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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

October 11, 1987|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | 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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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They complained that changing the name creates inconvenience and confusion.

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