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White Neighborhoods Voted Solidly Against Retention of King Way

November 24, 1987|BARRY M. HORSTMAN | Times Staff Writer

In what some San Diego black leaders view as evidence of racism in this month's emotional ballot initiative on renaming Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, only one predominantly white neighborhood in the city supported retention of the slain civil rights leader's name on the downtown street, official vote totals released Monday show.

The final results from the Nov. 3 election, released by the county registrar's office, show that only three minority communities--Southeast San Diego, Encanto and San Ysidro--plus the predominantly white community of Chollas, opposed the controversial initiative that restored the street's original name, Market Street. All four communities are in the southern half of the city.

North of Interstate 8, most communities overwhelmingly supported the name Market Street, and not a single neighborhood voted against the measure. Overall, San Diegans approved removal of King's name from the street by a 60%-40% margin, 108,379 votes to 72,292.

Vote-Rich Northern Tier

The precinct-by-precinct breakdown of those vote totals validated the worst fears of the proponents who favored preservation of the name Martin Luther King Way. They had recognized from the inception of the campaign that the race would be won or lost in the vote-rich--and predominantly white--neighborhoods in the northern half of San Diego.

In many of those neighborhoods, Proposition F, the name-change initiative, passed overwhelmingly by margins as wide as 2 1/2-to-1, providing a huge gap that pro-King majorities in some southern neighborhoods, where turnouts generally are substantially lower, could not come close to offsetting.

Voters in Serra Mesa, for example, cast 2,527 ballots in favor of restoring the Market Street name, nearly 2 1/2 times the 1,053 votes cast in that community against the proposed name change. Similarly, Proposition F passed by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in Clairemont and by more than 3-to-2 margins in neighborhoods that included Rancho Bernardo, Mira Mesa, San Carlos and Mission Beach.

"What does that tell me? I guess I'm afraid to admit to myself what I think it tells me," said Michel Anderson, co-chairman of the Committee to Keep Martin Luther King Way. "My biggest fear all along was what people would do when they got behind that curtain when they went to vote.

"Who knows what motivated people? But when the votes break that way, it does make you wonder. I guess I'd have to say I'm disappointed in my fellow San Diegans."

While Anderson was studiously diplomatic and indirect in his remarks, others were blunt and direct in apparently making the same point.

"There's no way to explain those numbers without saying that race and prejudice had to be factors," said the Rev. George Walker Smith, former president of the San Diego city school board and one of the city's most prominent black political activists. "When not one community north of 8 voted for King Way, it's pretty obvious what went on. That just shows how far we've got to go in this city."

Agreed With Analysis

Concurring with that analysis, Vernon Sukumu, executive director of the Black Federation, added: "This just shows that you couldn't have won this race if Martin Luther King Jr. himself had come to San Diego to campaign for it. Given the nature of the times we're in and the nature of San Diego, that's really not that surprising, unfortunately."

However, political consultant David Lewis suggested that factors other than racial prejudice could explain the north-south split on Proposition F.

"I think a lot of it had to do with people being upset at the City Council for going into this without really giving enough consideration to what the community thought," Lewis said, referring to the council's 1986 decision to rename Market Street to honor King.

Lewis and others also argue that confusion over the ballot initiative, in which voters had to vote "no" to keep the name Martin Luther King Way--in other words, cast a negative vote to preserve the status quo--also could have skewed the results.

"I have no doubt that a lot of people who wanted to keep Martin Luther King Way thought that's what they were doing by voting 'yes,' " Anderson said.

Despite the plausibility of those other possible explanations, the fact that Proposition F failed to carry a single neighborhood north of Interstate 8 strikes many black leaders as more than a numerical coincidence.

"If it had even won one neighborhood (north of I-8) and come close in a few others, it would have been different," Smith said. "But this makes the picture pretty clear. It would be foolish to think race didn't affect the outcome. Obviously, it did."

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