For mayor, honoring MLK an issue that “is not going to go away”

Feb. 16, 2013 @ 02:00 PM

When Mayor Bernita Sims drives the streets of her community, one name to her is conspicuously absent from the signs lining the roadways.
High Point has no road named for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she and others have noted for years. Getting the city to rename a street in honor of the late civil rights leader has long been a goal of the mayor, and she’s making it a priority as she settles into her post.
It won’t be an easy task.
There have been five attempts during the past 22 years to rename a High Point street for King, and all failed for one reason or another. Sims was involved in the most recent bid, when the Black Leadership Roundtable and the late former City Councilman Ron Wilkins proposed renaming North and South College Drive between Eastchester and Surrett drives in King’s honor in 2001.
The proposal was denied by the Planning & Zoning Commission in September of that year. The idea resurfaced in April 2002, but hit an impasse after the commission voted against holding another public hearing on the request. The initiative has not been brought before city government for consideration since then.
The prospect that it could be has already generated a backlash from some in the community, who spoke out against the idea at the Feb. 4 City Council meeting, arguing that a renaming would saddle property owners on the affected street with the expense of changing their addresses.
Support among the council for the idea appears to be weak at this point.
Some council members have suggested other ways the city could honor King, such as naming a building or park for him or establishing an exhibit about his life on city property.
Sims, High Point’s first black mayor, said she thinks it’s fitting to honor King not only for his work on behalf of African-Americans through the civil rights movement, but for his contributions to peace in the world on behalf of all humanity.
“We tout ourselves as being this international city. We bring visitors in from all over the world. I would venture to say that, in most of those countries, there’s some sort of tribute or recognition of Dr. King,” Sims said. “I look at us and say, ‘How can we tout ourselves as being an international city, yet we have nothing that contributes to or pays homage to an individual who did so much and gave so much?’”

Eyes on Kivett Drive

Sims’ top choice for the renaming is Kivett Drive, from its split with English Road at Phillips Avenue to Interstate 85 Business Loop. Kivett was dubbed “Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Drive” with signs denoting the honorary designation in 1994. Sims and others argue that this wasn’t enough.
“I know what my choice is, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going to end up being council’s choice,” she said. “There would still be an English Road. That would not go away. There would still be a Kivett, although it would be across the overpass at 85. So, it’s not as if we’re taking anything away, in my opinion, from anybody. I don’t think we’re necessarily dishonoring anybody in the process of what we’re doing.”
The mayor said she thinks Kivett is best-suited for the renaming for several reasons.
“Kivett is a gateway into the community,” she said. “I believe that when you look at the total number of businesses and houses and everything on Kivett, probably, cost-wise, it would be less expensive than some of the others that we could do. You’ve got more on Centennial, I think, in terms of businesses. I think it’s a street that touches on different parts of our community. It touches on three different wards. In any other street, you may not get that much inclusion, short of Main Street.”
The fact that the street has historical resonance — it’s named for William Larkin Kivett, the owner of a large farm that surrounded what is now the road — could make it harder for Sims to find supporters for the idea.
“I’m not going to give up all of Kivett Drive, because I’m a firm believer in our city’s history,” said Councilman Jim Davis. “I’m not going to support (renaming Kivett) because it does not have a majority of citizens who want it. And I’m bothered by the fact that City Council can initiate something without citizen input. If we had a majority of the citizens of any street that said they wanted it, then I have no problem with that, because that’s the will of the people.”
City officials have advised that Kivett would have to be renamed in its entirety through the city limits rather than in a particular segment, such as from Business 85 to Centennial Street.
Officials said that having the same roadway with two different names would pose 911 emergency-response problems and would probably not gain the required approval of the North Carolina Department of Transporation, which is needed since Kivett is a state-maintained road.
Councilwoman Judy Mendenhall suggested that W. Market Center Drive between W. English Road and Surrett Drive be considered for a renaming. She said renaming this segment would not affect many businesses. In addition, the street is not named for anyone, so affixing King’s name to it is unlikely to generate objections on historical grounds.
“Market Center is pretty much a thoroughfare. It’s used. It’s a busy place. We wouldn’t be naming something that’s way far removed and nobody would ever see it,” said Mendenhall.

Some favor alternatives to renaming street

Other suggest finding another way to honor King.
Councilwoman Becky Smothers proposed a tribute to King on city-owned property near the sidewalk along Kivett Drive near Hoskins Street.
“I thought it would be nice testimony to someone’s life to have along that sidewalk area almost like a memory walk with markers that chronicled significant events in the life of Dr. King,” said Smothers. “What a wonderful teaching tool that could be. ... I think it speaks more to the value of his life and contributions than just the name of a street. ... I happen to think he was a great man that deserves more than a street name, if we really want to try to preserve his memory.”
Smothers has also suggested naming City Hall for King. The building is currently not named for anyone.
Mendenhall argued that, just because other cities have named streets for King doesn’t mean that’s the only way High Point can honor him.
“I’m not even sure that Dr. King looking down on us from heaven thinks it’s great that there’s streets all over with his name when he stood for so many other things,” she said. “Can’t we get a little bit creative and think about some kind of public entity that we could rename in his honor and memory that would have a lasting effect?”
Sims seemed skeptical of these suggestions.
“I’m not saying that a street is the absolute that has to be done, but at this particular point in time, we have as a community done nothing, and the recommendations that have been made to me are not adequate based on the significance of the individual we’re trying to honor,” said Sims. “This issue is not going to go away until we do something.”
Sims said she thinks a majority of High Point residents support the idea of renaming a street in honor of King.
“I would hazard to say, the vast majority of people in this community, this thing about renaming a street, they’ll say quietly, ‘It’s great. It’s something whose time has come.’ Will they ever come to a public forum and say that? Probably not. Because I think they feel that it’s one of those things that you make a decision and you move on,” she said. “I just believe that, for this city, it’s past time. We should have been down this road, done it, moved on to something else.”