston, on the eastern edge of St. Louis County.
According to Jesse Todd, a long-time civil rights activist and now treasurer of the Democratic Central Committee in St. Louis, there was very little opposition to this renaming of two well-known north St. Louis streets, Franklin and Easton avenues. Indeed, Todd said that initially there was a lot of excitement surrounding the naming of the eight-mile route for King.
"It was important to have a street named for an activist, absolutely," Todd said. But he acknowledged by 1972 the Franklin and Easton were already showing signs of falling on hard times. They became in short order one of the hundreds of streets named for King surrounded by decay and crime and disinvestment.
"That makes me feel bad that the city won't provide the resources to fix up the street named for a man who gave his life to make life more beautiful,” Todd said. “We can do better. It is sad that his name is on a rundown street."
Few will argue today that Dr. Martin Luther King Drive is a less than salutary memorial. Percy Green, the civil rights activist-protester extraordinary, said he wanted a more prominent and beautiful street to be renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Drive back in 1972. He laughed, but the laugh was ironic.
“It was ‘no dice,' ” he said. “The white folks wouldn’t approve a street named for a black man.”
The street Percy Green wanted is Lindell Boulevard.
Civil rights activists combined with political expediency
Dr. Martin Luther King Drive starts down by the Mississippi River’s edge, and follows what was Franklin Avenue, making fits and starts in the convention center. King Drive continues westward, following old Franklin until just west of Jefferson Avenue. There, it abandons Franklin and gives King’s name to Easton, which, for generations, was an important shopping and socializing avenue for the blacks and whites in the northern part of the city and the inner ring suburbs of St. Louis County.
Norman R. Seay has his own memories about the renaming. Seay has "street cred." Along with people such as Green, Seay put into action what King preached.
Seay was prominent in demonstrations against discriminatory hiring practices at the Jefferson Bank & Trust Co. His civic reward for that was three months in jail.
Green, too, was a participant in a number of daring protests that made many people hopping mad, including his ascent 125 feet up a construction workers’ ladder the Gateway Arch, where he remained for hours. Green also choreographed the unmasking of the Veiled Prophet at the 1972 ball in the Kiel Auditorium.
Green, like Seay, remains steadfast in his commitment to the civil rights movement. But Seay is ambivalent about Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. Although he was strongly in favor of the city’s renaming streets for King at the time, he worries now about its current condition.
Green's position on the renaming of the street was predictably ambitious and perhaps aggressive — particularly in contrast to those who wanted a predominantly African-American-centric solution, and to those who were willing to settle for any major street to serve as a memorial.
Some thought Franklin and Easton avenues would be improved if they carried the namesake of celebrated a hero such as King. Green’s expectation, however, was contrary.
Green noted that in his view, the effort ultimately received the support of the late Mayor Alfonso J. Cervantes because it was politically expedient for the mayor to do so.
“(Cervantes) was trying to pass a bond issue, spearheaded by Bennie Goins,” Green said. The late Benjamin L. Goins Sr. was another St. Louis civil rights leader and public official. The 1972 bond issue vote was for $25 million and was to support the building of the Cervantes Convention Center downtown. Goins’ support, because of his civic clout, was important to the bond issue’s passing.
Sure, Cervantes was an ally, Seay said, but “he really had no choice.”
And so the renaming went ahead. On March 31, 1972, Cervantes signed the bill changing the name of Easton Avenue and the downtown portion of Franklin Avenue officially to Dr. Martin Luther King Drive.
Cervantes — the “salesman mayor” — who promoted himself while promoting the city, would also have his name on a prominent, sprawling community asset (The convention center is now renamed as America’s Center).
As Green predicted, there was precious little support for the maintenance of St. Louis’ tribute to King. And, although there was little opposition to the name change, it was not altogether popular. Even that consistently staunch promoter of liberal causes, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, changed its address from 1133 Franklin Avenue to 900 North 12th Street when Franklin became MLK Drive. Eventually 12th Street’s name was changed to Tucker Boulevard, in honor of Mayor Raymond Tucker.
The neighborhood around the Post-Dispatch building was definitely in transition in those days, although remnants of the past held fast for a while. But after MLK Drive passes west through Grand Boulevard, one can see an increasingly powerful state of disuse, wearing away the streetscape, spreading its destructive poison on once proud storefronts where small businesses once thrived, and mocking the empty warehouses and industrial buildings, so many of them not only vacant but also crumbling.
Valiant, underfunded efforts reveal the futility of efforts to keep ahead of urban blight and decay, so even an ally such as optimism runs down the fronts and sides of buildings and puddles in pools of neglect and decay on the broad avenue called — originally in earnest tribute — Dr. Martin Luther King Drive.
Monday: A look at MLK Drive and its surrounding neighborhood today, the people who live and work there and those who have faith in the area's resurgence.