LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A northeastern Arkansas city is grappling with how to name a street in honor of Martin Luther King Jr while also maintaining its history.
The Jonesboro City Council formed the Unity Coalition Advisory Committee in June to address the issue after some council members opposed renaming Johnson Avenue after the civil rights leader.
But the group was far from united during the second meeting last week when some members said they wanted to preserve the city’s history by not changing existing street names.
City Council Member Charles Coleman, chairman of the committee, said the issue has created a standoff among members and throughout the city.
“A lot of people don’t want their street name changed, but a lot of people want to see it happen,” Coleman, said. “I can say there is the same amount of controversy in the council as in the community.”
Emma Agnew, president of the Craighead County chapter of the NAACP, said guarantees were made in 2009 to name a street after King.
“There were promises made at the MLK celebration,” she said. “In fact, they held up a street sign for everyone to see, but it never happened.”
But Garry Tate said those promises applied to naming a new street once it’s built, not rename existing ones, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported .
“We seemed to have surfaced racism,” said committee member Lisa Melton, who is also a member of the Craighead County chapter of the NAACP.
“Dear people, dear other white people in the room, how do the optics of this look?” Melton said at the meeting. “It’s embarrassing to me as a white person. I’m horrified, honestly. … I’m really bothered because what we now know is no matter what we do in this room, no street will be renamed.”
Tate said his opposition lies in “renaming any street anything.”
“Without just saying the words, you have basically called me a racist,” Tate said at the meeting.
Coleman introduced the idea of creating a Martin Luther King Freedom Trail that would extend from Allen Park to downtown Jonesboro and Arkansas State University. The idea was well-received by the panel, but some members said more needs to be done.
“Most of us still think there should be a street named along with the trail,” Agnew said.
The coalition is scheduled to meet Wednesday and is supposed to decide by Sept. 17.
“We are getting this done,” she said. “The longer the committee meets, the more intense it will get. The first meeting, nothing happened and everyone was smiling. The second meeting, we had the outburst. The third meeting, well, I don’t know what is going to happen.”
Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com